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May 07, 2007

James Lileks: Beat Reporter

Rather surprising news from American media land: James Lileks has been reassigned from his columnar duties to being a beat reporter. As he says himself this isn't something he's likely to be very good at.

Now the thing is, why on earth would any managment do such a thing? Take a natural columnist with a strong online following and turn them into something that they're a) not very good at and b) loses their wider talents and c) a job where the required talent is in fact a dime a dozen, something certainly not true of decent columning.

Seriously, why would anyone do that?

Shot in the Dark begins to provide some of the answer:

This sort of scale-back/down-sizing/gutting has been anticipated ever since the new owners, Avista Capital Partners took over and after the round of voluntary buy-outs that clipped 24 positions from the payroll two months ago.

OK, new VC owners, sure, they want to cut costs. But as Hugh Hewitt says, they seem to be cutting the wrong set of costs. Captain's Quarters also wonders what on earth is going on and we also get Don Surber, Ed Driscoll and Instapundit wondering what on earth this new management is doing and Danny Glover calls it "boneheaded".

All of these things may well be true but it's worth asking exactly why such a decision was taken. Sure, it could be simple stupidity and I certainly prefer the cock-up theory of history to the conspiracy one but I'm not all that sure that people who have just bought a newspaper are likely to be so irrational.

The clue I think lies in this from Powerline:

Union rules may make the Star Tribune unmanageable.   James's announcement makes it a joke.

Hunh? Most of us weenie Europeans think of the US as a place (in fact, most Americans do too) where you hold your job for precisely as long as the management wants you to and not a femto-second longer. ("Employment at will" as I think it is called.) However, there are places and companies where unions have a stong hold and it's true, just as it was in the UK back in pre-Murdoch and Wapping days that newspapers and the various print unions are one such place.

So, management cannot just take their long serving staff and tell them they don't want them any more (presumably to replace them with a crew of interns  and recent graduates on one third of the wages). As is evidenced by this announcement of lay-offs at the same paper recently:

We wanted you to know that 24 employees have decided to take advantage of the dismissal pay provision in the contract and resign from the Star Tribune.

"Dismissal pay provision"? Buying out of the contract perhaps, or maybe a better description is redundancy pay, without knowing more details it's tough to tell.

But any European observer, indeed any US manager who has dealt with union shops, would recognise what is going on here.

Take a well respected, well known and (for all I know, well paid) employee and assign him to duties manifestly ill suited to his talents at a time when you're looking to cut costs and create redundancies.

Then hope they resign in disgust so that you don't have to pay the "dismissal pay provision".

Simple, elegant and, as far as I know, entirely legal in the US.

Something which isn't legal in the UK, where we call it constructive dismissal:

  • Unilaterally changing the employee’s job content or terms of employment.
  • Significantly changing the employee’s job location at short notice.

Update. Looks like Nancy Nall has very much the same idea:

You’re fat, and the paper is on a crash diet. They don’t really want you to be a reporter; they want you to quit. They’re just making sure you’ll be in a mood to do so when, in a number of weeks or maybe months, they offer you a buyout to leave. Take it. There’s no guarantee the next staff reduction will be voluntary.

May 7, 2007 in Weblogs | Permalink

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» Take This Job And Bleat It from The LLama Butchers
As probably most of our regular readers know, James Lileks announced in his column today that his regular employer, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, is kyboshing his weekly column of regular-guy observations and reassigning him to a reporter's beat, somet... [Read More]

Tracked on May 7, 2007 6:30:23 PM

» Do Newspapers "Get" The Web? from Ed Driscoll.com
The answer to that would be a definite emphatic "No!" based on James Lileks' latest post. Lileks writes that rather than creating synergy between his handsome, sprawling, ever-growing personal site and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the paper's new owne... [Read More]

Tracked on May 7, 2007 7:47:17 PM

» James Lileks, Minneapolis-St.Paul Star-Tribune, has decided to kill his column and have him write straight local news stories. from Marginalized Action Dinosaur
I think I understand, they are feeding him to the crocidiles hoping they get eaten last.  James Lileks, a terrific writer and one of the best newspaper columnists in America, says on his blog today that his newspaper, the Minneapolis-St.Paul Star-Tri... [Read More]

Tracked on May 8, 2007 12:05:23 AM

Comments

Tim, please remember that people not covered by union contracts are not covered by union contracts, in the States. If Lileks is a columnist, it matters little if press operators, etc. are unionized.

Also, note that many right-wing bloggers are big Lileks fans; that doesn't carry over to large numbers of readers for the paper, or their ability to get revenue.

Posted by: Barry | May 9, 2007 2:57:20 PM

Barry,
I'm a confiscate your guns and redistribute the wealth liberal.....I read the Bleat every day and buy all of lileks books. And read his column in the s'trib. The conventional ideas about political affiliation are transcended by his writing, vintage esthetics, observations and humor.

Posted by: Johnny Cheekawonny | Jun 6, 2007 3:23:17 AM