Connie Schultz: More layoffs for journalists is sad for readers

Connie Schultz

Connie Schultz

This week, many in my profession are reeling from news of yet another round of newsroom layoffs, this time at the National Geographic Society.

For 127 years, National Geographic’s photographers and writers have sacrificed family time and often any semblance of a normal life to give the rest of us spectacular views into the farthest reaches of the world. In many homes, a subscription to the yellow-spine magazine is as sturdy a family tradition as holiday rituals.

I am hoping this reader loyalty will inspire many of you non-journalists to care that 9 percent of National Geographic Society’s staff — about 180 of its 2,000 employees — are losing their jobs. I also hope you’ll care how it happened, because this scenario is playing out in newsrooms across the country. And it’s no way to treat journalists because it’s no way to treat fellow human beings.

I readily concede that this cutthroat style of management happens now in all kinds of companies. Just today, a mother told me that her daughter was fired by text on her drive home after work. I can’t even think about that without my own maternal heart racing to warp speed.

Still, please consider what happens to the quality of your news when so many good journalists are fired in ways that leave those who remain forever altered by the experience. In most newsrooms these days, fear reigns. That is no way for a journalist to take on the world — or corruption at your local city hall.

As media blogger Jim Romenesko reported, National Geographic CEO Gary Knell issued a staff-wide email on Monday warning of bad tidings to come.

The key sentence in his memo: “Please watch your inbox for important information about your employment status tomorrow.”

Knell ended by expressing his confidence in the future. Why do bosses do this? When you’re about to slice up a staff, no one cares how you’re feeling.

A tweet by Donald Winslow, who is editor of News Photographer magazine, summed up the newsroom dread: “No one knows how many, at this point. Staff sitting by phones waiting to be called down one by one to HR.”

It is impossible to overstate the anxiety of a newsroom told to refresh email — or, in the case of my former employer, to sit by the phone between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. — to find out if your career is about to come to a screeching halt. In my old newsroom, the dozens who got the call were ordered to stay away until a designated date and time when they were allowed to clean out their desks under the watchful eyes of management. These good and loyal veterans of journalism were essentially treated like criminals.

I was among the lucky majority, but we were a newsroom of zombies that day, wandering from desk to desk, colleague to colleague, trying to figure out which friends and co-workers were gone. Their desks, with their nameplates still attached, remained empty for months, scattered through the newsroom like tombstones. Staff morale never recovered.

It doesn’t have to work this way.

Maura Casey, one of my closest friends, was an editorial writer for one of the largest newspapers in the country. It was her dream job, but in 2009, her boss told her that, because of budgeting, her job would end in nine months.

Not tomorrow.

Not next week.

In nine months.

The early heads-up allowed her to continue to do her job while also planning for her future. She interviewed dozens of people in various fields to help her figure out what could come next.

“I wanted to treat my layoff as an investigative news story, to learn about myself,” she told me this week. She asked for advice, and she listened as they described her many skills and suggested how she could use them to make a living in ways she hadn’t considered.

Maura owns her own consulting business now. She is wildly successful. Just as importantly, she isn’t bitter. She credits this, in part, to how her former employer handled her departure. “It wasn’t ‘Dead Man Walking,'” she said, “where they send journalists off to HR like they’re walking to an execution.”

On Tuesday, Slate’s Rachel E. Gross reported that one by one, the National Geographic staffers were ushered into a private room to learn their fate.

The Washington Post reported that several fact-checkers for the National Geographic Channel were among those fired. Quite the sobering detail for those of us who are troubled that Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox now owns a majority stake in National Geographic. What will it all mean?

Another round of great journalists are losing their jobs. And yet, as is true in every newsroom, great journalists remain.

The best among them, and there are so many, have staked their careers in the belief that there’s no greater honor than bringing the world to your doorstop and desktop.

For them, it was and always will be all about you.

Email:  con.schultz@yahoo.com

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