By David Watts Barton, SacramentoPress.com, September 21, 2011
Well, this is awkward…
Over my nearly three years at The Sacramento Press, I’ve written some nice farewells to folks who’ve left us, and I’ve even had to fire a couple of people. But now I find that the tables are turned: I was laid off yesterday as Editor in Chief of The Sacramento Press. It was a cost-cutting measure, done to get this young company to profitability. Not the way I wanted to help get there, but you do what you can. Yikes.
I wasn’t the only one, but that doesn’t really lessen the sting. In some ways, it makes it worse. The other person laid off is media-shy, and I will respect that. But I do want to say that she also worked hard to put Sacramento Press on the map, and used her lifetime of connections and skills in her job running our events, including our workshops and our presence at other events around town. She worked nights, she worked weekends, and she literally built Sacramento Press, supervising the expansion of our little office into our huge office.
We are the last two people you’d expect to be laid off, but we were the first. The reasons were financial, which many will see as a bad sign for the future of The Sacramento Press. Not knowing the intricacies of the company’s finances, I can’t say. But it may be that trimming the budget will make Sacramento Press profitable sooner, and more attractive to potential investors. And that’s all to the good.
As much as one likes to think of oneself as indispensable, truth is, no one really is, as dozens of my friends who used to work with me at The Sacramento Bee know. It turns out New Media isn’t immune to the difficulties Old Media is struggling with. It’s just hard to make a buck these days. These are tough times, especially in Sacramento, and especially in media.
One thing that bugged me when people were being laid off or bought out at The Bee, by the dozens and then into the hundreds, was that people just disappeared, with no explanation. Didn’t seem right, because journalists hold a unique position in the community. We talk to the public, at our best with the public, and over the years, people get to know us, or at least feel like they do. And then suddenly, we just disappear.
I didn’t want to do that here. People identify me with The Sacramento Press – some even think I started it, which is absolutely not true – so I didn’t want to skulk off into the night. Not my style in any case. You all are pretty much stuck with me.
I understand why I was cut – when you’re cutting costs, you cut where it helps the company the most, and I was one of the highest-paid people there – and I want to make it clear that I harbor no ill will towards Ben, Geoff and Joel. These three active founders of The Sacramento Press have given Sacramento an amazing gift, one that more than 1000 writers of all stripes and skills have taken advantage of to express themselves and to fill the gaps in local news coverage when other news outlets are cutting back.
When Ben said he considered me a good friend as he was dumping my ass, I scoffed. But I know he meant it, and the feeling is mutual. I have enjoyed his company, and his perpetual-mind-on-fire, not unlike my own, though Geoff and Joel’s company is a bit less…intense. I’ll probably enjoy Ben’s brainstorm-tirade-lectures even more now that I know that I can tell him I think he’s nuts. He can’t fire me again.
And don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t ALL jokes and hugs and after-hours beer pong. Things were done, decisions made, that I didn’t agree with. I had a lot of room, but I wasn’t in charge, and young people at a young company can make just as many mistakes as old people at an old company. Nobody’s perfect, and mistakes are part of the process. As the old guy at a young company, I made a number of my own.
But I have benefited from the Press as much as anyone in this town, and I’m grateful for all of it. Working here has given my career a whole new dimension that it lacked, provided me a good reason to meet many, many more people in my hometown than I ever thought I’d have the pleasure to know, and allowed me to get on a first name basis with some big shots and some derelicts (sometimes in one person). Above all, it has taught this old dog some pretty good new tricks. If anyone wants to hire me to do them, let’s talk. Arf.
The Sacramento Press will keep going. Too many people have invested too much in it for it not to. Beyond that, it’s just a good idea. But it will take more people in the community spending time on the site, and writing for it, to make it work. Before they hired me, Ben and Geoff and Joel intended it as a community resource, not a place for professional reporters to work. That will likely be its future.
(To Josh Fernandez: I love you, mijo, but you’re missing the point. Let’s have a beer.)
That said, when I came on board, I changed that direction a bit, and the founders went for it, and I think that the young pros I hired – Kathleen Haley, Suzanne Hurt, Jonathan Mendick, Brandon Darnell, Mariel Tagg and Melissa Corker – more than justified the faith we put in them. That core of good journalists has been the bones around which this “paper” has made its name. We don’t have a huge readership, but we have a very engaged one, and it is largely because of the core of good work these people did. I’m proud of every single one of them.
Above all, Managing Editor Colleen Belcher has been a spectacularly good partner in all of this, always ready to do what was asked (or more often, unasked, but needed anyway), organized in ways I’ll never be, and ever-willing to try my crazy ideas. She kept this ship afloat when I was off schmoozing and brainstorming and half-writing editorials and spreading the word and drinking way too many lattes at Naked Coffee…and she will continue to do that into the future. I’ll especially miss that startled look she’d get when I’d call her name and she wondered what the hell I was going to think of next. We were a good team, and I’ll miss her.
But the overarching purpose of The Sacramento Press was always this: To give people in the community, ordinary folks who don’t have journalism degrees or journalism jobs, the opportunity to be heard. That is a noble goal, and a practical one. It is also idealistic – I don’t think I’ve met many more idealistic people than the founders of this company – but as yesterday’s layoffs underline, idealism only gets you so far. The platform is here, but it’s up to the community – the people SacPress calls “community contributors” – to use it and keep making it better.
So…I do tend to go on, but that’s the beauty of being a community contributor: You write for free, but no one tells you what to write, or how long. If you’re a writer, you write. And The Sacramento Press is a place to post it. It doesn’t pay well, but instant gratification is underrated.
Where I’m going next, I have no idea, other than to the unemployment office, which will be a whole new adventure – my first time in 36 years of gainful employment. Getting paid not to work? I could get used to that idea. I may even head out in the old VW van for a couple of weeks and try to remember who I am apart from writing and media and even Sacramento. I’m sure there’s someone there. He might be a hippie.
Sacramento is my home, and I’ll continue to sport around town on my trusty Elektra Amsterdam, drinking the occasional Monkey Knife Fight at the Rubicon, listening to friends play at The Torch, and finally (finally!) getting to the gym.
If you see me, please say hello. I’d love to talk.