Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sinking feeling for Sun-Times

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
It’s difficult to express the range of emotions I’ve experienced and continue to feel surrounding my former employer since I was laid off seven months ago. Largely, they centered on grief, which in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross spelled out as five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

To paraphrase, they are: “Not me!” “Damn it!” “Cut my pay, I’ll work harder but don’t lay me off!” “Whoa is me!” And, finally, “OK, that’s it. On to the next thing.”

Since Dec. 2, I’ve experienced most of them: There was denial as I was led to a “meeting” during which my fate was to be announced. In a sense, I guess that denial lasted a little longer than that – it took me two full days before I finally would get online to apply for unemployment. I put it off because it somehow made the layoff seem so final, as if there were no turning back.

There were the minutes of angst as I walked into a conference room, where the only folks present were my supervisor, the human resources person and me. Then there was the shock of the peremptory moment, along with the sidebar banalities acknowledging my years of hard work and loyal service that were no longer wanted.

On the drive home, grief engulfed me – a profound hurt and sense of loss that would not let up for some time, and there even was a sense of trying to bargain with God – “Take it back – make it a mistake! Or else help me find something quickly – I’ll do anything!”

The grief and hurt, in turn, fed the depression I have struggled with from time to time since then.

The anger, however, apparently has escaped me thus far. The circumstances are what they are. Anger never seemed to be called for, it never seemed to be appropriate, it never even felt like it was rising up and that I somehow suppressed it. It simply was not there.

I admit that I was irritated at two company executives, who two days before the deed was done had told the top three editors in the Aurora newsroom that there would be no more layoffs there for the rest of the year. To this day, I still wonder: Were they flat-out lying or, as is far more likely, were they clueless about what was going on around them?

I doubt I’ll ever know for sure. I certainly am not expecting them to call and explain one way or the other.

But that was about it. I could not be angry with any of the folks who supervised me or those with whom I had worked over the years. We went through a lot together. They were and remain good people in my mind, and I miss each one of them, both personally and professionally.

Certainly I sometimes grow impatient with, even weary of the slow, tedious pace toward finding a new job, either in my chosen profession or in a new career that will make use of my skills. And the circumstances do sadden and anger me when I learn of more and more former colleagues being handed their walking papers. But I am saddened and angered whenever I see people getting hurt. That’s a part of me – I think it’s tied to the compassion God has grown in me for others.

Through it all, I’ve hoped against hope that Sun-Times Media would survive and spare my former colleagues further grief and fear.

Any optimism I’ve held for the future of Sun-Times Media and its suburban publications is being severely taxed by the continuing reductions and staff cuts. It’s truly sad – a lot of great journalists are unemployed today because Sun-Times Media and much of the rest of the newspaper industry misunderstood the approaching sea change brought on by the Internet and two recessions.

Some of my former colleagues were fairly angry when Mike Bailey, the man who lured me back from the Rocky Mountains to my hometown for a job that provided much more than I had ever hoped for as a journalist, began writing his 11-part series titled Requiem for The Courier-News. Mike started writing the series shortly after I was laid off. Part of me understood the anger some of my former colleagues expressed.

But I actually found comfort in it. Bailey’s series was a captivating re-telling of The Courier’s rise and fall, the valiant efforts we made as a staff to put out the best product possible, day in and day out. I found comfort in being reminded of that, even as he detailed the miscues by a series of owners that seemed intent on shooting themselves in the foot. Throw into the mix the change wrought by the Internet and the industry’s inability to cut ties with a business model that had run its course, and it’s truly a wonder The Courier is still published today.

And still my former colleagues remain, along with others I’ve worked with under the latest phase of ownership by Sun-Times Media, and they continue to fight the good fight. But the water in the bilges is spilling up onto the deck.

I cannot predict more staff cuts, although that, too, seems inevitable. But that the company plans to take The Courier from six days a week to just three sometime this month is not grounds for optimism. That’s something I’ve confirmed from at least four different sources in the past several weeks. Other changes, including introducing a smaller format (imagine something in the general size range of an 8-by-10) for all the suburban papers, also are being considered.

I fear that it may be too late to right the ship. I worry for my former co-workers and wonder how they will cope as the ship Sun-Times Media appears destined to founder.

Through the company’s contractions to save money, it has closed paper after paper, cut staffing to levels that, for a news-gathering organization in a metropolitan market, are laughable. The Courier has only three reporters, and those editors who used to work exclusively on that paper are now doing double, if not triple duty on other publications as well. There’s even credible talk that the universal media desk assembled in Aurora to consolidate suburban news production will be absorbed into the Chicago Sun-Times own universal media desk in downtown Chicago.

The suburban papers, which once might have been individually salvageable through piecemeal sales, now are so completely intertwined by consolidation that there appears to be no option left for setting some off afloat, perhaps to somehow survive.

Of course, I hope that I am wrong. Ink is in my blood, as are the pure possibilities that I imagine or hope to imagine for a news industry publishing via digital media.

I still believe very strongly that this nation cannot preserve its freedoms without the Fourth Estate to act as a public watchdog – not just keeping an eye on the federal government, but over local governments and local agencies, as well.

But perhaps those freedoms are an illusion, after all. The American dream on which those freedoms are based is a reality to be grasped by only a very few these days. The gap between America’s very rich and very poor continues to grow unchecked, as do the numbers of the poor. For the have-nots, the American dream perhaps has never seemed so much further out of reach.