The layoff news had already hit all the major tech wires—CNet, ZDNet, CNN, and Bloomberg—by the time my editorial pod had logged on for the morning shift at our entertainment Web site. "Major portal to close; 400 lose jobs" read one headline. The flurry of panicked interoffice e-mail forwarding had already begun, but there was nothing from any of our executives in my in-box. Minutes ticked by in the excruciatingly slow manner favored by French filmmakers and dental hygienists schooled in the "deep cleaning as extreme sport" method.
As any dot-commer can tell you, you're always the last to know. It's more important for a large corporation to convince investors not to unload their already laughable stocks than it is to let a few hundred keyboard jockeys know that they're about to spend the morning hastily packing their pathetic cube before being escorted to the lobby by a rent- a-cop in an ill-fitting navy polyester suit. When we were all sufficiently dry-mouthed and bug-eyed, an all-staff meeting was called by our vice president. The good news: We weren't being let go—yet. The 400 staffers who'd been axed were mostly in our California office. The bad news: Not only were we encouraged to continue with business as usual, we were expected to do twice as much work, thanks to a hiring freeze that had left many key positions unfilled.
Our site, a dinosaur by Internet standards, had covered music and celebrity news since 1995. We had good traffic and great content. But just after it had been taken over by a monstrous conglomerate that didn't exactly specialize in content, it had taken a beating in an increasingly hostile dot-com market. We were bleeding even more cash than originally thought, one marketing exec warned, and as a result, our promotional budget and all extraneous expenses were being shelved. If we didn't triple our ad revenue (wishful thinking that caused many staffers in the room to snicker) in the next quarter, we'd be facing our own visit from a platoon of "jackbooted storm troopers," the term a co-worker had lovingly given to the security dudes who escort newly terminated employees out the door.
Everyone left the meeting deflated and wishing for more definitive news. In addition to the hiring freeze (always the first sign of impending doom), the company had already stopped paying for the service that came in and watered our plants, which had begun drying in the sun. The human resources folks were so bored that they began holding dumb-ass pet photo contests and interviewing interns (who would work for credit, not pay) to occupy their days. The once-plentiful supply of free beverages, office supplies, Advil, and Tampax we'd come to depend on had mysteriously dwindled. Our largest advertisers had pulled out, and the marketing people were forced to give cheapo T-shirts and posters as promotional prizes. In a meeting, I spied a message in a supervisor's notebook that read "severance pay, two weeks." Any fool could have figured out that we were the next victims to be listed on one of the media's ubiquitous dot-com deathwatches.
YOU NEED THE MONEY, SO YOU'VE GOT TO PLAY DUMB
One month later, 135 people were given virtual pink slips. The unlucky folks arrived at work only to discover their Windows passwords invalid and their managers waiting to have a chat with them. No one got any severance packages or even time to say goodbye; the company had already shut down the victims' e-mail in order to prevent any unruly messages or hacking of its servers. Someone must have gotten through, though; shortly after this round of cuts, our "all-Seattle" alias began receiving hilarious hardcore porn mails thanking us for subscribing to their "HOT XXX" service.
Every morning, I logged in with fear. If my system was slow or my Outlook in-box was frozen, I would freak out. I began going to a lot of happy hour bitch sessions with my officemates, all of us trying to decode various closed-door meetings and finding companionship in our drunken uncertainty. We frequently read about our impending doom on Fuckedcompany.com. My gut became a roiling vat of acid, and by the time the earthquake hit in late February, it was just another dreadful experience that the 35 of us had to endure as part of our grim office atmosphere.
Just after we'd run ourselves ragged launching a snazzy redesigned version of the celebrity site, our top exec returned from a long week of corporate pow-wows and called another unexpected meeting. Everyone brought their stress-relieving squishy balls to the conference room, nervously squeezing the slime-filled orbs until they were coated in palm sweat. Finally, someone spoke. We were being shut down in the summer. All I could think of was how I needed to quickly schedule every doctor and dentist appointment under the sun before my insurance ran out. There's nothing more tragic than an unemployed writer with bad teeth and even uglier internal organs.
DON'T GO WEST, YOUNG MAN
To be fair, our parent company was kind compared to most dot-com executions. I was given a generous severance as part of our layoff package, and admittedly, having a summer off didn't sound so bad. However, my odds of finding another job in the online content world by Sept. 1 are about as good as David Arquette's chances of getting an Oscar nomination. In the past four years, I've written for just about every tech empire in town, including Microsoft's abandoned city guide, Sidewalk.com; its minimalist, template-heavy successor, CitySearch.com; RealNetworks, which has turned to a subscription, rather than content-based, model to stay alive; and a handful of music sites that have long since begun 404ing. My r鳵m頲eads like an exercise in job-induced attention deficit disorder. There is nowhere else to go; even Experience Music Project, which publishes an offline music magazine, is reportedly under a hiring freeze.
