March 2, 2006

Underlined links created by Your Media editor


Looking back on the great downsizing of 1996
by Bill Doskoch on Thu 02 Mar 2006 07:41 PM EST  |  Permanent Link

At this exact same time of day a decade ago, I can remember what I was doing: Having a surprisingly cheery beer with my suddenly ex-colleagues about 5-1⁄2 hours after one of the biggest downsizings in Canadian newspaper history.

But first, let's roll the clock back, way back, to June 10, 1995.

At that time, I was a reporter with the Regina Leader-Post, covering the health beat for the paper.

I came home after a routine day at work. I parked in my stall, came into my apartment building, checked my mail, took the elevator upstairs, turned on my computer, checked my e-mail, flopped on the futon sofa and started watching Fresh Prince of Bel Air before the supper-hour TV newscast.

Routine, routine, routine.

At 6:07 p.m., my apartment buzzer rings — not so routine for that time of day. It's Cal, my taciturn building manager.

"Better get down here. Your truck's on fire."

"What?!?!" I exclaimed. "Is this a joke?"

"No, it's on fire."

As I'm tearing down the stairwell (I lived on the 10th floor of a south-facing apartment; great view of Wascana Park and the provincial legislature, and a kickass place to watch thunderstorms!), I hear the fire engine's siren.

By the time I got there, the firefighters had hosed the truck down. The 1991 Nissan King Cab was a write-off.

What hurt the most? It was the day before my last payment!

By early August, I had found a replacement vehicle: A 1993 Ford Ranger XLT.

Before I bought it, I burst into the office of John Swan, the Leader-Post's editor-in-chief.

"John, if you're going to fire me, do it now," I told him.

He looked startled until I told him what was going on.

"Naa, Billy, we won't be firin' ya," he said in his Scottish accent.

Remember those words.

The phone call

Now let's skip ahead to Boxing Day.

I had driven back to Edmonton to visit my parents for Christmas. At 10 a.m. on Dec. 26, I was still sleeping when my mom knocked on the door of my old room.

"Bill, it's one of your co-workers on the phone. He says it's important," she told me —  in her trademark hesitant way. :)

I rolled out of bed and, still half-asleep, stumbled into the kitchen to answer the phone, wondering what could possibly be so important as to require my attention on a Boxing Day morning.

"Hey Bill, it's Blevs," said my fellow reporter, Kevin Blevins. "I thought you'd want to know: Conrad Black just bought our paper."

HolyJesusFuckingChrist!!! I was awake now! Caffeine should give such a jolt!

My first reaction? There would be carnage at the paper.

Back then, the papers had been owned by the blue-blooded Siftons*  who ruled with a relatively paternalistic hand. The Siftons prided themselves on not throwing people overboard even during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

* In 1988, my first year at the Leader-Post, a company newsletter reported how the Siftons had sponsored a polo clinic in decidedly un-blue-blooded Moose Jaw, Sask., in part to show that polo was a game for everyone. I was tempted to make up a T-shirt that said "Polo for the People."

The times, however, were changing.

When I joined the paper, Michael C. Sifton had been the family's patriarch, but he was in his latter years.

Michael G. Sifton was the MBA-educated son interested in newspapers — the, uh, visionary who brought the Quality Improvement Process to the paper after discovering it in an airline magazine. We repeatedly asked over the years if he could attend a reporter's meeting at least once in his life, but the vibe we got from our bosses was, "please don't ask us about that."

Michael C. left this mortal coil in 1994, and the rest of the Sifton family, who lived in Ontario, really had no interest in staying in the news business*.

* There was some talk, from envious people, no doubt, that the Siftons got into a bit of a pickle when some real estate deals turned into buy-high-sell-low propositions as a result of the early 1990s recession. That may have provided an extra impetus to sell the papers.

Black had a hand in newspapers back in the 1980s and even earlier, going back to his purchase of the Eastern Townships Advertiser in 1966, but they were mostly gawdawful small-town papers.

One example was the Daily Townsman in Cransbrook, B.C., part of the (not-so) Sterling chain. I had a job interview with it in 1987, having outgrown my very first paying gig at the Record in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.

After hitting town, the first thing I did was buy a copy of the paper. The paper had a picture of a trained bear on top of a barrel — taken from a hundred miles away with a wide-angle lens. The photo was a grotesque embarrassment.

