Accept / Decline

The staff of the Culver City Gazette took comfort in knowing that Adam English had purchased the newspaper. At the paper’s lowest point in decades, he was running into our burning building, he was pulling us from the icy depths. However we looked at it, he was a financial wizard who turned failing companies into profit-making machines. His opening speech, given when he was introduced to the bullpen, was magnificent, kingly. English spoke to us as if we were underdogs priming for a fight.

He was young, short, wearing a pinstriped suit, and had the hairstyle and the muscular face of a sportscaster. He clenched his fists, made eye contact with anyone who felt confident enough to hold his gaze, called out the editorial staff members by name. The room was noticeably warmer; blood pressures were rising.

“The average American newspaper,” English told us, “has strayed from the city to which it is supposed to report the news. Half the east coast publishes articles that come from the New York Times. Floridians read pieces from the Washington Post. Texans read articles written by Californians. Syndication has destroyed the trusted relationship we once held with our subscribers.”

It felt like a political rally. There were random bursts of applause, some of the staff members were taking notes, and a few groaned over the upcoming increase in workload. I sat quietly in my chair, watching the tall man with the thousand-dollar haircut weave through the bullpen. He unbuttoned his suit jacket and folded it over the side of a cubicle, though he hadn’t broken a sweat. What all these people seemed to forget was the obvious: Adam English was here to slash down the bottom line.

“This is your newspaper, in your voice,” Adam English told us. “Let that sense of ownership drive you to make your product better. To make you better. Your work is a reflection of you, of us.” He put his hand on the shoulder of the man next to him, editor-in-chief Dave Jacobs, who not unlike the day I met him almost twenty years ago stood quietly with his hands in his pockets. He raised his head to speak, but was quickly cut off. There wasn’t anything left to be said. English ended the meeting swiftly, a few people lingered around the editors, and the rest went back to their business.

The newspaper was noticeably thinner after English took over, but the number of hometown bylines increased rapidly. There was electricity in the air. There was a rapid decline in articles bearing “AP” or “Washington Post” taglines. The bullpen – a refurbished printing room with high ceilings designed for the enormous presses once housed there – was emptied, save for a few copywriters and editors. Deadlines were tightened and every journalist was on site somewhere in Culver City or a neighboring town. Guys were sent to Detroit, Chicago, Boston and New York. Occasionally my phone pierced the silence and a reporter would read his unfiltered, unorganized notes to me for the next article I’d write but not receive any credit for. This was my role in the great machine: I made the deadlines. I wrote the content that filled almost a third of the daily paper. In forty-two years none of that content ever carried my name.

Nothing in my routine had changed. I still answered the phone, took notes, and provided copy. My output doubled – tripled on some days. General enthusiasm around the office was slipping. The first few days under Adam English held promise, often with three or more assignments going to a single journalist. Even the interns were being asked to pitch in. I was working up a story on the local firefighters’ union – filling my research of labor codes into the sloppy notes given to me by a journalist at City Hall – when Jacobs came to my desk saying it was only a matter of time before they called me in for an assignment, handed me a tape recorder and sent me on my way.

“Bullshit,” I told him.

“Bullshit,” he repeated. “You may be the best writer we’ve got, and easily the highest paid. Eventually we have to force our guys to write their own copy and make all the money we spend on you mean something.”

The honeymoon following the marriage between Adam English and the Culver City Gazette ended on day twenty – a Wednesday. The paid internships were cut first, but most of the students stuck it out for credit. Then it was the expense accounts and anything else the paper could easily push onto the employee. It wasn’t until day twenty-three that they first called someone into the conference room and commenced the firings. It was as if the prior weeks were a tryout and English had riled us up only to separate the wheat from the chaff. The other employees gathered around my desk in bunches of three, or five, or a dozen to gossip over who would make the cut.

“Mel, you’ve been through this before right?” they asked.

“How do they make these decisions, Mel?”

I refused to answer, since it was hard to figure – even forty years in – that I was safe. I also had the suspicion that the others figured the odds they’d be cut were lessened by standing near me. I tried to shoo them away from my desk, but they would inevitably return. My space had a clear view of the conference room where English and the Gazette‘s new auditing team were convening, sorting, sharpening the axe.

“We’ve got to cut 20% across the board,” English said in a second, less empowering speech. “That’s just to keep the paper afloat. We may have to cut more. No decisions have been made yet, but we will do everything we can to make this as painless as possible.”

It could be assumed that, of any group of five in which I was included, I was most likely to be part of the 20%. If the newspaper were a human body, I was a tumor. I took up space, provided no positive independent benefit, and slowly drained resources in increasing increments as time passed. I knew there would soon be a time, if not now, when my years and my salary would outweigh my job description. Eventually, they’d have to bring in someone younger, fresher, more in-tune with current events and social constructs. Men my age occupied executive offices or retirement homes. There weren’t all that many in between.

Desks started clearing out. Stacks of paper slid into wastebaskets, personal items boxed up and carried out, computers disassembled and office supplies claimed by those who remained. I was sustained by my longevity, my roots were firmly planted at the Gazette. I was defined by my role there, and my closest relationships were with the copy editors and the journalists I wrote for.

A full month under Adam English had passed before he came to my desk. “You must be Leopold.”

“Mel Leopold,” I replied. “Yes, that’s me.”

