Friday, July 10, 2015

The word "buyout" means good-bye

     So The Dallas Morning News -- the mighty DMN -- has announced it aims to have 30 employees take buyouts by at least Sept. 11.
     And if they don't get 30 people to take the buyouts, you know what's next: layoffs.
     "Buyouts" and "layoffs" are negative words in my newspaper vocabulary. For almost a decade now, we've seen them happen at newspapers all over the country, including all the ones I worked for over a 40-year period.
      When I "shared" the DMN announcement letter on Facebook and on my e-mail list Wednesday, the reactions from several friends was "sad" and "not surprised."
       I agree. Plus my own reaction: resigned to it.
       So many friends, so many co-workers who weren't necessarily my friends, have left the newspaper field -- and not by choice. Not really, even if they took the buyout. Buyout was just a quicker way to go. Inevitably, a layoff was ahead for many of us.
        Buyout or layoff, they mean the same. Time to say good-bye to your job. And for most, a job they actually loved.
        I refused, I think, three buyout opportunities at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The first set of layoffs, in April 2008, didn't give those eight employees any buyout chance; they were gone immediately ... with severance pay. Or as former Centenary College basketball coach Tommy Vardeman used to joke, they were given an apple and a road map.
        I managed to hang on for three years until the fifth set of buyouts or layoffs at the S-T. That's when I got my apple and road map, and severance pay -- and I was fortunate in that I was nearly 65 and about ready to stop anyway. Worked another year and a half as a parttimer.
       Now the Star-Telegram is up to nine or 10 sets of buyouts/layoffs. To be honest, I've lost count. Each time some good people left the building; in the latest set, at the end of May, only a few took a buyout, including longtime columnist Bob Ray Sanders, an absolute treasure for the paper, the city and the area, and a pioneering African-American journalist in this area.
       I figure -- and this is a rough guesstimate -- that the S-T work force has been reduced by nearly 1,000 people over seven years. Same story at many other papers.
       Happy to say that some of the very good people I worked with at the Star-Telegram are still there. So are friends at other papers and in the journalism field (some with online presence).
        Some of those friends, acquaintances, are at The Dallas Morning News. I have been a fan of that newspaper dating to the late 1960s/early 1970s when the Dallas Cowboys' first dynasty was in bloom and Bob St. John, Blackie Sherrod, Sam Blair and many others wrote about them, and when Randy Galloway covered the Texas Rangers at the start of their existence.
         Finally got to work parttime at the DMN for four months in 2011 and I can tell you that the people in sports are talented, dedicated and conscientious -- and do a great job. For many years, it's been as good a sports section as you'll find in this country.
          And I don't mean to slight most of the sports departments in which I worked because people there had the same type dedication and effort.
          But it doesn't feel right that some of the DMN sports department people might be leaving, no more than it felt right when it happened at the Star-Telegram and my other former papers, or to my friends elsewhere.
          Here is what is a bit galling about these upcoming DMN buyouts: The new editor, Mike Wilson -- who obviously wants to run things his way -- said in his announcement that the buyouts will be offered to workers "whose age and years of service total at least 60 years.” There are 167 people who are in that category; the 30 leaving will be from the newsroom and/or other DMN editorial products. And in the near future, Wilson added, "We will add positions back to the newsroom, with a focus on hiring outstanding digital journalists."
           In other words, all you old farts with experience -- but digitally challenged -- get out.
Make way for younger people we don't have to pay as much.
           We're going digital because that's the trend. The print edition is passe'.
           A little history: In the fall of 2004, the Morning News gave layoffs to 65 newsroom employees -- and 18 of them, over the age of 40, sued for age discrimination. They didn't win that suit; a federal judge eventually dismissed it (and was wrong to do so), but the next time the DMN had layoffs, it first offered buyouts (not an option in 2004). Still, more than 100 newsroom people took those buyouts in the fall of 2006.
           Either way, they're out, out, out. That's the newspaper world today, everywhere.
          I wrote about my history and my love for newspapers almost three years ago:
          As I said then, I enjoyed holding the newspaper in my hands, just as I enjoy a good book. Friends my age or older feel the same way. But, people, we are relics.
          Honestly, I've stopped reading printed newspapers; it's a rare day when I do now. I get most of my news online or from television, and I read a lot of good stories -- on things that interest me -- from links on Facebook. It's easy to do.
          Sure, I miss out on some local stories and I'm months behind on the news. That's the bad part of not reading the daily newspaper as thoroughly as I did. But I have read more books in the last year than in decades. So, like others, I've changed my reading habits.
          Back to the buyouts/layoffs, and the changing trends in journalism.
          When I went to work in Star-Telegram sports, in December 2001, we had 85 fulltime people in sports and about 40 parttimers. I am not making that up; it was mind-boggling.