Over the course of the interview, the managing editor at the time brought out a copy of the paper. As if he was reading my mind, he said: "We've had a lot of people here who were really into photography, who really tried to take good pictures. We found that to be a problem." When I found out my starting salary would be lower than my existing one, that pretty much ended the matter for me.

However, Black's relentless focus on extracting every last nickel in profit from these horrible little rags helped put him in position to buy the then-decrepit Daily Telegraph of London in 1985. And then the Chicago Sun-Times in 1991.

In 1992, Black stunned everyone by taking a minority stake in Southam Inc., Canada's largest quality newspaper chain of the time.

All of a sudden, Conrad wasn't a pompous joke anymore. He was a player — and he was on a buying spree.

Throughout 1995, his company Hollinger Inc. began scooping up small-town Canadian papers that Thomson Inc. had been selling as part of its corporate refocusing on electronic database products, finishing off the year with the Armadale papers: The L-P, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and Yorkton This Week.

I've always been a reasonably attentive observer of my industry, and from what I could see, wherever Hollinger acquired, layoffs were sure to follow. Black's chief henchman, David Radler, has said he could always find 12 per cent fat in a Southam paper and four per cent in a Thomson one. By that, he usually doesn't mean overspending on paper clips.

However, the 'L' word didn't appear in any of the glowing L-P coverage about the sale, which mentioned things like the "opportunities" that could be available to employees by being part of a larger organization.

Personally, I put a lockdown on any discretionary spending.

At least two co-workers in the newsroom bought homes in this period, working on the theory that what will happen, will happen and life will go on.

From early January through to the end of Febuary 1996, we saw a steady stream of hard-looking men in dark, corporate suits carrying big, rectangular lawyers' briefcases, walking through our newsroom. They never looked at us or smiled. We didn't exist to them. But then again, to what extent do beef cattle exist to slaughterhouse operators?

"Apparently they're asking a lot of questions like, 'why doesn't this make more profit?'" said one middle manager at the time (he's still there), putting a snarling, chilly inflection on the p-word.

Eventually, the hard men finished their due diligence. At about 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 29, 1996,  an index-card-sized note was put on company bulletin boards around the plant, saying the sale of the company to Hollinger had been closed.

Roger Hearn, the paper's controller at the time, walked through the newsroom that afternoon on the way to his parking spot. He looked as grey as his suit.

When he'd just turned the corner on Reporter's Row, my ever-witty colleague Pat Davitt yelled out, "Dead Man Walking!" — in reference to the death penalty movie of the time — which makes me laugh even as I write this. I really cracked up at the time (nervous energy being released and all that).

But as we would find out, Roger was looking fucked up for a reason.

The end game

By now, rumours were flying. We heard the paper had booked off-site halls and had hired a security firm.

Shortly after lunch on Friday, March 1, I was on the phone with someone when Swan came around and pressed a letter into my hand, causing me to blurt out involuntarily, "I just got a letter."

The letter invited me to a meeting where important information about the company's restructuring would be revealed.

Some people kept working, but my mind ground to a halt. Tony Seskus, then one of our weekend reporters, tried to make small talk with me about a story he was working on, but I just shook my head, waved my hand and said: "Not now. I can't even think." I'm sure I looked pretty wired. Tony nodded sympathetically.

Anne Kyle, one of the newsroom's veterans, brought in some empty boxes for people's personal effects. Looking fatalistic, she unceremoniously dropped them, and in my ears, the sound of them hitting the floor echoed hauntingly.

One bit of corporate folklore I found to be true is this: If you're about to be whacked, the people doing the whacking won't look you in the eye. Swan and Bob Hughes, the publisher, were in the newsroom at various times after everyone got their invites to the restructuring party, but if I tried to make eye contact with them, neither would even look at me.

When the workday's end came, I walked down the long hall past pre-press, stopping at the inside doors. Before I went out into the foyer, I turned around and looked back down the hallway. I felt light-headed as I did so, which probably explains why this unremarkable scene didn't look quite right. The hallway looked kinda trapezoidal instead of rectangular, and the institutional colours looked ... odd, slightly psychedelic, for lack of a better word. They seemed to glow and flow and pulsate.

"I'll never walk down that hallway again as an employee of this newspaper," I thought to myself before I headed outside.

Turns out, I'd be right.

