Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

Curated knowledge, trenchant insights & witty bon mots

Yes, seniority is a fair way to decide who survives downsizings

The Toronto Star laid off 52 people last week, including 19 full-time unionized journalists. Personally, I think it’s fair if those with more seniority avoided the axe, in part because I haven’t seen much fairness in shops where seniority didn’t apply.

The fact that seniority played into determining who got laid off and who stayed was a burr under the blanket of National Post scribe Chris Selley, who reacted as follows to a fallen Star reporter’s tweet:

 

A day later, he tweeted this:

On Aug. 10, I had a brief exchange with Selley:

Me: I’ve seen talented journos canned for capricious reasons. Seniority is as fair a criteria as any other.

Selley: Do you want another go at that last sentence? Because it’s bananas.

Me: Nope. I’m standing by it. I’ve worked union & non-union shops, and I’ve not seen anything fairer than seniority.

Selley: Well that’s a bit different. I’m suggesting human beings might be capable of better than you’ve seen.

I didn’t want to get into a full Twitter discussion at that point, but roughly a week has passed, and I find myself having a bit more to say on this issue.

First, a bit more on me. I worked in journalism for 27 years at various levels from community paper to national news outlets. In that stretch, I worked for one unionized shop, the Western Producer.

Over that time, I was cast out in four downsizings and survived some others.

Whacking number one

The first one at the Leader-Post in Regina, Sask. saw 25 per cent of the staff let go on March 2, 1996, including me (read this for the full story – Looking back on the great downsizing of 1996). The newspaper wasn’t unionized, so management had a free hand to cut staff as they saw fit.

Guess what the first words spoken to me were when I left the “death room”? “You were our best reporter!” exclaimed sportswriter Darrell Davis, who looked shocked.

Flattering but irrelevant at that point; similar to the fact that I was a finalist for a Southam Fellowship the year before. Being good at one’s job is no protection when a nuclear bomb gets dropped.

That whole downsizing was seen as a shit show. None of management’s decisions — or, more properly, the decisions of editor-in-chief John Swan, who made the call on who stayed and who got tossed from the newsroom — made any sense to anybody.

Swan held a post-downsizing meeting for the newsroom. In it (I wasn’t there for obvious reasons, but my friends reported back to me), he said merit wasn’t the guiding principle. Instead, he wanted to adjust the demographics of the newsroom. For example, there were only two female reporters attached to the city desk, so they were safe.

Swan, being a family man, also didn’t want to fire breadwinners. In a newsroom where most people were married with kids, it was single males like myself who bore a disproportionate brunt of the layoffs.

A few of those who stayed weren’t seen by others as productive, but they were Swan’s smoking buddies. Some of those people later took buyouts. They got the send-off lunches and funny mock front pages that accompany a usual newsroom departure. Those of us who got whacked by Hollinger didn’t even get a “thank you for your service” line in our termination letters.

In a post-downsizing lunch with Al Rosseker, my former city editor who also got fired, he said one theory floating around was that management targeted people they saw as troublemakers. “You asked questions,” he said with prosecutorial emphasis on the ‘questions’. Guilty!

Postscript: In the wake of the downsizing, the L-P newsroom voted to unionize.

Whacking number two

Move ahead to June 1997. Hollinger shut down the non-unionized Edmonton-based Southam New Media Centre, firing all of us in the process. It was going to resurrect a downsized version in Hamilton. We were told we were welcome to apply for the new jobs. Nobody was willing to make the move to get downsized once again. Fortunately, I got on with the Edmonton Journal as a contract hire for its website.

Whacking number three

The summer of 1998 to the early winter of 2003 were a largely downsizing-free period in my working life. There was a rumble in the fall of 2002 when the non-unionized Bell Globemedia Interactive, my employer of the time, lost 10 per cent of its staff (Globe and Mail publisher Philip Crawley would later describe that as a mere trimming).

I saw a lot of good people in that company carry their belongings out in a box that day. One would think in Selley’s idealized world, it would be pathetic underachievers going out the door, but the real world doesn’t work that way. What’s fair in a downsizing when everyone in the company is pretty good?

Anyway, BGMI’s CEO Lib Gibson told us that costs had been getting out of line with revenues, and these staff cuts were necessary to get back in balance. She didn’t foresee having to do this again.

Well, we got called to an emergency staff meeting in early February 2003. Standing at the helm was Crawley, flashing a killer’s smile. “I’m your boss now,” he told us.  BGMI* was being blown up, with partners like CTV and the Globe and Mail taking back business ownership of their websites.

*BGMI was an ungainly beast, with it holding business ownership of the various websites (eg. Sympatico, globeandmail.com, CTV.ca) while the parent companies owned the brands. This wasn’t a stable relationship.

Would there be job loss? Oh yes, Crawley said — and quickly!

Now, what’s fair in a situation where management has to cut virtually everyone in some departments? In the news department where I worked, the losses were heavy. Of the four full-time web producers working on globeandmail.com, three of us lost our gigs (seniority wouldn’t have saved me there). Of the three, I probably had the strongest journalism background, yet I couldn’t get a summer copy-editing gig with the Globe in the aftermath.

