Pink slips for Christmas. That’s what 24 New York Times employees are facing this week as the paper winds down to its goal of buying out 100 employees by year’s end.
It’s been a hell of a fall for anyone connected to the Times, staff or freelance. I earned one-third of my income from the paper in 2007 and 2008, writing for a suburban section since decimated, as well as covering business, real estate and other issues for them. My final story for them of 2009 runs tomorrow in the Business section, ironically enough, a piece about how small businesses around the country are dealing with slow, late or non-paying clients.
I rarely even pitch my editors there anymore, so few are the assignments and so long the wait to run a story — which is only when we freelancers get paid. Now, with so many other publications slashing their budgets, the line-up for the Times’ remaining assignments already stretches, for one section editor I know, into April.
My partner works there and we spent the fall discussing whether or not to take the buyout. He did not.
It’s hard to overstate, for those outside journalism, the allure for many staffers of working for the Times: decent pay, a union with clout, smart, tough colleagues, international prestige, interesting work, the chance to move around internally from one section to another, even from covering Queens to a posting in Africa. It’s a bit like joining the foreign service. The deal quickly becomes clear; you subsume your ego into the service of a large, slow-moving, politically liberal organization, a place where confrontation is often considered declasse, and in return for hard work, you received the assurance — often face to face in the biannual “throw things at Bill” all-staff meetings (that’s Bill Keller, the editor in chief) — that you had a place there.
The place has changed, deeply and for good, insiders say. Some foreign correspondents who could rely on the services of their own car and driver have lost this privilege. Last year, every union employee took a five percent pay cut to help the company stay afloat, in return for 10 furlough days. The mood this week, as might be imagined, is grim and scared. Even two or three years ago, a talented Times editor or writer could practically write their ticket to the next terrific gig. No longer; 24,000 print journalists were canned in 2008 and every week has thrust more unemployed competitors, many of them also in Manhattan, into a crowded and deeply competitive marketplace.
I’ll be competing with some of these people for freelance work and, as I send out my resume occasionally for a staff job, that as well.
I wish them the best.