          We put out 12- to 25-page sections daily, with four zoned editions 3-4 days a week, two deadlines and special sections galore. It was an outstanding product, recognized as one of the nation's top sports sections and -- yes -- every bit as good as the heralded Morning News.
           They are down to 22 fulltime survivors in sports; their sections are 8-12 pages a day and not all that spectacular (sorry, I'm not a fan of some of the writers), and I feel for my friends who are still working hard. But I don't worry about it any more.
          When I started at The Shreveport Times in late May 1969, I was the sixth fulltime person in sports (and, of course, this was long before women began working in sports). When I returned as sports editor (for one ill-fated year) in 1987, we had a dozen fulltimers.
          The Times is down to five sports people again. That's one more than we had for most of our years at the Shreveport Journal in the 1980s; now that newspaper doesn't exist.
           The Times sections now are designed by a team in Des Moines, Iowa. That's a Gannett thing. We used to design our pages upstairs and have them put together -- in hot metal type, later in pasted-up "cold" type (looked like Xerox copies) -- in a composing room downstairs. The old days.
           The paper itself is a reduced version, almost tabloid-size. It looks like a grocery-store shopper.
           When I worked at the Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville) in the late 1980s/early 1990s, there were 210 newsroom employees. There about 60 now. (Got those numbers from what I consider a reliable source.)
            We know that the Times-Picayune in New Orleans is home-delivered only three days a week. It still prints a paper daily, but the other four days it's only for street sales. Can't imagine many people going out to get a paper on those days; if they do, they are avid readers.
            Home delivery declines everywhere. I can foresee other papers doing what the Times-Picayune has done, or perhaps not publishing every day of the week.
            It is possible, I suppose, that papers will go strictly digital -- no print editions -- in the future. Don't see it happening in my lifetime, although one of the two most prominent weekly sports publications -- Sporting News -- is all digital now; and the other, Sports Illustrated, might do so, too.             
            Advertising money is declining greatly for newspapers at every level -- national ads, local ads, classified ads -- but it's hard to imagine, it seems impossible, that a digital-only presence can come anywhere close to matching what print newspapers still have in advertising.
            Yes, those car sales and real estate advertising sections, and the prepackaged inserts that made your Sunday paper so thick -- would be difficult to stuff into everyone's computers. Those ad sections always looked like gold to me because they helped pay our salaries in the newsroom.
            Newspapers are much more costly to print these days -- ink and paper costs keep rising, and so does the cost of operating circulation trucks and many papers now are printed a good distance from their home base.
            The Fort Worth Star-Telegram is printed at the Dallas Morning News' press facility in Plano. That's a good hour away from Fort Worth itself, at least if I'm driving it. So to get the paper to Fort Worth in good time, earlier news deadlines often are necessary.
            I have heard that the owner company, McClatchy, wants to move up S-T deadlines, which might mean missing out on night developments/stories, including sports events. The S-T brass has resisted to a point so far, but can you imagine the Fort Worth paper not having Cowboys' game stories or TCU football night game stories in the next day's paper?
            Which brings me to another announcement you might have missed, a June 27 letter from the editor of the Austin American-Statesman to readers which said that beginning July 6, the paper will be printed in San Antonio or Houston. Because of the travel distance to deliver papers that will force earlier deadlines, so readers will miss out on many night sports events, including University of Texas football games.
            Memo to readers: You can find the stories online, at several American-Statesman sites. But to see reports from those games in print, wait until Monday.
             Can you imagine that happening in Baton Rouge or New Orleans -- or Shreveport -- with LSU football?
              Friday night high school football in the Austin area? Wait until Sunday morning to see the stories in print. But do check online for more immediate access.
             I can see that happening in, say, Fort Worth or Dallas. Thus, another reason to boost the digital producers, the younger (cheaper) people who can put out the product because online is where the younger readers will go.
            Obviously, because they're still publishing, newspapers these days must be profitable. If they weren't, they'd fold. But you have to think that the profit margins -- once very healthy in a lot of places -- have shrunk.
             And while technology and the production of the paper has advanced so far since my younger days, in many ways -- personnel-wise, financially -- newspapers have turned back the clock 50 years.
            So hard as it is, say good-bye to tradition. It's a new world out there in newspapers and media, and there will be a lot fewer people out there reporting the news. We have to accept that, we have to adjust our thinking. But we don't have to buy that the buyouts -- or layoffs -- are a good thing.


