An article about the changes at the Detroit Free Press by Michael Betzold, a striking columnist. Originally appeared in The Detroit Union. Reprinted in the Industrial Worker #1585 (November 1995)
I laugh when Detroit Newspapers spokesmen moan about how union featherbedding is holding their profit to $1 million a week. Unions get accused of featherbedding when companies automate jobs and workers fight to keep positions. At production plants, newspaper unions have offered to cooperate in job reductions, but management wants quicker cuts.
My Webster's says featherbedding occurs when an employer is forced "to pay more employees than are needed for a particular operation or to pay full wages for nonproductive labor or unnecessary or duplicating jobs."
Detroit Free Press management has made a science of that. About 15 years ago, when I first stuck my nose into the Free Press city room, there was an army of people reporting and portraying the news and a handful of decision-makers. News drove the paper and news filled the paper.
In the 1990s, reporters and photographers are overwhelmed by an army of suits who massage and package the news. New species of managers spawn every week, all with a single imperative: to meet. Only the pushiest news can get through the meeting blockade.
It starts with a morning news meeting, where top editors concoct story ideas that often involve minor events in their pricey neighborhoods. That's why you see stories about fish flies in Grosse Pointe but rarely read about fights over land use in Romulus.
In mid-afternoon, the same editors meet again to spin out bizarre variations on their morning ideas, often based on what they overheard at lunch at the Detroit Club. At other times, they meet to plan weekend stories and project stories, to devise new types of training for staff members, to reorganize beats and departments, to kiss the right cheeks and to dream up new reasons for meeting. They frequently disappear for weekend retreats and return abuzz with new agendas.
To get a major story into the paper, a reporter must engage in "team building," an endless series of meetings whose purpose is to massage the egos of various department heads and subheads. Stories get in the paper not on news values, but because the proper twits were tweaked. Good stories get killed or trimmed for lack of face time with the right people. While union members are working to get news into the paper, in the bloated ranks of middle management the only mandate is to meet management goals. It's a huge make-work project.
A while back the Free Press created the inventive position of Editor for Change. About nine months later, I bumped into her. I asked he what she did on her job. She replied: "I haven't figured it out yet." And they say unions make the paper inefficient.
I have a solution to the strike: Put all the managers in a huge conference room with plenty of feathered beds, lock the door and throw away the key. Give the rest of us a fair raise, get out of our way and let us put out a paper again.
Originally appeared in The Detroit Union. Reprinted in the Industrial Worker #1585 (November 1995)