Dio del Negro / Drowning The Kittens

My Friday night finished off at Bushwakkers, a brew pub with fine pints and great food (our other big Friday hang-out was Alfredo's, where everyone unrequitedly lusted after Kim, the incredibly gorgeous and sexy waitress).

Gallows humour ruled the evening, and a pool was soon started as to how many people would get whacked.

Some innocent souls actually believed no one would get chopped, that Saturday would really just be an information session. Maybe denial was just their protective mechanism, but those people seemed to get hit the hardest emotionally when the bad shit happened.

My pick was 125 — slightly more than one-third of the newspaper's staff of 360.

Some tried to spark interest in a spite pool — naming people you wanted to get whacked. Not many people wanted to go that far, and the idea sank below the waves.

As I remember it now, much of the talk focused on speculation of what might happen, overshadowed by the sense we were going to be hit by a downsizing train in the morning, and that many of us wouldn't survive, and that even if you did, your friends might not, and there wasn't a damned thing any of us could do about it.

When I did get home, I had one of the worst nights of sleep in my life. If I scored 90 minutes in total, I'd be surprised. Mostly I felt like I was on some weird rubber carnival ride that kept slowly flipping and bouncing me.

By the time I arrived at the Queensbury Downs Centre around 11 a.m., however, I felt pretty much at peace with whatever was going to happen.

Walking in, I saw reporters from CP, BN and the local broadcast outlets — all looking like they were covering an execution that bright, frosty morning. "Wow, we're the news this morning!" I thought.

At the main doors, you had to go to a registration desk, where pleasant, smiling, vacant young women from a consulting company named Deloitte and Touche (better known as Toilet and Douche) would directly you to either Salons A, B, C or D.

I got sent to D, which was almost instantly nicknamed the Death Room.

Walking towards the doors of Salon D, former city editor turned director of information services Al Rosseker was standing beside them. "Wrong place to be, pal," he said, pointing out all the grey heads in the room.

Once everyone was seated, they started reading out names, tripping over non-anglo ones like, say, Doskoch.

At least two people from the newsroom, Al Driver and Mark Wyatt, were sent to the death room by mistake.

They looked sick sitting among us, but when they got word they were there by mistake, it was like someone had pulled a handgun away from between their eyes after starting to squeeze the trigger. I think they even started breathing again. :)  They didn't look backward as they stumbled out of that room.

With the preliminaries over, the main event started.

Bob Hughes — a lifelong L-Per, going from sports writer to editor to managing editor to publisher (then back down the ladder after Hollinger took over) — had the responsibility of breaking the bad news to us.

He looked to be in agony. If this didn't count as one of the worst days of his life to that point, I'd be very, very surprised.

Hughsie, as we called him, was nearly crying as he read from a prepared statement about unprecedented conditions hitting the newspaper industry and yadda, yadda, yadda. I was losing my job, yet I felt sorry for him.

One phrase that still jumps out at me (maybe because I want to believe it) is this: "Everybody in this room did a good job. Everybody," he said fiercely. I suspect Hughsie went off script when he said that.

The gist was we had been fired, not laid off. We would never again return to work there as Leader-Post employees, not even to pick up our belongings. If we tried to enter the building, security would be there to repel us. However, after May 25 (the end of the notice period), we would be officially civilians again and would have the same rights of entry as any other member of the public.

When the hub-bub subsided, one of the D&T twinks told us: "You've all been through a very traumatic experience just now," to which one sardonic colleague yelled: "Thanks for validating us!"

We had to pick up our "packages" — the letters spelling out what we'd just been told verbally (incidentally, the letters didn't contain any wording like "sorry about this" or "thanks for your service").

Janice Dockham, the former assistant city editor turned human resources director, gave me my package.

She was looking particulary bug-eyed* this morning.

* Janice's nickname amongst the reporters was The Perch, because of her eyes. One story had two U of R j-students who were working weekends show up on Friday afternoon after a few tune-up pints in the Lazy Owl, the U of R student pub. One stood behind Janice and made fish faces while the other tried to talk to her. Much hilarity! My big joke for one departing summer student one year was this: "Did Janice give you the same advice she gives every summer student when they leave?" He asked what. "'Always keep your eyes wide open,'" I dead-panned.

"Hi Janice," I told her with a humourless grin on my face. "How's your morning been? Mine's been one surprise after another so far." Janice didn't say anything.

