Monday, December 07, 2009

Profile in leadership

This is so rare, I am compelled to make note of it for a generation with no real frame of reference.

Here is the basic concept: The leader of an organization puts the welfare of her organization and her staff above her own well-being. And fires herself, eliminating her own substantial salary to reduce the number of layoffs required in the new year.

And here is what's even more unbelievable -- it happened at a newspaper. The editor, Sandy Rowe, laid herself off after noting there were too many senior editors to oversee a pared-down newsroom.

IT HAPPENED at the Portland Oregonian, and it's all in Willamette Week Online:

I today announced I am retiring as editor of The Oregonian. This was a tremendously difficult decision but I am confident it is sound. You deserve to know why.

When we first announced the buyout and possibility of subsequent layoffs, many of you wanted to know staffing targets, how and when we would decide about layoffs and what departments would be most affected. Reasonable questions, all. I responded we would not know the staffing target until we had a new publisher and a final budget and we wouldn’t start planning layoffs until the buyout was completely closed. I also said we would protect more content-producing jobs by reducing the number of editors. I did not realize at the time that statement would drive my own decision.

Led by Chris, in early November we went back into the budgets, determined to ensure the company’s profitability in 2010, the essential ingredient to retain jobs and turn our focus from cutting to building. At that point it became clear we would have to shed about 70 jobs total from the newsroom staff. As we have gotten much smaller as a newsroom, it is also clear we have too many editing positions concentrated at the top of the organization.

Over Thanksgiving I wrestled with the number of layoffs we would need and determined it was best to start by removing my own salary from the budget. I informed Chris of my decision last week. Doing this preserves other jobs.

The biggest single timing consideration for me is my conviction that we are indeed right on the brink of having both financial soundness and great opportunity for the future. That is the good news. The economy is starting to turn and Chris and his leadership team are putting all the pieces in place to take full advantage of our strong market position and growing online opportunity. It won’t be easy, but by this time next year, I predict this company will be in a modest growth position.

In News, I have no doubt you have the leadership within yourselves and in this room to meet the future with vigor and commitment. I am very proud of that. The superb work you have done and the public service we provide through our journalism has never been attributable to the editor or a small handful of people. It is from all of you. Yes, we are smaller than we have been and many talented colleagues have left, but look around you at the talent still here, ranging from veteran Pulitzer Prize winners to young super-talented digitally savvy journalists.

You will not lose the passion that drives you and in that, too, I take great pride. What you do is worthy, often inspired, and has never been more needed than it is today. Amid the noise of the media marketplace, more than ever the fight is to be the trusted source of local news and information. That is what you do so well, and you will win that fight — on any platform the market chooses.

I will miss you a great deal, but that is overshadowed by the gratitude I feel for the good fortune of having worked with you and every day having fun, laughing, struggling and, ultimately achieving tremendous things together.

I cheer you and wish you Godspeed on these important next steps in the journey.

SANDY ROWE is the kind of editor you'd kill to work under and learn from. Unfortunately, staffers won't have that opportunity any longer . . . because she put those same staffers above herself.

That's good people. And good people are, increasingly, rare people in corporate America.

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