When Editors Have to Put the Best Face on “You’re Fired!”

Last week’s newsroom memo from executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn about coming changes at the New York Times:

Dear Colleagues,

As we have said several times in recent months, we’re working hard to improve and streamline our editing system. Our goal is to preserve meticulous text editing while meeting the demands of digital, which requires more speed and more visual storytelling. We have also said that we expect some reductions in the size of the newsroom, including in the editing staff.

Despite what you may have heard in recent days, our plans for these changes are not complete. We expect to have more information by the end of this month about both the editing changes and a buyout program for editors and others around the newsroom, and will share the details of both of these initiatives at that time.

Our newsroom has had a spectacular run during one of the most exciting news environments in the long history of The Times. Even as we prepare to adjust our staffing in some areas, we are also investing aggressively in our journalism and will remain the best edited news organization in the world. We look forward to discussing these plans with you in more detail soon.

Dean & Joe

As the Times and other newspapers continue to send out memos about how they are improving their journalism, you might enjoy this excerpt from the book, The Paris Correspondent, by Alan S. Cowell. The book was published in 2011, by The Overlook Press, when Cowell was senior correspondent of the New York Times in Paris; he left the paper in 2015.

In the novel, the Paris Star is an English-language paper and is owned by the New York Graphic, an echo of the New York Times and its European paper, called the International Herald Tribune from 1967 to 2013 and then renamed The International New York Times.

In this excerpt, Marcel Duffie, executive editor of the Paris Star, is addressing his nervous staff about upcoming changes, and Cowell has fun with how editors and managers try to put the best face on the journalistic version of “You’re fired.”

As you all know—indeed as many of you have written about with great incision and precisiveness—our industry is in crisis. Our ad revenue is down. Readers are moving to the Wild World Web in ever-greater numbers, but the web can’t deliver the revenues we need. News is expensive and news is our stocking trade. What what I want to say, what we want to say is that in these uncharted waters, there is no better boat for the Star to be in than with the Graphic at the helm. And the Graphic has no intentions of switching horses in midstream. Indeed, you might almost say, we should not be looking such a gift horse in the mouth.

It has been said by some that we have reached the end of the cul-de-sac, that our number is up and with it our jig. But that is not our vision. Our journalism is our premier resource and our greatest resource. In our trade, its quality is paramour and unexcelled. We have survived crises in the past and will do so again.

But we do face the need to reduce costs.

As you all know, and thanks to the many creative suggestions from Stephanie Curtis and her staff, we have trimmed here and there to reduce the base cost without impairing our ability to deliver the news-gathering paradigm on which our brand is erected. That, indeed, is our holy grail. We have tried, too, to improve revenues, in big ways and small. Even our company outlet at head office, I am told, has turned a profit on selling scale models in wood of famous vessels, including, I am assured, the Titanic. That, perhaps, should tell us a lesson. We, too, are standing on the bridge of our destiny, peering ahead into our own icy seas from the crow’s next of history. We must face our challenge, skirt the iceberg, and cross our Rubicon. There is no point in saying we will cross that bridge when we come to it. We have already gone the extra mile. We stand on the bridge full-square.

And there is no circumventing the fact that we need to be more creative on the issue of head count.

Now I know some of you see head count as some kind of sacred bull. Sorry, cow. Holy cow!

Most of you will have seen the numbers from our latest quarter. Unfortunately they seem to represent the camel that broke its back. But it need not be. If we build a house of straw, it is one thing. But we can rebuild it in stone, as the three little…

So in the next few hours and days, some of your will be receiving invitations to discuss with us ways for achieving this goal with as little pain as possible. I am not just talking about editorial. Support staff, technical staff, administrative staff, all of us have a part to  play—even a walk-off part, so to speak—in this restructuring. If we are to chart a way out of this impasse, we must all put our shoulders to the stone and leave no wheel unturned to pull together, setting our sights on a better future and a bright tomorrow. Maybe, you may say, these are gloomy times, but they can be illuminated with a new dawn and they need not last forever for all of us. Some of you will be leaving, it is true, and we will attempt to anesthetize the pain for those of you who volunteer to walk that line to the maximum of our realistic possibilities. It might well be on the basis of last-in, first-out—the early worm getting the bird, in fact. But all that can be discussed. I think it was Winston Churchill who said: “Never will so much be done by so many for so few.” And for those of you  chosen to stay aboard our valiant ship, sinking though some Cassandras may try to depict to be, I need only quote from Shakespeare at the battle of Hastings: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”

“Well, I think that should keep the wolves from the hearth,” he said as he sat down.

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