Local creative staffing agencies are not accepting r鳵m鳠because they have so few jobs to place. One pal who works as a recruiter for a placement service told me the company's booth at a recent high-tech job fair was "like an unemployment mosh pit." Yesterday, I logged on to job site Monster.com (I have to apply for a minimum of three jobs per week in order to qualify for unemployment benefits, and believe me, just finding three to apply for takes creativity to whole new heights) only to see one of the most pathetically out-of-date banner ads in recent memory: "Find your career in the New Economy," it trumpeted, "Get an Internet job." One has to wonder, is it a good time to learn a new skill—say landscape art or massage therapy?
During a news conference in early June, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told reporters that if he had to do the latter half of the '90s over again, the software dynasty never would've set an Italian shoe-clad foot in the content biz. "If we were starting [cable news outlet MSNBC] now, as good an operation as it is, I don't think we would have started it," Ballmer bellowed to Reuters, adding that Microsoft planned on staying the hell away from anything remotely creative in its future endeavors. Hopefully Slate helmer Michael Kinsley and the minions of staffers at MSNBC's dot-com arm have learned to stop looking for kudos under Bill's colorless parachute.
But can you blame Ballmer for publicly kicking himself in the ass? Though many feel that those of us employed in the once-frenetic dot-com sector deserve what we got—never mind that I never made piles of cash, never bought a PalmPilot, and that I drive a Geo Metro, not an option-loaded Passat—it's not just the online casualties who are spending more time in their jammies these days. On June 18, the New York Times Co. became the latest publishing mogul to reveal plans for a massive layoff, with plans to unload 1,200 staffers. Newspaper chain Knight-Ridder announced it will trim 1,700 employees, while nearly every major television network has had to make deep cuts as well. Ditto for major magazines, which have seen bladder-weakening drops in ad revenue. The Industry Standard, a trade weekly, has seen a nearly 73 percent drop in advertising pages, according to Inside.com (which is suffering its own spectacular woes after being acquired by Brill Media Holdings and laying off half its staff). Rolling Stone, People, and US Weekly are just a few of the mags that, despite catering to the nation's love of mindless celebrity worship, have laid off writers after seeing a drop in ad dollars. We've gone from an economical and cultural zeitgeist to self-mockery in three short years.
WHY DO I NEED A JOB?
When I got the layoff news, my mom was frustratingly optimistic. I tried to tell her that life was looking pretty shitty—that besides being jobless, the energy crisis, horrific gas prices, a stupid-ass president, crappy pop bands, and reality television were all obvious signs of the apocalypse. She reminded me that when I was a little girl in the '70s, there was a gas crisis, political unrest, a spate of airplane hijackings, a stupid-ass president, crappy disco bands, and the TV, well, the TV was a lot better then (Love Boat? Fantasy Island? Rockford Files? Holy crap!). She was an unemployed young mom with two kids, and back then you had to go into the unemployment office and wait in a slow-moving line with a bunch of pissed-off out-of-work loggers and timber mill rats. I get to sign up online, apply for jobs on the Internet, and call in once a week to file my claim via an automated system. I'm beginning to think Mom's Pollyanna outlook isn't such a bad one.
Perhaps I'm just afraid because I've never encountered such a dreary economy in my adult life. I've never been laid off before, and certainly my grown-up responsibilities make me more financially vulnerable than, say, when I was just a 24-year-old slacker with a thrift store wardrobe and a $200-a-month room in a huge house with other Gen-Xers. Still, a side of me says, "Take this time to do something real, something great that you'll never forget." I wake up and don't have a heavy heart like I used to. I don't set the alarm clock anymore, and I've found a renewed pleasure in reading books (no more work-required fluffy magazines!), listening to music, gardening, doing yoga, and making nice home-cooked lunches for myself, rather than squatting over my desk like a hapless droid straight out of a Dostoevsky novel.
It's not going to be over anytime soon, so why not bunker down with lower standards and a "return to simplicity," which seems to be the New, Not-Improved Economy's slogan. According to a Reuters poll, the U.S. unemployment rate has rocketed, with 422,000 newly displaced workers filing for benefits the first week of June. Economic analysts at Goldman, Sachs & Co. said those figures indicate that the unemployment rate will rise "significantly further" in coming months.
Right before we were unceremoniously terminated, I invited some of my fellow, soon-to-be-ex co-workers over for our own "return to simplicity" bash. The theme was early '90s Seattle, which meant eschewing fancy tequila for Rainier and Rolling Rock, trading in those fucking khakis for some ratty jeans and holey band T-shirts, and comparing stories of accruing debt, not stock options. Drunk and nostalgic, we headed to the Mudhoney show at the Crocodile, and everyone seemed truly happy for the first time in weeks. Maybe now we can find some fucking parking in this town.