He didn’t extend his hand, only smiled, looked around my workspace, took assessment. “You’ve been here a while,” he said. “Or so I’m told. No one seems to know exactly when you started. That is, nobody else has been here nearly as long as you.”

“It’s been a good number of years, yes.”

“Why didn’t you run off to one of the bigger numbers?” he said.

Nobody had ever so much as suggested that I was cut out for a better job than the one I had. And by no means could I assume that English was proposing I belonged elsewhere. Perhaps he thought I was overqualified. There wasn’t an answer to the question. I had never thought about it. If anything, it was too late for other options. Old guy like me, no matter what the experience, would be viewed as a relic, obsolete, not a valuable asset. Those spaces were reserved for young movers and shakers: the types that stick around for a while and get a raise every January.

“Loyal to the end, sir,” I said. “Or something like that.”

English laughed. “Every manager’s dream, right?” He turned to leave, then stopped. “From what I hear, you’ve done quite a bit for this paper.” I watched his back a long time as he walked to the conference room.

Two days later, a meeting notification appeared on my computer screen:

2:30PM – Conference Room. Accept/Decline.

I took almost ten minutes to slide the cursor over “Accept” and click. The meeting was just over half an hour away. My left hand shook. My phone rang – I didn’t answer it. A fifteen-minute reminder flashed onto the screen with the sound of a bell. Who would assign a fifteen-minute reminder to a pre-termination notice for a meeting thirty minutes away? How little they must have thought of me.

Not all the meetings could be for termination, I rationalized. If they were completely holed up in the conference room, then by default, the typical assignment meetings and editorial meetings, and all other meetings must happen in there as well. And if my one exchange with Adam English was any indication, it was clear that I had some value. I grabbed a notepad and pencil and slinked between the desks of the bullpen to the conference room door.

“Mr. Leopold,” English said in a smooth voice lacking any hesitation. “You’ve been here for forty-two years. That makes you the longest-tenured employee of the Gazette.”

“I guess it does,” I said. “I haven’t thought much about it. You stop counting after a while.” In fact, I had thought about it frequently over the previous few days as the many wounded and defeated departed the building, with their heads down, into a world unfriendly to the unemployed writer.

“As you know, we’re pulling back on unnecessary resources,” he said. At least he was being honest with his assessment of me: an unnecessary resource. He continued, “Someone like you – all you’ve dedicated to the Gazette – your experience is irreplaceable.” English then broke down salary structures and the process of the financial cutbacks the paper was taking, as well as the state of the economy. It was a well-crafted lecture that any industry professional would consider 101. He concluded: “We can save ourselves on a lot of cutbacks by offering you this severance package, which we all think is quite fair.”

Jacobs shifted in his seat, propped his elbow on the armrest and rested his cheek against his knuckles.

It was a very attractive offer, to be sure. Two years’ salary, plus a full year of benefits, just to walk away. Most in my position would take it in a flash. But I had no need for the excess cash, seeing as I’ve never been fond of luxury, and I’ve lived in the same apartment for almost fifteen years. Same bus to work every day, same meal at the same lunch joint around the corner for as long as I can remember.

“We respect the decades that you’ve put in,” said English. “And we have no desire to put anyone into early retirement. This choice should be yours.” It was nice of him to give me the choice; only he failed to provide the alternative option. “If you choose to help us protect the jobs of some of the younger writers, help us keep the lights on around here, we can help you too.”

They could just fire me. There were no company policies to protect me, no unions. But I couldn’t just leave. Forty-two years is a serious investment, and what was I leaving with? Thousands of articles written in someone else’s name; stories relayed over the phone or through emails, statistics turned into gripping narratives and political scandals. Often, mine was the voice responding to letters from the editor. Yet, if I were to introduce myself to a man in a coffee shop who had just finished reading the Gazette Sunday Edition, my name would not register.

Forty-two years.

“I want a byline.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Leopold,” English said. “I don’t think I understand what you’re asking.”

Jacobs sat up. “Wait now. That can’t be right,” he said. “You’ve been here longer than me. Surely…” Jacobs had joined the Gazette a few years after I did. He was a second-generation editor-in-chief, and had always been focused on the ass-kissing that makes men great. His father, Christopher, had brought me on at the paper when David and I were both much younger men. It seemed only fitting that he would be on the other side of the table, handing me my termination.

“Mel’s a copywriter,” Jacobs said, as if explaining my situation for Adam English. “He compiles the stories to meet deadlines, primarily working from notes provided by reporters on the road. They get the bylines for these stories.”

I added, “I think it’s fair to ask for one of my own.”

“Your own story,” English said. “What do you want to write about?”

“He’s one of our best writers,” Jacobs said. “Maybe the best. Definitely the most productive.”

“To tell you the truth, I just want the story to be mine.”

English rubbed his chin and looked to Jacobs. “Severance package, plus an article in, what? Sunday Edition? I assume that’s what we’ll give you. Might as well do it properly. This story won’t really cost us anything, right?”

“No, sir,” I said quickly. “I won’t need anything but some time.”

“Then you have until Friday. We have a deal?”

Andrew Keating is the founding editor of Cobalt Review. He holds an MBA from Johnson & Wales University and an MFA from University of Baltimore. His work can be found, or is forthcoming, in Stymie, Ampersand, The North Central Review, and The Medulla Review.

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