Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Big Fuck-You

If you have been wondering why newspapers owned by bankrupt companies have been summarily bumrushing laid-off staff out the door within seconds of the axe's fall, just take a look at the first chapter of Michael Connelly's new novel, The Scarecrow.

In it Connelly's hero and alter ego, Los Angeles Times police reporter Jack McAvoy, gets the pink slip. He's asked to hang around for a couple of weeks to train his dewy replacement, and he muses on his luck getting a few more dollars of salary before it's cut off.

"Most RIF [reduction in force] victims had to clear out immediately. This edict was instated after one of the first recipients of a layoff notice was allowed to stay through the pay period. Each of his last days, people saw him in the office carrying a tennis ball. Bouncing it, tossing it, squeezing it. They didn't realize that each day it was a different ball. And each day he flushed a ball down the toilet in the men's room. About a week after he was gone the pipes backed up, with devastating consequences."

A few pages later, commiserating with McAvoy in a newsie's bar, a colleague tells him:

"'You know what I heard . . .'

"'No, what?'

"'That during one of the buyouts in Baltimore this one guy took the check and on his last day he filed a story that turned out to be completely bogus. He just made the whole thing up.'

"'And they printed it?'

"'Yeah, they didn't know until they started getting calls the next day.'

"What was the story about?'

"'I don't know, but it was like a big 'fuck you' to management."

Now I'm not saying I approve of or would condone such behavior -- it is totally unprofessional -- but I fully understand the bitterness that drives it. When you have sweated for twenty years or more for a newspaper, surviving a succession of editors absorbed by their own sense of self-preservation, and are hustled out the door into the night of unemployment with a token "thank you," you might not actually commit such an act, but you sure think about it.

Connelly, who himself was a cop reporter for the L.A. Times before becoming a best-selling novelist, has McAvoy respond: "I'm just going to go quietly into that good night. I'm going to get a novel published and that will be my fuck-you."

It's good to see Connelly returning to his roots in this novel. He has absolutely nailed the emotional malaise of latter-day American newspapering.

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