More of my former colleagues at the San Diego Union-Tribune were laid-off last week, including several who reported to me when I was the general manager over classsified advertising, that section of the paper that houses the crossword puzzles, Sudoku and the horoscope. Classified is the rotary-dial phone of media and is singled-out as the reason for the freefall in newspaper revenues. So the destruction of its workforce can hardly be surprising. And it’s the main reason I got out when I did.
I was hoisted over this falling division due to a company re-organization which divided me from my beloved online department and gave me the distinction of being in charge of some things old, some things new, some things borrowed and some things blue. Blue is metaphorical of course, as my department was composed on nearly 100 people, many of whom knew their days were numbered as rumors of impending layoffs were confirmed by the outgoing CEO and the newspaper’s new owners.
But when I first inherted this group, there was a faint heartbeat and everyone hoped for a ‘turnaround’. They were a colorful lot, some of them lifers who had worked for the paper for 40 years and knew nothing else. They hosted endless potlucks featuring rich cheesy sauces, mountains of chips and spectacular baked goods. They bore headsets and fielded calls from ancient readers who couldn’t be bothered with self-service online ad placements. They consoled distraught widows placing obituaries, and they allowed themselves to be barked at day-after-day by angry callers who objected to this-that-and-the-other-thing.
Even inside the walls, classified was a breed apart. I learned that some on my team were cast-offs from other divisions, back when the tradition was to transfer your problem instead of fire it. They were were unlike any media team I’d ever worked with; unburdened with the need to be fashionable or hip, they had the euphemistic designation of ‘inside sales person’ and I was happy to keep it that way.
And then there was Larry, one of my sales managers. Originally from Tennessee, Larry had a thick accent and wore hearing aids. You had to face him directly or he couldn’t hear you. In his crammed office, he had taped a large American flag to his wall, easily five feet long. He was an advertising patriot whose sign-off on his email and voice-mail was “Make it a Great American Day.” Larry had taken to calling me m’aam, come to think of it, I’m not sure I ever heard him use my name. It was the downhome version of calling the boss “sir” if I were a man, which clearly I was supposed to be but wasn’t and so therefore I had to be “m’aam.”
Tennessee Larry with his flag and drawl was exhibit “A” about the weird turn my career had taken. I mocked his accent at cocktail parties and stretched out my arms when describing the size of his flag. But I couldn’t have been more wrong about the guy. I soon discovered Larry was dedicated to his work; he excelled at his humble mission of ensuring realtors got their rental photos published, that confused customers who couldn’t find the pet ads and as such, were driven enough to call the answering service on a Sunday morning, got a return call and an apology, that editors waiting for the final size of the classified section, got their layouts on time. Larry was the only employee still on the floor after hours, the one guy who would pick up his phone on Christmas eve to field a complaint call from a reader who objected to the “Sex for Life” ad in the B section.
It took me a while to notice Larry’s contributions, because sadly, like many who stoicly and competently do their jobs day-after-day without complaint, he was undervalued. Only when he went on his first ‘vacation’ in years to visit his dying father, and I was the recipient of the calls Larry normally fielded, did I appreciate all that he did.
Last week, the new owners apparently made the same error in judgement I initally made: they saw a quirky hillbilly instead of a tireless pro, and let Larry go. Of all of the layoffs that I learned about, this one stung the most. The sincere man who was so uncool he was cool, who trusted that with hard work, his company and his country would be there for him, is no doubt grappling with what to do next.
What’s this have to do with me? Well, for starters, I owe the man an apology: Larry, for initially judging you, I’m now deeply ashamed. For mimicking your accent to friends at parties, I’m sorry. For making fun of your flag and positioning you among the Confederate Army, I’m more ignorant than you can ever imagine. You are a solid guy and the real deal.
Jesus is shaking his head, yet again, muttering something about whatever you do to the least of me, you do to me, and I really have no comeback. So at this point I’m just going to ask him to bless Larry in whatever the next phase of his life will bring.