  1. From Scott Ferrell: You pretty much nailed it.

  2. From Cynthia Sellman Mendez: Good column, but painful to read.

  3. From Patrick Locke Sr.: The difference between progress and change is simply which side you are on.

  4. From John Henry: The best thing about all this is the people decoding the future have no clue as what the audience really is. They're not out there talking to people day after day. They're in an office making assumptions, taking surveys and crossing their fingers ... while the bean counters say, 'oh, yeah, we like that future. It's cheaper. And if it doesn't work, who cares, I'm just hanging on as long as I can for at six figures and more.' The bottom line is, the newspaper/multi-platform industry has quit caring about its audience, the reader. And they -- and the rest of us hangers-on -- will pay for it until they do something about it. Go out and meet your audience face to face. That doesn't mean a sample forum. Go talk to them every chance you have. Developing an audience, whether that be in print or whatever, depends on making friends and crafting relationships. And that's done one way and only one way, one-on-one. People will read the newspaper if you give them a reason to.

  5. From Mike Richey: Sad but inevitable. Difficult to believe that 20 years ago newspapers were the only vehicle to get news, information and advertising to the masses. Now anyone with a computer can do it. Craig's List has taken millions of dollars away from newspapers by itself. And Monster, Auto Trader, Zillow etc. Understandably. It looks like -- 30 -- for the print industry and probably sooner than later.

  6. From Tommy Youngblood: Read this morning of the passing of Ken Stabler. We (LSU) had a nose guard named Freddy Michaelson, a Jewish kid from Foley Ala. First play of the game when Alabama came to the line, Freddy stood up and said, "Hey, Snake" and Kenny returned with a "hey, Freddy." I had never heard of opposing players saying more than cuss words in a game. Now they all hug after a game. I think it's better now. Snake was a good guy. ... By the way, I still read three papers a day.

  7. From Larry Powell: As one of the 18 who sued the Dallas Morning News, thanks for remembering our effort to make 'em play fair.
    And I share your disgust and resignation with the way careers are ended. Makes me sick for not just personal reasons but because the dwindling journalistic force means there are fewer people keeping an eye on the welfare of the democracy.

  8. From Herschel Richard: All in all, this deadline business is unbelievable.

  9. From Tim Hall: In my experience in the field of telephony/communications, I also saw quite a number of buyouts, acquisitions, mergers and flat-out closings. I often felt like a surfer that's out there just ahead of where the wave breaks down and leaves you floating in the foam. In corporate speak it was always couched in some nebulous terminology like ... "nothing personal, it's just a business decision, you know, it is in the best interest of the corporation!" I've told my children over the years that the only time I ever heard that BS was just before somebody got bumped, dumped, terminated, bought out, merged, purged or just laid off.
    In truth, the generations before us sometimes didn't have jobs because there were none to lose. I suppose each generation has its own set of problems to deal with and how you view those problems depends on how much they affect you personally. I once heard a Cajun raconteur, Dave Petitjean, make a statement that seemed to ring true. Explaining the difference between a recession and a depression he stated ... "a recession is when your neighbor loses his job ... a depression is when you lose yours!" Now, that's a thought to ponder.