It's taken me nearly three years to go through the remains of my newspaper career, a successful one that spanned nearly two decades.
My Journalist of the Year clock sits beneath a worktable. I keep another Journalist of the Year award by the front door; it’s a heavy, faceted, etched-glass piece that fits nicely in my hand, at the ready if I need to prop open a door or chase away an intruder.
Other things — gifts and notes from former readers, drawings from my son when he was tiny and sweet, photos of me with politicians and at community events — are stuffed into a basket. My Associated Press column-writing award leans against a stack of books. I can’t throw any of it away just yet.
Then I found a printout of the dumbest corporate memo ever written, the memo that illustrates perfectly the disconnect between corporate America and the rest of us.
The memo is from November 2008, the beginning of the end of 20,000 jobs (or about 40 percent of the workforce) at Gannett, the corporation that boasts USA Today and owns my old newspaper.
The layoffs, which began in late 2008, hadn’t yet hit Gannett's Michigan properties. We were working like fools, though, feeling lucky to have jobs when our counterparts in other places were losing theirs, feeling frightened we were next.
That memo, which landed across the corporation like a digital IED, informed us that Gannett’s chief executive, Craig Dubow, was voluntarily taking a financial hit to show solidarity with his workers.
In what Dubow likely considered a grand gesture and a great PR move, he gave up 17 percent of his base salary — about $200,000 — for a year. But rather than steel the troops, that memo instead showed us clearly the rocky road before us.
When that memo arrived via email, heads snapped and fingers flew across calculators. Then, the realization hit home that this feeling-your-pain gesture was made by someone whose base salary was $1.2 million.
The ugly truth, though, was that Dubow’s actual take-home pay, amped up with the corporate perks du jour — bonuses, stock awards and options, deferred compensation interest earnings — came to $7.3 million that year.
After that memo came out, Gannett workers across the country had to take a week off without pay. We were happy to do it, and we were happy to take up the slack it created; we were, after all, frightened about the possibility of losing our jobs. Two percent of our salary was a small price to pay to keep the corporation afloat and us working. Those who reported the news, sold the ads, designed the pages and put out the papers — the people who earned 5 digits, not 7 or 8 — sucked up what amounted to a 4 percent pay cut for the same year in which Craig Dubow essentially commanded his workers to watch him perform the magical feat of pulling $7.3 million out of a $200,000 hat.
Two corporate quarters later, just as I was to be furloughed a second week, my job was "eliminated." My career ended as part of my paper’s 10 percent reduction-in-force.
Since then I’ve remade my life. I’ve scraped along doing freelance work. I started this community website. I count myself among the luckier; I give thanks each and every day that I have a roof over my head and a wonderful husband with a job and health insurance.
Every now and then, though, I think about that memo. I’ve started and abandoned many a post about its “let them eat cake”-type dumb-assed-ness, its disastrous disconnect from the real world, but I've always backed away because I want to move forward. I don’t want to keep looking backward, really and truly, but it’s unavoidable sometimes, especially when reminders of corporate cluelessness smack me in the face.
The latest smack came when Craig Dubow took a disability retirement, reportedly because of a bad back.
His retirement package?
Thirty-two million dollars.
You read that right: $32 million.
I really try to keep a good attitude, to not be bitter or disgruntled about losing my job, to be the better person, but at times, especially when freelance work is scarce, payments are slow, and the cost of living my scaled-down life goes up, I need to blow off some pissy steam, and today, as I sorted through old performance reviews and memos, I can’t help but feel angry about the tale of two very different newspaper journeys.
One of those journeys is, of course, mine, a story similar to 20,000 others in Gannett-land. The other is uniquely Dubow’s, whose stunning retirement package did not go unnoticed.
Posts popped up like one by David Carr of the New York Times entitled “Why Not Occupy Newsrooms?” The piece calls Dubow’s time at Gannett a “disaster,” and accuses the corporation of “slicing and dicing its way to quarterly profits.”
I thought about what I could do with a sweet retirement package worth $32 million. In my fantasy, just like the ones in which I win the lottery, I give most of the money away after paying off my little house and setting aside enough for my kid to go to college. How much does one little family really need, after all?
I think about the irony of these two careers ending with Gannett in two very different ways: During his six years at the helm, Dubow chopped 20,000 jobs while the price of Gannett stock plummeted from $75 to $10 a share. Then, after making millions of dollars, he walks away with $32 million more.
Me? After a good career as a loyal, hard-working and innovative employee, I got a cardboard box and a week of pay for each of the years I spent at the paper.
The difference in the ends of these two careers illustrates the Grand Canyon divide separating the haves and the 99 percent. It’s why I’d help occupy Wall Street if I could afford the gas to get there.
The strength of this country lies not in the wealth and greed of its corporate citizens, but in the productivity and heart of its middle class. We are at our best as Americans when we are investing in ourselves, when we stand together for the greater good. This country is at its worst when it is obsessed with maximizing profits, financial Ponzi schemes, bundled derivatives, if-you’re-not–a-bazillionaire-blame-yourself. It’s the “greed is good” school of thought that strip-mines workforces in search of profits.
The choice is clear. Until corporate personhood and corporate greed is reined in, we’ll continue to founder, and more and more of us will get the ends of our careers handed to us in cardboard boxes.