June 30, 2009

Last week, we said goodbye to six of our colleagues here at Poynter. All elected to accept Poynter’s early retirement package of severance pay, extended medical benefits and career counseling in exchange for their jobs.

For many of you, buyouts are old news, relics of a time before most of the news industry graduated to outright layoffs. For Poynter, it was a bit of history, Buyout Number 1, our latest response to the same economic nightmare that faces so many of those we serve.

For me, it was all-too-familiar territory. After living through six of these things now (it might be seven; back in Philadelphia, I lost count), I’m getting used to the drill.

Though I never get used to the goodbyes.

This time I said goodbye to Chip Scanlan, who has inspired enough good work from this profession’s reporters and writers to staff dozens of great newsrooms. Chip’s off to teach at Columbia. What a break for them.

We said goodbye to Sam Metz, a program coordinator who oh-so-quietly made sure faculty and seminar participants alike had everything they needed to make the most of their time at Poynter.

And we said goodbye to four of the five members of our facilities staff, including Bob Bruso, who as Facilities Manager took care of this special place as if it were his own home. For that, we all benefited. Joining Bob were Per Halverson, whose tireless work on our grounds recently earned an award from the city of St. Petersburg; Marty Gregor, who ran our mail room (and, thank you, Marty, delivered our paychecks), and Tom Bukholt, who transformed nondescript rooms into teaching spaces, banquet halls and auditoriums where the public could meet the likes of Jennifer Weiner, Gwen Ifill and William Raspberry.

On the day we gathered to say goodbye to our friends with slideshows, video tributes, a few speeches and more than a few tears, I thought a lot about this whole buyout thing. The ones I experienced at The Inquirer, including the one I took in 2001, were all about increasing the profit margin to a level Wall Street might applaud.

This one was different.

Even though the dramatic changes in the worlds of news and technology have created an unprecedented need for training in new media tools and skills, the overall economic crisis has left the people and organizations who need that training with less means to pay or no means at all.

That’s why Poynter offered this early retirement package to staffers 55 and over. We need, during this difficult period, to close the gap between the expense of running this not-for-profit Institute and the income we receive from tuition, our investments, dividends from the St. Petersburg Times company, grants and donations, and the sale of Poynter products.

Will the departure of six colleagues eliminate that gap? Of course not.

The truth is, no buyout or –- at least in my experience -– expense reduction of any kind ensures an organization’s future success. Companies that create goods or provide services -– whether they be newspapers or automobiles, degree programs or continuing education -– need to serve and satisfy customers in order to succeed over the long term. Sometimes -– as Poynter and many organizations are doing today -– they need to significantly reduce expenses in order to bridge a tough economy, invest in new resources or adapt to new competitive realities.

But ultimately, they have to achieve their mission –- which in Poynter’s case, is to promote quality journalism on behalf of democracy. And if the buyout or layoff or newsprint cut or you-name-it doesn’t position the company to achieve its mission -– or if, in the worst case, it prevents the company from achieving its mission –- then the final, sad outcome has, at best, merely been delayed.

For Poynter, achieving the mission means delivering training, tools, information and inspiration to enough people to significantly impact the quality of journalism that our communities receive. And while the just-completed buyout plays a role in our strategy for achieving that mission, the strategy requires us to do much more if we are to succeed in the long-term.

Our list of courses is changing, and we’re continuing to expand the way we deliver them. We are offering new seminars and conferences, self-directed learning courses, Webinars and faculty-led online seminars. We can reach newsrooms with customized, real-time multimedia workshops without leaving St. Petersburg. We’re serving new audiences and expanding others, reaching out to more individual journalists, more teachers, a broader group of news organizations –- both here and abroad — and to the public.

We’re accelerating our efforts on Poynter.org to track the changes in business, technology and the news industry so that you have access to best practices. We are stepping up our development efforts, asking journalists and the public alike to contribute to our work on behalf of journalism’s role in a democracy. We are seeking grants and donations from those who want to help journalists pay for the training they receive here.

And yes, we are paring our expenses -– with, among other things, frozen salaries, a reduction of more than 75 percent in Poynter’s contribution to the staff’s retirement accounts, and the buyout that produced a 10 percent reduction in the Poynter staff. Like all of you who have experienced similar cuts –- or much worse –- I like to think all of this will be worth it. I like to think that, together with the good training and the easier access and the generosity of people who share our belief in Poynter’s work, this pain will have helped preserve the mission we care so deeply about.

For now, we need to practice carrying on without six good colleagues. We wish them all that their hearts desire.

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Butch Ward is senior faculty and former managing director at The Poynter Institute, where he teaches leadership, editing, reporting and writing. He worked for 27…
Butch Ward

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