The Cutting Edge

Are media jobs more important than other jobs? Spend a little time reading the recession news, and you might start to think nobody is as valuable to society as a journalist. All kinds of companies have been making news lately by cutting jobs. But when it's media outfits doing the cutting, and journalists who are threatened, the story seems to get an extra-special burst of care and concern.

After the Dow Jones & Co. (publisher of The Wall Street Journal) and the New York Times Co. announced layoffs on the same day last week, I started paying closer attention to how these stories break and ripple. If we're really heading into a recession, many more such stories are on the way. I figured it would be fun to see whether it's true, as one suspects, that newshounds allow their famous self-absorption to slant how they play pink-slip news. Do we give media firings more attention than cutbacks in banking, telecommunications, and other businesses that have been hit—and hit harder, in some cases—by the slowdown?

On first inspection, it seems there's no contest. When it's media types getting the boot, the story immediately jumps from the Associated Press and Reuters wires to hot corners of the online news world, the sites journalists love. The Times' announcement of "a staff reduction program at all of its business units" (no numbers or jobs specified) isn't reported just in the business news pages where cutbacks at Lucent Technologies, Citigroup, and non-media companies wind up. It's on the Drudge Report. It gets its own item in The Hotline. It's prominently featured on Jim Romenesko's MediaNews, a Web page avidly read by journalists. Romenesko offered a link not just to The Times' press release, but to an internal Times memo explaining the cuts, and to a Web page where one could hear Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. explaining the decision in a recording of a company webcast.

Was there ever a layoff at General Electric or IBM that the world could explore so quickly in such detail?

Two days after Dow Jones said it would fire 202 employees, and not fill another 300 open slots, the New York Post had a nice follow-up story about the company's CEO, Peter Kann: "In what can only be called exquisitely bad timing, Kann penned a vacation horror story for the Weekend Journal that appeared the day after his workers discovered some of them would be taking an extended, involuntary vacation." Romenesko linked to the Post story.

The next morning, The Washington Post reported on the front of its Style section that Michael Eisner, the chairman of Walt Disney Co. (owner of ABC), had recently alighted in the capital and met with the Washington bureau of ABC News. Disney had just announced plans to buy out or lay off 4,000 workers. In the meeting, The Post reported, Eisner was "openly challenged" by Ted Koppel, who asked him to "pledge that the news division would be protected" from the layoffs. "Eisner declined, saying that he couldn't make such a pledge for the animators of Disney feature films, who consider themselves the heart and soul of the company." Koppel then rattled off the names of several ABC journalists who had been killed reporting from Bosnia and other spots around the globe.

Ten points for Ted, though one wonders about his suggestion that all news-division jobs are worth shielding. There are fallen heroes who risked their lives for the truth, and then there are media stars such as ABC's own Diane Sawyer, who not long ago took the enormous risk, right on Good Morning America, of allowing a monkey to stand on her head.

But let's not be cynical. In fact, when I sat down and tried to systematically analyze recent coverage of layoffs at various kinds of companies, I found much less media navel-gazing than I'd assumed. I looked at layoff stories that have broken since January at six big companies. Three of the companies (Lucent, Charles Schwab & Co., and Citigroup) are not in the news business at all. One (Disney) is partly in that business. And the other two (Dow Jones and The Times) are mainly journalistic. In each case, I searched the Nexis database for the day the layoff news broke and the day after, and tallied the stories. For a story to count, it had to be specifically about the job cuts, and the company's name had to appear in the headline.

It turned out a story's play isn't so much about the kind of jobs being cut—journalist or not—as about the size of the layoff. When Lucent announced it would cut 16,000 jobs, 128 stories appeared the first two days. The Dow Jones cut of 502 jobs brought just 18 stories, while Citigroup's vow to dump "several hundred" employees yielded just 12. The other results roughly followed the same principle.

Yes, when media heads roll, there's often additional follow-up in the corners of the news universe where journalists and their groupies gather—The Hotline, Romenesko's site, etc.—and in the media-focused columns of general-news outlets. But remember, these are industry water coolers, places where we, just like employees of Lucent and Schwab, go to kibitzabout our trade. Unlike practitioners of other trades, however, we kibitz in public, where we do our work, and where everyone else can watch.

Wisely, few of them bother. They've got better things to worry about.