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The Reuters buyout and those left behind

No matter how you feel about your job right now, if you work in a Reuters newsroom, your workplace may be very different next year.

Company management on Friday sent voluntary buyout offers to 96 Newspaper Guild of New York-covered journalists who were hired before 1996. Those who go on 31 December can expect their lives to be very different. But for those who stay, working life also will be very different. And that’s something they might not be expecting.

Management hasn’t said much about what it hopes the buyout will accomplish. If no one takes it, we’re told there won’t be forced layoffs, and if all 96 raise their hands, get ready for a giant sucking sound as 2,400 collective years of Reuters experience head for the door.

The 96 eligibles make up nearly one-quarter of the Guild bargaining unit at Reuters, so it’s almost impossible not to be one of them or know one of them. They work in text, pictures and video across the country, including the slated-for-closure Miami bureau. Nearly half of them work in Washington and more than one-third are at Three Times Square. One thing they have in common - and what makes them an appealing target for management - is their immunity to layoffs under our contract.

When experience calls it quits, the workplace is never the same

They’re the ones with the institutional knowledge, not only about their work, but about the company, where they’ve put in an average of 25.5 years. They know how things used to be. They can put the present into perspective. They’re part of a natural mix of young and old, rookie and veteran.

What will it be like when they're gone?

In a word, unnatural. A buyout takes years of normal attrition and compresses it into a single day. Whether they’re replaced or not - management hasn’t said what it will do - things are going to feel terribly out of whack after 1 January, especially in Washington and New York.

I know because I’ve been there.

In 1997 - three Editorial managements ago - there was another buyout with a similarly vague and unexplained purpose targeted at anyone with at least 10 years of service. Then, as now, the most experienced journalists tended to be in the Washington bureau, where, even after 18 years with the company, I was still considered a kid. And so, when the buyout was offered, that’s where most of the takers were.

The 10 Washington journalists - nearly one-quarter of the bureau reporting staff - who eventually left included many of our best, some who had been with Reuters since the Watergate hearings.

Maybe the most memorable was Mike Posner, a beloved character like you’ll never find in journalism today. Always disheveled and with a reliable ink stain on his shirt pocket, Mike knew everybody in town and had a knowledge base going back to his days as a UPI reporter during the Kennedy administration. After Reuters, Mike continued his career at the National Journal’s Congressional Daily website almost until he died two and a half years ago.

To me, the greatest satisfaction anyone could ever have in a career, greater than any prize, is being in the most perfect working environment you can imagine - and knowing it at the time. I was lucky enough to realize what I had, but only barely before it was all gone. Everyone in the bureau was a character with a role to play. We watched each other’s back. We were really a team, like an infield that can turn a double play blindfolded.

Near the end of the buyout’s 45-day consideration period, a few of my co-workers started coming forward. Many waited until the last day (a smart strategy if you’re considering the current buyout). The excitement grew. Everyone gathered at the National Press Club bar that Friday afternoon in May. As each new buyout taker showed up to declare “I’m outta here,” there was another cheer and another round. It was a great party.

But a commensurate hangover followed. The following Monday was probably my most depressing workday in more than 25 years at Reuters. The bureau was quiet and lifeless, a gaping hole where its soul used to be. And for me, there was another issue, something I hadn’t expected. On Friday, I was still a kid, but now, on that Monday, that was gone forever. 

It took the Washington bureau years to recover the journalistic quality it lost that day in May 1997, even though all of the departed veterans were quickly replaced. As a workplace, the bureau never regained its former rhythm and harmony, at least not by the time I left in 2007. We learned later that at least some managers responsible for the buyout wished that they’d been more careful about what they wished for. But that, of course, won’t stop the current regime from making the same mistake. Buyouts, like boneheaded decisions, are a management prerogative.

As disruptive and unnatural as buyouts are to a workplace, they might be just the thing some people have been waiting for. Opportunities like this don’t come along very often, if ever. Each eligible employee has personal circumstances and needs to consider. And that’s what should drive each decision. I wouldn’t blame anyone for leaving, just as I never blamed my former Washington co-workers.

The challenge falls to those who come to work on 2 January and to the Guild, the one constant at an ever-changing Reuters, to rebuild and preserve a sense of community, and to welcome newcomers into a workplace culture that’s worth sticking around for. I know, it won’t be easy.

It’s customary to wish those who are leaving good luck, and I’ll certainly do that. But the ones who are really going to need it are those who are staying.

Peter Szekely was a Reuters reporter, mostly in the agency’s Washington bureau, for more than 25 years before taking a leave of absence in 2007 to become secretary-treasurer of The Newspaper Guild of New York. The union represents about 400 Reuters employees in the United States.​ ■