One laid-off female producer did, after a goodbye lunch with a senior editor. I never had lunch with a Globe editor in my time there.

This rankles because the weekend of Feb. 1, 2003 was the weekend that Space Shuttle Columbia blew up. I came in on my own time to single-handedly build globeandmail.com a special-events website to cover it online. No one else did. I was told this was a huge favour. Yet within two weeks, I’d be out of a job and didn’t even get my copy-editing application acknowledged. On the day I left, no one in globeandmail.com management phoned to say farewell, let alone buy me lunch (that fell to BGMI survivor Craig Saila; we went to Terroni’s). In comparison, two different senior producers at CTV.ca called to say thanks for the good work I had done for them while at BGMI.

Whacking number four

Not surprisingly, I ended up with a CTV.ca gig, starting full-time there on Sept. 1, 2004, one that lasted until June 1, 2013. There was a major downsizing at CTV News in October 2008 when the Great Recession began, but our online unit wasn’t touched.

CTVNews.ca, as it is known now, is a non-union shop. I had the extra disadvantage of being on long-term disability leave for clinical depression (they can take you back or terminate you when your leave is over), but I learned I had been let go months earlier by overhearing someone at a Canadian Journalism Foundation event. According to a person laid off at another CTV affiliate, CTV News had a plan to increase the contribution of the TV newsrooms to affiliate websites and reduce costs by laying off some website-only staff.

I had the second-most seniority of anyone at CTVNews.ca (only one writer had been there longer) and had been a very productive contributor to Toronto.CTVNews.ca, making it the number-one trafficked affiliate in the network’s stable (it didn’t start there).

At the end of the day, so what?

Ageism

When I got laid off, I was 54. I’m still unemployed three years later and have basically given up on working again in journalism (see my earlier blog posts Two years of job searching, unfulfilled and After 30 years, it’s now -30- for this ex-journalist). Author Mark Bourrie has said on Twitter that anyone in today’s news business who gets laid off over the age of 40 is unlikely to be rehired.

This is one reason why I think seniority-based downsizing is fairer is because, as I’ve said before, employers basically want the best 15 years of your life, roughly from when you’re 25 until you’re 40. After 40, your employability starts to sag, and by the time you reach my current age of 57, you’re dead meat. Doesn’t matter if you’ve kept your skills and productivity up; some rationalization will be used to not hire you, unless you’re known as a star.

You might argue that with the pace of journalistic change, younger journos bring new skills and whatnot. I ask, why not teach the older workers? Because it’s cheaper to get rid of them and start afresh, until the next crop goes stale. Besides that, I heard editors give speeches in the mid-1990s about why they love young reporters, well before the digital onslaught we see today.

Now, if you could retire from journalism at age 55 with full pension, that’s one thing. But getting laid off my age left me financially screwed and with few employment prospects. See many people in their mid-50s working at even a Starbucks?

From my perspective, because managers hate the impact of older workers on their bottom line and don’t respect that the person might have devoted the best part of their working lives to the company, unions are right to insist on seniority-based contracts. Again, this is coming from someone who has never benefited from one.

If they want to thin the ranks of unproductive workers, management should be putting more effort into firing people who aren’t competent or productive, whatever their age. For those who are good workers but are close to retirement, humane buyouts can thin the senior ranks and create more space for new hires. For example, the Globe and Mail lost 31 newsroom employees to buyouts in 2013 (“a generation gone,” as one Tweeter put it) but has hired others in the meantime.

Here’s an assertion — I think widespread incompetence, just waiting for a downsizing to clean it up, is largely a myth, as is the ageist canard that seniority-based contracts protect underperforming veterans at the expense of talented newcomers. If the former is true at a given organization, that speaks ill of management.

If you ask most human resources experts, they’ll say that more than 70 per cent of terminations are due to personality conflicts, not incompetence or a lack of productivity.

So what’s the lesson here?

From my time in the trenches, you owe it to your employer to be the best journalist you can possibly be, day in and day out. Keep your skills up and change with the times. But that alone might not get you the mock front page (or home page, or app screen) at the end of your career. Being a good crony and not asking the wrong questions might also boost your longevity, union gig or not.

Additional reading

Curtis Rush, “After a 40-year career, I’m saying goodbye to newspapers

Notable excerpt:

In 2010, the roof fell in.

The Star eliminated a whole layer of copy editors and I got a layoff notice. It was devastating.

Yet, because of my writing experience, I had bumping rights and I became a full-fledged reporter.

By hanging ’em up as a sports writer, I have written my own storybook ending.

If not for seniority and bumping rights, Rush’s career would have been shortened by about six years at the same time his employability would have been lowest.

Washington Post magazine,  Baby boomers are taking on ageism — and losing

Notable excerpt:

Long-term unemployment, defined as being jobless for 27 weeks or longer , is markedly worse for workers over age 55 than for the general population.

Mon, August 15 2016 » Main Page, Media