Here’s a partial list of who’s been cut this week by The New York Times, so far.
I’m surprised by a few of them, less so by others. None of which is a comment on their talent or work, but on the way in which the axe gets swung. It’s been reported before that the Times will protect, and is doing so, its key franchises: business, national and international news and culture, what are seen as its “core businesses”, even within the larger company. While the paper, to anyone outside the building, looks like a monolithic organization, like many others it has its fiefdoms and potentates, allies and enemies. And each section has multiple layers of editors and writers, some of them clearly more vulnerable than others.
The key, as the link above makes clear — is having a powerful rabbi, and one who doesn’t duck from view when you most need them. Even finding a rabbi inside the Times is tough enough in the first place.
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.
Earlier this month, Conde Nast shuttered Gourmet and three others; in April, they closed down Portfolio.
Freelancers, some of whom lost staff jobs years ago, watch this parade of pink slips with mixed emotions. For some of us, it’s lost income writing for those magazines. Staffers might be personal friends or former colleagues we care about. And, selfishly, many of them will now be competing for freelance work with us as well. One editor snapped at a colleague of mine recently seeking freelance assignments: “I know many editors who are now out of work!” The line for paid assignments lengthens as the list of available gigs shortens.
The only good news, from the living-room-based desk of this self-employed writer — it’s still mine.