It’s been more than a week since Black Tuesday, the latest, deepest round of job cuts at The Indianapolis Star. For many of us, our focus in recent days has rightly been on concern for our friends and former colleagues — how they are doing, will they be OK, what’s their Plan B and what can we do to help them get their benefits, and start looking toward their next career. And we will continue in these efforts.
But for a moment I’d like to speak now to those of us who remain employed, who are left behind and charged with continuing to publish a daily newspaper seven days a week. I know from listening to some of you in recent days how dispiriting this has been.
Someone on the copy desk told me yesterday how these last three days have been the most difficult, stressful days of her career just because of the additional work load, not to mention the emotional toll of not seeing her friends.
Someone on the photo staff told me that it’s clear — because of the talented people the Star let go — that simply being good at what you do is no guarantee of job security. It was a realization that has shaken this talented person deeply.
For me, the reality of these cuts has come home in several ways.
First, there were the three times in the past week that I could have really used a librarian to help research a story — but there was no one to call. That’s what happens when you have only one librarian — and she’s on vacation.
Second, there has been all the unsolicited pity I’ve received from sources in the community who have called or emailed to see if I’m still employed, to offer their condolences. It’s as if someone died. They mean well. But I don’t do pity. And I want to strangle every one who offers it.
Next, there was sobering realization that the career planning sessions we’ve been arranging for the newly displaced workers are drawing a tremendous amount of interest from people who are still on the staff — folks who wonder if their number will be called next. I even heard someone say they wondered if the folks who were just laid off might have an advantage in the long run because of their head start on a new career. Confession here: I’ve had the same thought myself. Anyone who wants to develop a Plan B has my full blessing. Anyone who seeks higher ground, I understand. I keep telling the establishment that big layoffs have ripple effects on talented employees who will finally decide they have had enough. Including the creative people who might find The Answer, the next big idea that could turn things around
Finally, I think most of us who remain have been living under a cloud of despair. Black Tuesday was traumatic. The anger and the companionship of our coworkers carried most of us through the rest of the week. But come the weekend, when I had a moment to breathe, I felt a real sense of melancholy, of loss, of disillusionment. Again, I step into the confessional booth here and beg your indulgence.
Like most of you, journalism is the only career I’ve ever known. It’s something I love. It’s a large part of my identity. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Working in a newsroom — even a diminished one — has got to be one of the most interesting, entertaining and sometimes thrilling places to work there is. We sometimes talk about how all the characters have left the business — the people who kept the flasks in their bottom desk drawer, who took calls from the corner bar. But I’ve got news for you — the folks in the newsroom now are the most interesting people I meet, day in and day out. Every last one of you has more good stories to tell from your career than probably anyone you know — the people you’ve interviewed or photographed; the nights you were working the desk when war broke out, or terrorists attacked or there was a big election; the near disasters that were averted at the last moment, the amazing triumphs you pulled off under incredibly tight deadlines.
Part of the joy of what we do is promoting justice — telling the story of the oppressed and busting the balls of politicians who are corrupt or the corporate raiders whose greed propels them to tear apart companies and displace blue collar people, just so the next quarterly report will look sharper, and their bonus will be bigger.
Part of our frustration right now is that the greedy corporate raiders we want to rail against are at the top of our own corporate ladder. The little people who are getting trampled are our former colleagues, and us. If it were another company in town, we’d do an expose. In this case, our publication remains silent.
So, what’s the point in going forward? And how do we do it?
We go forward because it’s what we do. It’s who we are. As my despondent friend in the photo department said, “I just want them to leave me alone so I can tell good stories.” There are good stories still to tell. There’s a difference we can still make in our community. It has gotten harder, yes. But we must find a way.
How do we do it? The new, smaller writing corps must continue the great conversations we’ve been having about how to better tell stories. We must celebrate good writing. We must experiment and take more risks. Writers and photographers must help our beleaguered copy editors by meeting our deadlines. We must help our diminished photo staff by planning ahead.
There’s one last thing. And this is my unabashed sales pitch. We need you to be active in the Guild. If you’ve been coasting, we need you to pay up and become a dues payer. Right now. Why? Because, we’re about to negotiate a new contract this summer and The Man things he has us on the run. He thinks we’re going to break. He thinks he’s finally going to kill off the Guild in Indianapolis. Personally, The Man can kiss my ass.
You may ask, ‘What’s the point? What did the Guild do to slow down this latest freight train?’ Truthful answer, nothing. We got flattened. We were blindsided and there was nothing we could do to stop it.
Yet it is because of the contract that people before us negotiated that our people are getting any kind of severance pay. And it is because of the contract that we have any framework whatsoever to examine the process used in making the cuts, a framework that may show us they violated the contract in ways that warrant further action, that could help our lost employees.
Then there are literally half a dozen ways on a weekly basis that the Guild and the contract works for you. Come see me and I will give you some examples. Without the Guild and the contract, things would be worse. I didn’t realize this until I became your president. But it’s true.
Finally, I think we have a case to make this contract season.
The community who cares about The Indianapolis Star as an institution has been given lots of reasons to think that Gannett cares little for good journalism. Three rounds of layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, unfettered attrition and shrunken newshole leaves Gannett rightly open to criticism that it is simply milking the Star for its last dime. It is a lesson the public has been taught through repetition. It’s why I get the pitiful phone calls.
We will make the case — publicly — that Gannett needs to do something substantial to retain the good journalists it still has. If for no other reason, Gannett needs to do it to assure advertisers that the newspaper will still produce good content, that attracts an audience worth selling to, so the cash cow can survive. Gannett needs to send a signal that good journalism — the kind we got into this career to do — still has a place in Indianapolis. And that it’s willing to invest in it.
I need you to help me make that case. By standing up. By signing on. By being counted. The few of us who remain are doing much, much more with much, much less. And we deserve to be paid accordingly. I can’t make that case without you.
I need your help.
— Bobby King, President Indianapolis News Guild