She repeatedly called one of my colleagues, Don Curren, "Andrew." Maybe that's because the city editor's name was Andy Cooper (Don was the assistant city editor), but the termination envelope was addressed to "Andrew Curren." The joke afterwards was that they were having trouble deciding who they would fire.

After people got their envelopes, they gathered in groups and either cracked bad jokes or held each other for comfort —  or to exchange goodbye hugs. Some cried, some were stoic and some looked poleaxed.

Whatever the reaction, there wasn't much privacy. The planning geniuses picked a death  room with a glass wall, allowing the survivors to crowd it and look in, making us the guppies in a fishbowl of the dead. However, we were the only room that had refreshments! Grape Koolaid would have been a nice touch.

For me, I'd expected the worst all along. The pressure was now off for the moment, so I was in reasonably good spirits, all things considered.

Upon leaving the death room, some of my now ex-colleagues were crowded around the door.

The first words spoken to me were by Darrell Davis, a long-time sports writer. "You were our best reporter!" he said in shock. I gave a tight-lipped smile and shrugged.*

* A flattering observation, but not true. However, years later, Kevin Blevins, who eventually became associate editor, told me: "With this person or that person, you could sort of see why. But with you, Bernie (Pilon) and D'Arce (McMillan), it just made no sense."

Ardith Stephanson, another sports writer, observed that I'd lost some weight and that I looked good. "Why thanks, Ardith, and now that I'm on the Hollinger diet plan, I expect even better gains in the months ahead!" I quipped.

Eventually, everyone reconvened at Bushwakkers, where the whole puzzle started getting pieced together.

The goofiest one was about John "Naa, Billy, we won't be firin' ya" Swan. He had been in charge of telling people in one room, but Swan garbled it so badly that people didn't know if they were fired or not. One person ran after him, repeatedly yelling and crying, "John, do I have a job?" Swanny had to poke his head back in and tell everyone they still had gigs.

The total count at my now ex-paper was 89 fired — one-quarter of the staff. Agricultural reporter D'Arce McMillan won the pool, hitting that number exactly. "'I won! I won!! Hey: Wait a minute'," was my joke to that.

About 17 of those 89 were from the newsroom, bringing the headcount there down from about 68 to 51, if memory serves me correctly (five of us chopped were reporters). Keep in mind the newsroom hadn't hired a reporter since 1990 and had been shedding jobs through attrition over that period (I remember about five reporting positions going unfilled, but I could be wrong).

We heard that in Saskatoon, 84 people lost their jobs, with about one-third of those coming from the newsroom.

The big things to do that afternoon were drink, joke, vent (Swan and Sifton were popular targets) and try and make sense of what just happened, but more information would come out in the coming days. And it wouldn't make accepting what happened any easier.*

* I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Michael Sifton held a news conference that started about the same time we were formally getting the bad news. Some of the questions were about the papers' financial performance. "I think as you full well know, Armadale's a private company," Sifton said. (inaudible question) "I did not say that we lost money. I'm saying that the cost structures are not what they should be." Asked about whether they had lost money, he replied, "No, Armadale has not lost money; it has made money. It has not made enough money. Again, if we start to consider the millions of dollars that go into these operations on an annual basis for capital and some of the other improvements, no, Armadale does not perform anywhere near what other companies in the public world." My understanding is that in the depths of a vicious national and provincial recession in the early 1990s, the L-P still had operating margins in the 15 per cent range — low enough to make the faces of the money men freeze into death masks. Who knows how much money it made during the good times?

The short-term aftermath

I wound up talking to Bob Hughes on the phone on Sunday to ask questions about getting my stuff back and whatnot.

The start to the conversation was understandably awkward.

"Well, I'm sorry you guys don't want me to work there any more, but I did a good job for you, and I can leave with my head held high," I told him in an even voice.

"You did everything we asked you to do," he said, and he sounded almost sorrowful.

Hughes wondered if I would return to my home town of Edmonton and that if I did, maybe I could work in PR for my beloved Edmonton Eskimos.

"Oh, yeah, the CFL!" I snickered. "The one thing more stable than newspapers!"

And that brought the conversation to a halt. :) However, I'm sorry if I embarrassed Hughes; he was actually a pretty decent guy. Swan was too. In almost eight years there, I can't think of a time where I felt undeservedly crapped on.  And I should say Armadale as a company treated me reasonably well for all but my last day.

