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Fixing what isn't broken

Good grief -- is this amok time for employers or what? Every big corporation seems to be trying their Stupid Plan this year, and I don't say that just from personal experience (wait until I'm free from the Large Unnameable Homebuilding Company, then I'll have some stories to tell you); I see it happening all over the place. Another industry that like the homebuilding sector is tanking is that of print media. The reason why is obvious to anyone except those who run the newspapers; the internet has far outstripped the newspapers when it comes to content that is dynamic and interesting. When there were no other news outlets but the papers, radio, and the morning and evening news segments, people had no choice but to watch the tv, listen to the radio, and buy the papers to get their news. And the papers and news shows got complacent and lazy, and the increasing amount of bland "human interest" filler, politically correct "teach your children well" lectures disguised as news, and morbid fascination with disaster and victimization, were the result. But now that we have the internet, we can get news faster than reporters on the field, and we can get information about what interests us, not what Our Betters in Media think should interest us. But all the owners of what I will start calling Old Media can see is a public recalcitrantly refusing to buy the paper for some mysterious reason, they know not why... (That story about the poodle who saved the orphan with spina bifida from the burning trailer home after the tornado destroyed the trailer park didn't wring enough hearts? What about running another sobstory about a dead soldier in Iraq and the quintuplets his wife is left at home to raise alone? And throw in a cartoon making fun of the president -- in a time of war! What do you mean sales are down?)

All this is to lead up to this week's entry in Corporate Follies: beloved Bleatist James Lileks has had his popular column in the Minneapolis StarTribune cancelled by the paper's overlords and has been put on the local reporter beat. That's as in straight reporting without any quirky asides.

Tim and James ask us to contact the paper with our opinions of this bizarre move, but I am not sure that contact is possible with beings that think writers are interchangeable as cogs. It's as if Hemingway's editor said to him "your stories are great and all but we think it's time you started doing nurse romances" or math textbooks or something. I mean what's the difference, it's all just a bunch of words, right? It's not like they mean anything.

I could send the above, suitably embellished in a letter, to the owners of the Star Tribune. But I know the kind of people that they are without even meeting them -- they are the sort of people who think that stories about retarded bag boys* (oh excuse me, mentally handicapped) who put post-its saying nice things into customers' bags, are inspiring enough that they make Powerpoint presentations for meetings of their fellow business executives -- instead of working on a presentation about something that actually has anything to do with their company's business. They are the sort of people who think that the way to "build morale" is to give out fake certificates that say something along the lines of "you're a great person!" -- when all that would make the "great person" feel better would have been to pay them more money.

And so on and so forth. If you try to explain to people like this that they are making a profoundly stupid move with their latest little scheme, they will stare at you with a bright, incomprehending gaze, their smiles frozen as whatever passes for their brains carefully scrub themselves free of your words. As far as they are concerned they have had a great idea, and no amount of fact will disturb their belief in it.

*This was actually passed around my company via email from our regional executive, who thought it was just the greatest thing ever. I nearly tossed my cookies -- it was accompanied by the most treacly music as well. You can probably find it on Youtube -- I refuse to look. And that very same week we got the announcement that our department was being canned. So beware of when that email comes around in your company -- it means that they've weighed your worth in the balance with a retarded bag boy and chosen the guy who gives smiley face for minimum wage.

What The Hell Update: Well, I went ahead and sent a line or two to the reader rep. I figured it was the least I could do. Here is the missive:

Dear Ms. Parry,

I confess myself at a loss for words: your paper is taking one of your feature writers, James Lileks, and putting him on some sort of straight reporting beat. I will be short: this is a spectacularly stupid thing to do. It is clear to anyone who has read Mr. Lileks' writing that he is not the sort of writer who can be shoehorned into any old typing gig. If your paper's owners were so tired of Mr. Lileks' distinct authorial personality, why didn't you just fire him? It would certainly have caused much less ire than this clumsy, ill-considered move.

I am from Florida. I have little interest in straight news of Minneapolis. I am certainly not interested in news about local internet doings in Minneapolis -- whatever those can possibly be. For one thing, the words "local" and "internet" are an oxymoron; if it had not been for the internet, I rather doubt I would have heard of James Lileks in the first place. Once his column is gone I will have no reason to read your online publication. Of course I am only one reader, but I'm not the only one that will no longer be building up your ad revenue.

In closing, I am

Andrea Harris
Altamonte Springs, Florida

Perhaps it will have a good effect. But maybe James should ask himself (as I ask myself daily): do I want to keep working for this kind of people?

