Saturday, July 2, 2011

Blood spills at Sun-Times Media

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
Instruments of death continue to let blood at Sun-Times Media, whose newsrooms are thinning as much from staff cuts as they are from the flight of those able to move on before their jobs are cut.

Those who leave rarely are replaced.

(Popular newsroom lore long has had it that vice presidents are cloned periodically to ensure an ongoing institutional memory of the Dilbert principle in practice. But that’s coming from a group of honest but stressed-out workers who have grown cynical under chains disguised with flowery phrases like “work smarter, not harder people.”)

I might be just a little bitter about vice presidents. Two of them told the associate editors in Aurora’s newsroom that the employee cuts were done in that office until the end of the year. That was two days before I got the boot. They either lied or illustrated the Dilbert principal in action.

Under the Dilbert principle, incompetents are promoted to management positions to minimize their ability to otherwise harm the company. I'm not saying these guys were incompetent. They also could be liars.

The cuts impact on morale is getting so bad – and other cost-saving measures are on the way – that some of us who used to work there wonder flatly, “At what point after all the limbs have been amputated do the doctors stop hacking more away from the stumps and let nature take its course?”

In the past week, Sun-Times Media let go at least four more people, all in news. At least three were at Pioneer Press, where the layoffs came a week ago Friday and one more on Monday.

But later this week, another former colleague of mine was let go. Nick Reiher had been working as managing editor of the Naperville Sun after working for years before that at the company’s Herald-News in Joliet.

I’ve lost track of how many people the company has pushed out in the past two years. In mid-January, Crain’s Chicago Business pegged the two-year tally for 2009 and 2010 at more than 100, but that was far less than the number I had tracked through all of 2010.

By my own reckoning, my layoff on Dec. 2, 2010, pushed the tally for the prior 11 months to about 140. I know of at least five more who were let go in the month or two after I was cut – a publisher and four ad salespeople. Since then, dozens more have had to sit down with a manager who, as a human resources representative looked on, read a 20- or 30-something-word statement: “Sun-Times Media is always looking for ways to create efficiencies, and at this time we thank you for all your years of loyalty, but your services are no longer needed.”

Even the Chicago Sun-Times acclaimed Pulitzer Prize win in April failed to stave off yet another round of bloodletting in May. Robert Feder, in his Chicago Media blog, pegged the casualties at 20 in a post headlined, Edition by subtraction: Another round of layoffs hits Sun-Times. In the same post, Feder said more than a dozen other positions had been targeted at Sun-Times Media’s suburban papers in northern Illinois and northwest Indiana. I worked with at least four of those people, two of whom had been with the company longer than my 16-plus years.

If my unofficial tallies from December and January are true – and I was keeping tabs, then Feder’s numbers in May brought the total to about 177. The past week, then, elevated the two-year tally to 181. Add a handful of IT folks (I knew some of them, too) whose services were no longer needed once Sun-Times Media completed its companywide implementation of a cloud-computing-based content management system, and you are rapidly approaching 190 people in 18 months’ time.

But wait, as Ron Popeil is fabled to have said in his commercials, there’s more.

Sun-Times Media capped it 2010 layoffs by folding 18 of its weekly Sun and Pioneer newspapers. In addition, the Naperville Sun was cut back from six days a week to three.

For my Elgin readers, more bad news: The Courier-News will begin publishing just three days a week. I’ve been told by multiple sources that that move is coming later this month.

Former Courier-News Managing Editor Mike Bailey chronicled the paper's demise in his Requiem for The Courier series of columns this spring for The ultimate outcome of these latest cuts is uncertain, but Sun-Times Media employs only three full-time bona fide reporters in Elgin. Not too long ago there were four or five times that number.

Further, the duties of the Naperville editor will be sloughed off on two associate editors working on the Aurora and Elgin papers.

If it sounds like I’m making a harsh assessment, it is not one borne of anger, resentment or bitterness. Seven months after I was laid off, I remain very concerned about my future. Sometimes I am frustrated with the circumstances, but I am aware of nothing that would indicate my layoff was mean-spirited or vindictive. And I have no reason to expect otherwise.

I simply represented a number that had to be excised from a bleeding budget if only to stanch the flow. I, like many others before me and more since, was let go by a company without conscience, without heart. And with each further cut the company makes, employee morale that was swirling down the stool when I left continues its inevitable descent toward the nearest waste-water treatment facility to be sanitized and dumped.

But of course what Sun-Times Media is flushing is not excrement.

Human lives are far more precious – representing mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, lovers. Those who remain have worked loyalty for a craft they love in a company that knows not how to love.

All their devotion and loyalty matter little to the heartless, soulless beast that is like an animal caught in a leg trap, bleeding ever more as it desperately gnaws away at flesh and bone as it struggles with great urgency to escape what may be its destiny.

If the beast escapes, all that will remain in the trap will be a foul-smelling bloody stump of a leg. If the beast fails to get away, the stench of death will grow.

Sun-Times Media is just one of many print companies that have fallen on hard times, largely because of repeated industry miscues in adapting to the emergence of new media in the 1990s and then hammered by recessions in 2001 and 2008.

It’s a tough environment in which to work. Many of us plugged away for long days, frequently without extra pay, making sacrifices we hoped would help the company survive. Yet as each month passed, more austerity measures came to be – furloughs, pay cuts, unfilled vacancies with attrition – and then layoffs. Round after round of them.

When the end finally comes, and Nick was already feeling this when I spoke with him Thursday night, there is an almost palpable sense of relief. First, it’s over! There is now an opportunity to look forward at  future possibilities instead of looking back fearfully at what's been lurking over your shoulder from day to day for months and years on end.

For that, Nick, I congratulate you. Hold onto that.

For my friends who remain with Sun-Times Media, my prayers for you continue.