Keep The Gun — Give Them The Cannoli: Advice To A.H. Belo

By: Mark Fitzgerald

With my always exquisite sense of career timing, at the end of 1976, as the presidency of Gerald Ford stumbled to its end and the era of stagflation was dawning, I left a great-paying factory job in Portland, Ore., to move back to New Jersey to seek out a newspaper job.

Ha.

The industry is immeasurably worse off now than it was in that recession, but it was a disheartening time for a job seeker with no real experience and a hard time explaining just what it was he’d been doing since graduation so long ago.

As the rejection letters piled up and my bank account dwindled, I bluffed my way past a boss who didn’t want to hire no college boys, and into a job making electrical transformers.

He paid us employees practically nothing, certainly nothing compared to the wages the Portland local of the sheet metal workers union had negotiated at my old job. And as business slowed, he cut our hours.

But he was the cleverest boss I’ve ever had. Every morning there was a tray of sweet rolls, and through the day you could grab a Lipton soup mix and make yourself a nice mug. And you could take your short break or your lunch break whenever you wanted. And the disco from WBLS pumped away while we worked. “Young and pretty, New York City girl!”

When he cut the hours, he gathered all us guys (and we were all male) and asked what did we prefer: to start later or get off earlier. It was a vote, like a workers soviet in 1920s Russia, you’d think.

He was, of course, letting us choose something he had already determined: Our work week would be shorter, our pay lower.

And when you take a break surrounded by colleagues who are all beavering away at their transformers, it’s sort of uncomfortable — and you’re quickly back at work. And no two or three people would go off at the same time to eat lunch or to grab a smoke and gab away. It was never explicitly forbidden, but somehow this boss had fostered an environment where it never happened.

He had a pretty happy group of underpaid employees who practically never stopped working. It was genius.

I thought about that old boss Friday reading A.H. Belo Corp. CEO Robert Decherd’s memo announcing a series of layoffs and other cost-cutting measures. By newspaper standards these days, it was nothing new, as Decherd himself alludes to in the memo.

He announced a bunch of layoffs, 500, and the suspension of company matching contributions to the 401(k) plan. The employees whose mobile devices are subsidized — executives, you’ve got to figure — would have the amount cut to $35 a month. Boo hoo for them.

It’s all bad news, but also not news to newspaper industry employees everywhere. A thing of tragedy for the 500 marching into the valley of unemployment, but not, really, a thing of outrage anymore.

But then Decherd pulled one more benefit: Dallas Morning News and A.H. Belo Corp. employees will no longer be able to park for free in the company’s outdoor lots. They’ll have to pay 40 bucks a month.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Robert Decherd has taken away the sweet rolls and the Lipton soup mix.

I imagine the reporters rolling into the lot in their just-above-beater-class cars being reminded every time the gate lets them in and every time it lets them out that they actually have to pay to go to work. A little thumb in the eye every day from their employer.

Belo Corp. has long been believers in management consultants with shiny MBAs, so the same Bain & Company that helped them device A.H. Belo’s spin-off as a newspaper pure-play — and how’s that working out for you AHC stockholders? — will work on other dramatic changes to the corporate structure.

In the unlikely event the Bain brain trust consults employees, I’ll bet they’ll find the single biggest gripe of the surviving workers is that damned parking fee.

Mr. Decherd, give them back the sweet rolls and Lipton soup mix.

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