One more thing I forgot to mention: I tried my best not to fawn, and in any case I refuse to use phrases like "one of your finest writers" and all that garbage, because fanboi drooling of that sort makes me queasy and is counterproductive in the cynical world of journalism, regulating such letters to the "old lady in love with the cute young reporter" file. And in any case, his Star Tribune column, the Quirk, wasn't an example of his best writing -- you can get that on his Bleat and in his more serious columns elsewhere. His writing for the Star Tribune, though often charming, was necessarily unserious and inoffensive as befits a column for a timid Old Media publication. I just hate seeing talent misused; in this case talent for first-person commentary (what could be called "what I think about something" writing -- for example, Orwell's "As I See It" columns) does not translate into an ability to do personality-free third person reporting -- as James himself admits. But the idea that "anyone can do anything" is our nation's cracked answer to the old "Renaissance Man" ideal, leaving aside the fact that during the Renaissance it was possible for a man to have more than one ability because there weren't as many things for people to do. And in any case, what we really mean is "anyone can do anything for money" -- unless we figure out that money isn't everything, and the idea collapses.

Comments (11)

CGHill [TypeKey Profile Page]:

This is right up there with Circuit City's axing of all its experienced personnel on the basis that clueless newbies would cost less.

Well that explains what occurred (or rather didn't -- useful help and the spending of my cash on any of their stuff) on my last visit to Circuit City.

It's not just big corporations that engage in this kind of clueless behavior. (That is, making really stupid decisions because they are completely unmindful of the kind of work their employees do, what corporate knowledge they have and where their talents are best utilized.) The government/military does it as well. And you are so right about that imperviousness to reason and logic when you try to explain to these people why their decisions are stupid.

Jeffro [TypeKey Profile Page]:

Here's to hoping he'll find something way better. I'm thinking he can easily do so.

Strictly speaking, the government/military is a type of corporation. It all flows from the same source, anyway. (All the money/bullshit.)

It's not just big corporations that engage in this kind of clueless behavior.

Hell, I've seen small businesses pull some pretty boneheaded crap.


What? Why yes, I have been in business for myself, why do you ask?

Well, I must say I pull boneheaded crap on myself every day. And then I hit myself on the head and say "why did you do that?"

But at least I realized it was a boneheaded move!

Exactly. Why doesn't he just quit? Like he couldn't get a column somewhere else. Maybe this sounds corny but this might be the best thing that every happened to him.

the only good side will be listening to the outraged fits about this incident that Hugh Hewitt will be throwing for the next week, thereby allowing us to hear a little less about Mormons...


I dropped a line to the reader rep at the Star and Sickle too, but I think that something else is at work here than sheer stupidity, although stupidity is, in of itself, reason enough for the newspaper's move.

I've worked for several large corporations and they've all had their moments of "right"-sizing the workforce. One of those companies no longer exists, which should give you a good indication of how well it was run.

Anyway. What all of these companies did, at one time or another, is announce that a RIF (reduction in force) was imminent, but that they would be offering increased severance packages to anyone let go by the downsizing. However, the companies played what amounted to a game of Three Card Monte with the employees. A fair number were actually let go and received the additional funds. Others, though, were reassigned to different departments, "filling a special need within the company". These employee moves usually, but not always, placed people into positions that ill suited both their temperaments and their skills. A friend of mine was moved from engineering into shipping. His new responsbilities? He say by a bank of phones and matched a shipment to a truck. My friend stuck it out for months until he got a better job somewhere else. Many others, though, quit in frustration. And since they quit of their own volition, the company owed them diddly squat, and there was no official blood on the company's hands.

Another method employed by one company in particular was to grade its workers periodically on their job competence. That's actually a good idea. But imagine that you've just moved into a new role within the last few months. You had to ramp up a bit to learn your new job and you are now graded against more experienced people. Since the odds are higher than normal that you would receive an unsatisfactory rating, the company could now let you go for cause which, in turn, would remove all responsbility of having to pay severance benefits.

To sum up: while I'm a complete believer in the stupidity of management, especially of that in the dinosaur press, I'm also know that other games might be afoot. Just something to keep in mind.

That is probably true. And it does sound... familiar. I can't say anything more than that.

Well, there *is* the political mismatch: As Lileks himself wrote in that comment thread at Blair's, "Re my conservative bona fides: compared to the rest of my profession, well, Hello, I Must Be Goering." [Golly, I never knew Lileks was a Marxist ;-) -ed]
There are certainly plenty of examples (NYTimes, Tribune Corp, CBS News) of people in the news business holding to their political agenda in the face of massive evidence that it's chasing the customers away. ("That can't be it! They'll come back... we just have to the same thing, but LOUDER.") In this case, I would have thought that the VCs who are running things at the would have alreaday done an evaluation and wouldn't put up with this kind of stuff. But maybe they're the kind of people who hang around at Nancy Nall's [Caution: Self-Righteous (self-described) Centerists].

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Don't worry, he's just chopping broccoli.


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