By: Greg Mitchell
In the past week several newspaper companies or individual dailies have announced job cuts to come, with forced layoffs — not merely voluntary “buyouts” — a certainty in most cases. The buyout era, which had dominated the cutback arena for years, now seems like a more innocent, and relatively benign, time.
The buyout binge at American newspapers, now several years running, really took off this spring. Criticism, fairly muted in the past, rang louder in May when the names attached to the latest round at The Washington Post were released. This came in tandem with word — quite accurate, it turned out — that longtime Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., who had just guided the paper to six Pulitzers, might soon be asked to move along by the Post’s new publisher, Katharine Weymouth.
While outsiders focused on stars like David Broder and Thomas
Ricks exiting the Post, insiders lamented that so many section editors and other behind-the-scenes crisis managers ? you know, the ones who actually get the paper out every morning ? were also leaving en masse. Weymouth described this “sea change” in a mid-May memo to staffers, admitting that the “coming months will be tough as we figure out how to restructure and compensate for the loss of our departing colleagues. We must and will find new ways to do things.” She added, “Over the next few weeks and months, we will be saying goodbye to many well-loved and respected colleagues. We will miss you.”
Buyouts ? which could also be called “buying time” ? are popular for management because they are “voluntary” and reduce or eliminate the need for pure layoffs, at least for a while. Yet, in some cases, employees are told, directly or by inference, that they had better take the package now, or they may soon be axed without that sort of hefty compensation. So how voluntary, in many cases, is it?
Even so, I am always surprised to see so many high achievers, still in their early to mid-50s, happily grab the buyout deal. I decided to ask one of them about that.
Tim Page won a Pulitzer in 1997 for his classical music criticism for the Post. Before joining the paper he covered the same subject for The New York Times, and has written several books. “I’m 53 years old,” he told me from his home in Balitmore, “and I have now been bought out by two different newspapers.” The first was Newsday in 1995, when he was just 40.
Page revealed that he is leaving the Post “with a great deal of gratitude.” It was “a pretty wonderful place to work.” So why is he doing it?
No. 1, he said, the buyout package was “generous.” Second, he has been doing daily journalism for a quarter of a century, with just one respite. “Classical music criticism is very different from pop criticism and movie criticism,” he explained, “because you always have to find ways to say something new about what you have seen and heard before, many times. I have nothing new to say about Madame Butterfly! I have probably written about it 20 or 25 times.”
In Washington, which does not have the venturesome musical life of a London or New York, Page found himself “covering the same stuff, and in some cases the same person conducting the same orchestra doing the same stuff.” He felt he was getting “stale,” and “if I noticed it, surely others did. I felt I had said what I had to say.”
But a prime factor in taking the buyout ? one not true in most other cases ? was this: He had another job lined up. Page had taken a leave to teach at the University of Southern California this past semester. He found that he liked it, and was later offered positions there at the Annenberg School ? where he will help develop a new master’s program in arts journalism ? and at the Thornton School of Music.
“I just love teaching,” he declared. “That’s what appealed to me as a music critic ? I was teaching there, also.” In L.A. the past few months, he only attended a handful of concerts and found it “weird to not be taking notes.” His ears are now “cleared out,” he testified. He listens to more pop music now and is “digging it,” free from judging whether or not a hit single is some kind of “masterpiece.”
But he won’t be giving up writing completely, as he expects to pen pieces for magazines and for the Post, if asked. The paper, he said, has told him that it plans to hire a new classical critic. Like most major papers, it was, with Page, down to just one regular. The New York Times has two, but when he worked there “we had seven or eight, and I covered 13 concerts in a week once.” Jobs in the field may be rare– just this week, the Kansas City Star’s writer, Paul Horsley, got his walking papers — but the critics who remain, he said, are quite terrific.
What will the rest of the Post newsroom look like post-buyout? Page didn’t want to say much, but he observed, chuckling: “It’s going to be ? a very young place.”