On the art of human decency | Bleader

Monday, May 18, 2009

On the art of human decency

Posted By on 05.18.09 at 01:50 PM

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Wednesday Journal Inc. has laid off a dozen people since last summer, about 15 percent of its staff. The scale is far smaller than the staff cuts at the Tribune Company and the Sun-Times Media Group, and WJI isn't in bankruptcy, but the bad times are everywhere. 

Two months ago WJI stopped publishing three of its weekly Chicago newspapers, the Booster, the News-Star, and the Wicker Park-Bucktown edition of the Chicago Journal, and it laid off the editors who ran them. But I didn't hear of staffers getting the bad news from human resources and then being quick-stepped out the door. And publisher Dan Haley, whom I've always respected for the quality of his papers, did something that should have been SOP but wasn't: after laying off Ben Myers, editor of Skyline, which survived but is now sharing an editor with the near-south, near-west edition of the Journal, Haley paid for Myers's ticket to the Lisagor Awards dinner. Myers was a finalist for two Lisagors and won one.

So I wrote Haley, said he seemed to bring a more human touch to a nasty job, and asked for his thoughts. He replied:

I don't profess to being any expert at this. Seems more like using common sense and remembering the sorts of things your parents taught you about how to treat people. Advantages we've got, though, I suppose are that we are a small shop. One way or the other either I hired these people or my partner [Andy Johnston] hired them. Hiring someone creates a bond of some sort, an informal contract. Not something you take lightly or that we'd think a person we've hired takes lightly. 

And then we have the sort of cultural expectations of this place. We try to publish really good local newspapers and create Web sites with real local vitality. To pull that off we need a lot of buy-in from our colleagues. People here really do work hard. And we both know that publishing a weekly is a both a genuine grind and a source of great satisfaction in seeing your good work have impact in the community. Most of the people here really feel that. Most days. 

I'm rambling, but my point is that laying people off "with dignity" is easier, oddly, if they've been involved in an enterprise that everyone sees merit in. It helps that we're small and Ben Myers has seen me working long hours and spending time in the newsroom. When the bad news comes down it doesn't seem to come from some sort of detached upper level. 

The other thing that has held us in good stead during good times and harsh times is a decision we made 20-25 years ago years  ago to practice what business jargon would call ‘open book  management.’ Simply put, every month we bring out our company's financials and pass them around to everyone at our weekly staff council meetings. We go through the numbers in some detail, answer everyone's questions. Some months it is good news and we all feel on top of the world. But there are bad months and quarters (and now bad years).

But everyone who cares to come to the meetings is treated like an adult/partner trusted with key information on how the enterprise they are dedicating themselves to is doing. We look at the company usually in its three parts. The "legacy" weeklies –Wednesday Journal, Forest Park ReviewAustin Weekly and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark. The city papers (once five, now two) and Chicago Parent. We go through the revenues (display is good, classified is tough, foreclosure legals are saving us, special sections are strong). We look at expenses. Why is printing over budget?

Payroll is down against budget because of layoffs in December. Here's why we changed the deductable on the health insurance because, Christ, look at these five year rate increase trends. We've got money in the bank. The credit  line is in place. We're going to be fine but it is going to be tough for a while. Or, in recent months, forewarning that hard decisions are ahead and here's what's on the table. 

Over the past year we all knew the numbers on the city papers were very tough because we all sat around and looked at them every month. There were no surprises. When we cut everyone's salary by 2 percent a few months back, Andy and I and our comptroller Ed Panschar took a 10 percent whack. Everyone knew that. Seemed fair. (Some people are amazed we put so many numbers out so publicly. Aren't you afraid your competitors will get the information? they ask. First, a decent competitor ought to have a pretty good grasp of how we're doing. And, second, in all the years we've done this I don't recall ever feeling anything critical has leaked. Might happen next week. But it hasn't happened up till now.)

So when the day came to announce the plans to close a paper and sell/give away a couple of more it was sort of pre-ordained. Everyone knew what we were struggling with. I think most people understood that we'd gone longer than most companies would go. 

Still it feels like failure. That stings for those of  us still drawing a paycheck but we all know it is a lot worse for the people who are out of a job. The actual moment – "Ben, do you have a minute" -- is still gruesome for me, for Ben, for the colleagues in the newsroom who've seen me come down the hall to find a person about to be laid off. There's no way around that painful moment. You never know how someone is going to react, they don't know how they are going to react. There's stoicism. There's anger. There's resignation. There are sometimes tears. Altogether hard. 

Hope this makes some sense to you. It's kind of cathartic to put it into words.

Dan 

Haley wrote again a few days later to tell me, "I don't want to come across as sanctimonious....We're just slogging through like everybody else."

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