Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tribune Corp, 2010

IN the spring of 2008 I was called into the office of the editor who was supposedly running my section, Calendar. He said good things about my previous year of output and how much he was looking forward to what I’d turn out next. (Nearly every day I had a story in the paper, he came by my desk with a smile to tell me how much he liked it.)

The LA Times building after its bombing 100 years ago
He referred me to an annual evaluation in which my assignment editor praised the “excellent and productive year” I’d just had, and told me I’d earned 1 4 percent raise in a bad year for the company. I went back to work and continued to have a fruitful and, er, productive time as the papers books and ideas reporter. 

A few months later – almost exactly two years ago today – I was called into the office of my new editor. Sitting with him was a woman with Sarah Palin glasses and a series of bright blue folders. I was told I had until 5 p.m. to clear out of the newsroom and that my job was terminated immediately. (Though I'd written multiple stories on indie rock, classical music, architecture, movies and other topics, I was not reassigned.) 

I was made to sign forms that forbid me to say much more – proving that for all our political excitement about Constitutional rights, a corporation can take anything they like away from you.

I went home to my wife and two-year-old son and told them, blithely, that everything would be all right. (Over the next few days I got repeated calls from a Pasadena placement company offering resume’ writing workshops free of charge thanks to my employer’s great generosity.)

Confused? I was, too. I'd been hired by John Carroll, then perhaps the most respected editor in the country, in 2002, when the LA paper was so hot it was poaching talent from New York and winning multiple Pulitzers; now hundreds of us were unemployed in a scorched-earth economy. What happened? 

Some of the cause has to do with technology and larger economic issues, but some of it is more specific: A gripping, well-researched and deeply disturbing piece by the New York Times’ David Carr documents the greed and ignorance of impotent robber baron Sam Zell and his gang of thugs who took over a once-great newspaper and drove its parent company into bankruptcy.

The day I lost my job, I knew I would go through a tough year or even two, but that things would stabilize before long: I was raised to believe that hard work always wins out. 

After the two worst years of my life, things are even more unstable for my family; neither journalism nor the economy have not recovered. (I drive a 16-year-old car that won’t last much longer.) We’re likely to leave the state by year’s end.

My story is not unique – the two best editors I worked with at the Times and many fine reporters were canned that same dark day and in ensuing months. Several thousand people have lost their jobs at Tribune papers over the last few years. (It gives me no pleasure to observe that many former Times hands I know are doing worse than I am.)

I often think of Louis Uchitelle’s The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. This 2006 book by the NY Times labor reporter shows how corporate power and a weak regulatory apparatus allow someone in a corporate tower to erase lives for the sake of quarterly profits and staggering CEO salaries. (The bonuses paid to Tribune bosses, documented in Carr’s story, beggar the imagination.) It’s a transaction my family – and many others – knows all too well.


Pete Bilderback said...

It is remarkable how fast and hard the LA Times fell. Even those of us on the East Coast were starting to take notice of quality of journalism that paper was producing. From the outside it seemed that just as the paper had it achieved its greatest successes, it was destroyed.

I really hate that you have been caught up in this mess.

Scott Timberg said...

Yes the rise and fall were both very rapid...

In the six years I was there the paper went through four editors and at least as many publishers. Some great journalism, but Trib became some of the worst owners in the history of the profession even before Zell and his douche bags showed up.

Deborah Atherton said...

I couldn't believe that article when I read it yesterday--the completely needless destruction of great newspapers that might have found a way through the current crisis in journalism and publishing. Your blog and articles are so good, it seems crazy that you aren't overemployed instead of still looking for a job.

Richard Nash said...

Dude, sorry for what you and the family have been going through...

cheevers said...

I hope things turn up for you real soon, Scott. You're a very talented guy. Congrats on the new baby (!) and my best to Sara.