One thing that pissed me off, however, was they wouldn't let me have my rolodex or files, pronouncing them company property — property that was largely dumped in the garbage, from what I heard. One of my deskmates rescued my rolodex, which proved to be important in generating freelance work.

However, four year's worth of files on health reform in Saskatchewan went into the trash — an act of pettiness I still don't understand. Why would they rather throw that stuff out than give it to me?

And on Monday, the L-P's own coverage was missing a key component — the voices of the dismissados like me. Swan had told Tony Seskus to not quote anyone who had been fired because "we don't want to beat ourselves up."

One final thing: On the Monday after the disaster, Swan held a meeting with a very aggrieved newsroom. He said the plan was to have a range of experience in the newsroom and to protect certain demographic groups, like women (fair enough — the newsroom was top-heavy with guys).

Interestingly, he never mentioned competence or productivity as reasons for keeping people. The copy desk was notoriously weak at the L-P*, and, incredibly, Swan told people that because the desk was so weak, now was not the time to make changes (THEN WHEN ?!?! :) ).

* They wanted reporters in to work by 8:30 a.m. not to gather news, but  to read the morning paper and catch any mistakes in our stories before they started printing the afternoon run. We used to call the morning paper the test edition.

In addition, not one sportswriter was chopped (both Swan and Hughes came up through sports).

Anyways, what also became clear is that while most of the newsroom staff were married, a disproportionate number of the dismissados were single. Every reporter chopped was male and single.

The theory was that Swan, a Roman Catholic family values kinda guy, would feel less bad about firing single people than breadwinners.*

* We guessed Swan also felt squeamish about firing some of his long-time smoking buddies who weren't regarded as being balls of fire. They survived and over the course of the summer, some got generous buy-outs, farewell lunches and weren't told that security guards would keep them out if they tried coming back. It pays to be a crony!

Anne Kyle was kind enough to haul my personal stuff home for me that Monday night (I was stupid and didn't pack up on the fateful Friday).

Part of this week was spent consulting with lawyers. Hollinger was clever on severances (practice makes perfect!): They made offers whereby the gains to be made from filing a wrongful dismissal suit were very marginal.

But they also really low-balled people who might have been perceived as weak. I got offered almost $7,000 more than than someone who started six weeks later than I did and who began at a higher salary.

Some people were offered $500 in severance.

Conrad didn't get the mansions and the planes by being kind to the little people. As Black has said, he's a Darwinian capitalist — and that means not only firing people without cause when there's a buck in it for him, but paying them a pittance if he could possibly get away with it.

Ultimately, however, the lawyers did only identify about three people who really should sue; the other 86 would see only marginal benefits from doing so.

I signed off on the offer and went on about my life.

In order to find my next job, however, I needed my clippings.

While the librarians were oh-so-nice at Bushwakkers, they turned into obedient little corporate robots quite quickly (at least one of them voluntarily served as a scab during the Calgary Herald strike, and did so with gusto — there is security in submission). It would take almost a month for me to obtain them.

Marlon Marshall — then the managing editor and one quick to do, say or believe whatever it took to ingratiate himself with his superiors — apparently told anyone who listened: "All we did was get rid of some deadwood." If you did say that, then you, Marlon, are a despicable bag of puke. His wife Irene worked in the newsroom and she wasn't considered a go-getter (to put it mildly; do you know anyone else in this business who has time to write notes to people in calligraphy?), but she was pals with Swan's wife, so that made her bullet-proof. Had Marlon's thoughts about pruning deadwood applied, she would have been one of the first on the firewood stack.

Here's another thing: We heard that senior Armadale managers had tried to put proposals to Hollinger that would have seen costs cut as much, but significantly fewer bodies out the door. They were supposedly told Hollinger doesn't reduce costs, Hollinger cuts bodies.

The medium to long term

Getting chopped is one of life's great destabilizers. Count on some major mood swings, from defiance to hopefulness to hopelessness, as you work your way back to a stable gig.

About 10 days to two weeks in, my emotions had crashed, with some people saying that's when I looked my worst in this process. I did some quick freelancing for medical trade mags but my initial inquiries about the full-time job market for reporters were not encouraging.

For one thing, CBC shed some editorial bodies in this same period, as did The Canadian Press.

