If there's one group of professionals whose job insecurity rivals that of the Detroit auto worker, it's the men and women who make America's newspapers. According to the blog Paper Cuts (graphicdesignr.net/papercuts), about 15,500 newspaper jobs vanished in 2008; this year, the total is 2500-plus and rising.
With staff reductions in 2001, 2005, 2007, and 2008, the Boston Globe certainly hasn't been immune. But the latest impending cut — targeting the Globe's newsgathering operation, which has already gone from a full-time staff of 552 in 2000 (not including the staff of boston.com) to 379 today (including boston.com) — is especially grim.
When management announced plans to slash 50 newsroom and editorial-page jobs back in January — preferably through buyouts, possibly by layoffs, among both union and non-union employees — it was the first time this particular group had been targeted in isolation. It was also the first time that all full-time newsroom employees were offered buyout packages, regardless of their length of service at the paper. And it's the first buyout offer open to the staff of boston.com — which, given the arc of the media business, represents the long-term future of the paper.
What's more, in contrast with previous buyouts, management is now asking for volunteers to give up their jobs in the midst of a full-blown financial crisis — one that's evoked increasingly frequent comparisons to the Great Depression, and also threatens to further eviscerate the already-battered American newspaper industry.
In other words, if you're a journalist who wants to stay in journalism — or a journalist who's willing to try something different, but still needs a job — it's pretty much the worst possible time to join the ranks of the unemployed. So, despite the not-insubstantial enticements of the buyout offer (two weeks' pay for every year of service, capped at 52 weeks; extended health-care benefits; "resignation bonuses" for some old-timers), the Globe's newsroom and editorial employees deserve a hefty measure of sympathy.
But so do the paper's top brass, including editor Marty Baron and managing editor Caleb Solomon. As already mentioned, if too many employees choose — for entirely understandable reasons — to pass on the buyout, management will turn to layoffs to meet the 50-job target. (Both Baron and Solomon declined comment, saying it would be inappropriate to discuss the buyout offer while it's still on the table.) This would be an unpleasant milestone even if just a smattering of employees gets the axe. But if the number of layoffs is more substantial — if it hits 20 or 30 or 40 — it could devastate internal morale, and force a radical reconsideration of the Globe's identity and mission.
Next in line
So: how's it all going to shake out?
Based on conversations with current and former Globe staffers, who spoke with the Phoenix on condition of anonymity, initial response to the buyout offer has been tepid at best. (Two said they didn't know of anyone who'd applied for a buyout.) But this isn't necessarily predictive: another staffer notes that, based on previous buyout offers, interest tends to crest as management's cutoff (in this case, March 20) draws near.
Another development that could push staffers to seriously consider taking the buyout plunge came this past week, when Globe employee-relations V-P Harriet Gould provided a comprehensive newsroom seniority list to Dan Totten, the president of the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents (among others) the newsroom and editorial page's unionized employees. The layoffs, if and when they occur, won't necessarily proceed strictly according to seniority: the union contract allows for exceptions in the case of "substantially demonstrable special skills or . . . outstanding ability." However, the same contract requires management to make a case for any such exceptions — and notes that, when they do occur, they'll be subject to grievance and arbitration. To the extent Globe management wants to avoid tussles with the union, then, there would be a strong incentive to make seniority-based layoffs the rule.
And what does all this esoterica mean for Globe readers? Basically, that some of the paper's top talent looks especially vulnerable right now. In the general-newsroom classification, for example, the prodigiously productive Michael Levenson has less seniority than 44 of his 52 reportorial colleagues — and Noah Bierman, who's covering transportation at an absolutely crucial moment on Beacon Hill, ranks next to last. Casey Ross has done fine work on the commercial-real-estate beat since coming over from the Herald in June 2008, but he's next to last among the 13 reporters on the Globe's business staff. And visual-arts critic Sebastian Smee — who'd been national arts critic at the Australian before the Globe nabbed him this past May — ranks next to last among the 27 reporters in the living/arts grouping. In other words, if layoffs do occur, they could deprive the Globe of some of the journalists it can least afford to lose.