As one ME told me, "There's an abundance of riches out there right now."

And this was at papers I wouldn't have considered applying for in days gone by.

Talking to hiring editors, they told me that if I got a PR or communications job, that would likely push me off the journalism track forever.

The gist was that regaining a full-time foothold in the Amazing Shrinking Journalism Biz promised to be a long slog, not a short sprint.

Besides the professional setback, there's the personal trauma.

And like with any traumatic life event, the wheat gets separated from the chaff with respects to your friends.

There were people who were very kind (Gord and Deb Brock, Kevin and Karleen, O'ConnorNeil and Donna Scott), and a few who completely shunned me. I'm talking about people I went to football games with and whose homes I had visited.

One person I ran into kept babbling, "Bill, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry ..." I finally had to say: "I lost my job. I don't have cancer!"

The most bizarre incident came in a counsellor's office. When I decided the stress really seemed to be getting to me, I decided what the hell, I'll try talking to a counsellor (I was still on the company benefits plan). This guy supposedly had a PhD in psychology. Even if he didn't, he did have a goatee, which is pretty much the same thing.

 When we had our first (and, as it turned out, only) appointment, I explained what was going on in my life and why I was in his office.

"Well, at least you're not married," he said.

"What?!" I responded, not being able to believe he said something so stupid and insensitive.

"Oh yeah. It would be way worse if you were married," he said.

My head exploded. Trying to remember I was in an office, I hissed at him that a big reason I got fired is likely because I was single.

"I'm sorry, I didn't know," he said (Well then, you stupid bastard, maybe you should ask more questions before saying something so provocative to someone).

His next step was to hand me a self-esteem workbook. I refused it, telling him flatly, "This is a little too Stuart Smalley-ish for my tastes."

And that was that.

While  that encounter, strangely enough, snapped me out of the worst of my funk, after two months, my job hunt was going nowhere. I was seriously starting to think I'd never work in journalism again as a staff reporter. In fact, I told that to an ex-colleague at the usual Friday beer session at Alfredo's.*

* Alfredo's, owned and operated by the wonderful Fred Soufi, offered up a big steamer full of free pasta on Fridays. "Who would have guessed this would be my main meal of the week?" was one of my jokes.

But the old "darkest before the dawn" saw held true for me.

Shortly after that little fit of self-pity, I noticed an ad on Compuserve, an online service of the time, for a job as foreign editor of the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Kevin O'Connor forwarded me the same ad).

I applied. I met the paper's editor for an interview in Boston (at their expense!). Got to take in a Red Sox game at Fenway! Swung home through New York!

And most importantly, a few days after my notice period expired at the L-P, I got offered the gig! Woo-hoo! The worst was over!

What I've learned

Here are a few downsizing survival tips for journalists from someone who's been there three times:

  • Develop some cash reserves
  • Always keep your resume and portfolio tuned up
  • Always keep a list of work-related contacts at home and duplicates of any files that might be useful
  • Always be in the job market, even if at a very low level. If you're a staff writer, do some freelancing.
  • Never forget you're in a business relationship with your employer, one that can be severed by either party at almost any time.
  • Remember, even if you love a company, the company, by its very nature, can't love you back.
  • If you do get called into an office to get whacked, be professional about accepting it. But also remember that once that happens, your self-interest and the company's self-interest have become largely de-linked. Act and decide in your best interests at all times.
  • If you're terminated without cause, they have to pay you notice; however, that's different that severance, which generally goes to longer-term employees.
  • Get independent legal advice, but don't surrender yourself to your lawyer; the lawyer may be thinking of his or her best interests, not yours. Some lawyers will exploit your feelings of vulnerability. Some offer free initial consultations; talk to a few of them if possible, or ask someone you trust for a recommendation.
  • If you do decide to sue, remember that you have to be applying for work and whatnot to qualify for damages, and that if you're re-employed relatively early, that will count against your settlement when it comes time to calculate damages. So if you think you can get re-employed quickly, it might be worth accepting the settlement offer. If you're a longer-serving older worker or a high-level employee with fewer jobs to pick from, a wrongful dismissal suit could become more logical — but again, I'm not a lawyer, so consult with a professional.
  • Once you've gotten some of the preliminaries out of the way (eg. settle or sue?), do something nice for yourself, if your life circumstances allow it. If it's at all financially feasible, look into a cheap, last-minute holiday somewhere warm (or whatever). A week or two of beer, burgers, margaritas and beach volleyball might be just the ticket. You need to decompress and drain some of the hurt, shock and anger (you don't want to be sounding wild-eyed if you're cold-calling potential new employers). And who knows when you'll get your next chance for a break?
  • When you begin your job hunt, let everyone you know that you've been fired and that you're on the market.
  • Your fellow dismissados may be your friends, but they are also your competitors now.
  • Job hunting is a job. Be disciplined about it and remember that it's your responsibility to get yourself generating income again, and no one else's. If anyone lifts even their pinky finger to help you, be very, very grateful.
  • What has seemed to work for me is sending out a letter of inquiry followed up by a phone call 10 days to two weeks later. From there, identify those editors with whom you seem to have some personal chemistry. Keep in touch with them.
  • Network. I once schmoozed a guy at a CAJ convention about his operation (it helped that I was genuinely interested) and never once mentioned the j-word.  About two weeks later, I sent a letter saying nice chatting with you, and oh, by the way, if you ever need someone ... . That turned into a gig.
  • If you make it to the interview stage, you have 30 seconds to establish chemistry. If you do, it doesn't necessarily mean you're in, but if you don't, you're screwed.
  • If you get offered a job, do not accept the first salary offer. If they push back, then you've got a decision to make. :)
  • If things really aren't going well, maybe examine the skill set you're offering. In today's world, the skills that got you your last job might not be enough to get you your next one.
  • Depending on your age and experience level, count on your job hunt lasting three to nine months. If you are at a management or executive level, it could take one to two years.
  • An attempted bon mot: The reason most people stay in their marriages or jobs isn't because either one is so great, but because dating and job-hunting are such drags. :)

If it's been a while since you had a good, honest conversation with yourself about yourself, an appropriate time might well be in the weeks after a downsizing. Were you happy doing what you were doing and where you were doing it? If the answers are no and no, perhaps you need to think of getting whacked as more of a blessing than a curse. Frankly, the L-P had gotten a bit stale for me, and I had sniffed around for a few other jobs well before the downsizing happened. As it turns out, I got the Cambodia gig, which provided an opportunity to fulfil a dream of working overseas as a journalist.

Actually, about three weeks to a month after getting whacked, I was having lunch with L-P political columnist Murray Mandryk at some fifties-style diner on the south side of Regina. Some politico came in and made small talk with Murray, who introduced me and said I was one of the people who lost his job in the downsizing. "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," the guy said. "Well, it could have been worse," I replied. When he asked how, I said, "I could have kept it!"

It took years before the L-P was a reasonably stable place again. In the immediate aftermath, people felt like slaves. They were doing the same amount of work with 25 per cent fewer people, and they were doing so by working zany hours without fair compensation. The company may have cut bodies, but its costs went up in other ways. For one thing, the newsroom unionized (a guild guy approached us in 1994, but that went nowhere), a process that created quite the bitter struggle, and one that lasted for years. Tragically for the company, that drove salaries up to levels that could almost be considered liveable! :) The company also didn't get the voluntary OT it used to get from people.

The quality of the paper went down. One thing that reportedly outraged people was the new company's editorial cheapness. I heard a major Indian event in Fort Qu'Appelle almost went uncovered because the bosses didn't want to shell out a whopping $25 in gas mileage.

When Sifton — who joined Hollinger as a senior executive — talked about the papers not making "enough" money, here's a question: What's enough to a company like Hollinger?

So that's another thing to consider: After a major downsizing, your old workplace might well be something totally different — and not in a good way.

With the distance of time, while most of us who were chopped have fondness for what had been a pretty fun workplace in its time, no one thinks they'd be better off still toiling at the L-P of today.

Early on, however, you might be torturing yourself with thoughts of "why me?" As I said in a conversation with Gerry Krochak, who worked in the paper's circulation department and wrote about rock music for us, the corollary of that question is "why not me?"

Gerry was less than sympathetic towards some people who got the chop in other departments, saying they actively opposed any type of change or learning new skills almost on principle. To my mind, that's being a bad employee.

However, being a bad employee is relative. There was a great column in the Globe and Mail that ran not long after Dio Del Negro. In it, writer Kelvin Browne made this statement:

It is this unspoken fit among you, your colleagues and superiors that is most crucial in determining whether you are downsized. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone has problems on the job. How these problems are perceived is the crucial part.

It is remarkable how much can be understood or forgiven when the key corporate people are on your side — and how little the most dedicated and productive employees are valued when they don't reflect the taste of those in power.

From what I've seen, that holds true. If survival is the only goal, you're better off as a mediocre crony than a talented misfit. But do you really want "He was a mediocre crony" carved on your tombstone? :)

My conclusion is, strive to be a good employee, but be yourself too. If your employer doesn't appreciate your good qualities, then it's their loss.

If you've read this far, you'll know that people will say and do some stupid and hurtful things to dismissados, and they come at a time when you're particularly vulnerable. Not that your termination is comparable to His, but remember the words of Jesus Christ on the Cross: "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do."

Most people don't have innately good social gifts. Try and account for that before you rip somebody's head off because they were an insensitive jerk to you (easier said than done, in my case). But really, you'll have enough other stresses in your life without torturing yourself over the small stuff, so be forgiving and take the high road.

And again, appreciate kindnesses.

One sunny, warm day in May 1996 on Regina's Scarth Street Mall, before things started to break for me, I ran into Janice Dockham, my old assistant city editor and the woman who handed me my termination package.

"How are you?" she asked, and the way she asked made me think she actually cared.*

* Although I made sport earlier of her bulging blue eyes, Janice is actually a reasonably nice person. She brought me a cheeseburger once when I was covering a long police standoff! That was very much appreciated!

So I responded, and we actually had a fairly pleasant little chat. And at the end, she said: "I really think you're one of the people who's going to come out of this very well." I smiled at her and thanked her for the kind words.

She didn't have to talk to me at all, let alone be nice, so an encouraging, seemingly sincere thought like that was much appreciated -- and still is today.

So if you want some advice about dealing with people who've been whacked, it's simply this: Be nice to them. Don't turn weird and dump your innermost worst fears about downsizing on them.

Finally, on March 3, I got together with the aforementioned Mr. Curren, who also lives in Toronto now, for a 10th anniversary lunch at the Queen Mother downtown on Queen West. I had their always-exquisite Ping Gai chicken, a glass of crisp white wine, a slice of chocolate pecan pie and a coffee.

Eating well is the best revenge! :)


The Toronto Star's Antonia Zerbisias blogged about this posting.

Here's my reply to her:

Hi Antonia:

A quibble: I don't say I got targeted because I was a single male. That was a widely-held opinion as people tried to explain something that seemed quite random.

I gave up the environment column way before the downsizing, in part because they didn't want me reporting on environment issues. I thought that made the column untenable.

As to the trouble-maker part, it could have played a role, but who knows?

I bumped into Al Rosseker, my one-time city editor, in downtown Regina about six weeks after Black Saturday. He posited the theory that "trouble-makers" were targeted in some departments.

He then told me: "You asked questions."

My response was yeah, but I also said I didn't think I was being a pain in the ass just because I spoke on issues I thought were ethically important and stood up for what I thought was right.

He agreed with that assessment.

OTOH, maybe that is career-limiting.

I attended the 1999 CAJ conference in Vancouver. My old friend David Radler, then-president of Hollinger, was on one panel.

When he started to blow a little too much smoke, I stepped forward, IDed myself as a Black Saturday dismissado, politely made some observations and asked him some tough questions.

At a later session, a very senior editor at a very large newspaper who was on the panel looked at me and said: "Boy, if you're going to take on Radler ..."

He didn't finish the sentence. He just shook his head.

Unfortunately, I never got the memo that journalists aren't supposed to ask tough questions about industry executives.

I should also say that if the L-P targeted trouble-makers, they did a piss-poor job.

The newsroom became unionized a few years later and there was a byline strike in 2002 (when CanWest owned it) and the paper's editors tried to twist the words of The Star's Haroon Siddiqui, speaking as the James L. Minifie lecturer, to support the corporate line about how the owner's views should predominate.

Siddiqui reportedly donated his speaking fee to the people who were suspended over that to minimize any financial hardship they might have suffered. If true, that makes him a very cool guy in my book.

It's good to see there's still a few trouble-makers and fellow-travellers out there. :)

Bill D.

© Bill Doskoch. No duplication, distribution or republication without copyright holder's permission.