Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The C&EN layoffs

I'm going to start and end this piece with a contextual reminder: I begin each week reading C&EN either as the last thing I do on Sunday night or first thing in the morning on Mondays. As much as it is possible to have a emotional relationship to a newsmagazine of a massive professional society, I have one. I think of many C&EN staffers as friends, including some of the people who were let go. So what I am about to write needs to be read in that light.

I find the news that C&EN conducted a layoff last week to be terribly disappointing. It's clear (according to Derek Lowe's sources) that the falloff in ad revenue is playing a role in the move. I think that, before I would lay off staff,  I would have moved to ask ACS to change the structure of its support of the magazine. It is my understanding that the magazine's printing/structural costs are paid for by ACS, while the staff is paid for by ad revenue. Why couldn't ACS decide to take on some of the cost of salaries? Certainly that would have helped keep experienced people on staff.

I think the last ten to twenty years have shown that it's quite possible to cut your way to temporary profitability, but it's extremely difficult to cut your way to quality. I think that's been true of the chemical industry, I think that's been true of the pharmaceutical industry and it's probably true of magazines as well.

Chemistry is such a broad and important field that it needs a meeting place. For now, we have the ACS. (If the American Chemical Society didn't exist, we'd have to invent it.) C&EN is how that Society informs itself - cutting its already extremely hardworking, incredibly knowledgeable staff strikes me as the wrong move.

But, of course, I count a lot of its staff as friends, so I would say that, wouldn't I? 

13 comments:

  1. It hurts to see a friend lose their job.

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  2. Wow.

    That is about as powerful and emotional a piece as I've ever seen written.

    So let me follow up with some pitiful drivel:

    As much as C&ENews is the cornerstone of the industry, this shouldn't be happening.

    When a company is bleeding red and needs to cut jobs to stay alive, that is one thing. When a company is cutting jobs to save money, that is something quite another.


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    1. I've heard of some blogs being an echo chamber, but this is ridiculous.

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  3. As is made clear by the extreme dichotomy of C&EN on one side and ACS pubs on the other of the ACS organization, there really is no relationship as to how hard you work and your personal integrity and your pay and job security. All that matters is if you hold a monopoly or are a part of an oligopoly for your services. If the individuals laid off at C&EN were working for million dollar baby Mendelin Jacobs, they would likely still have their jobs.

    Conclusion: Most of the time, its not you, but the context. Dont worry, be happy.

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  4. I was shocked when I read about the layoffs. I think you are right, some discussion of restructuring at ACS needed to happen. I know some people at ACS and have heard about how badly structured many of the divisions are and how there is a lot of overlap between different departments but very little communication. Anyway, I am sorry for the people involved. I hope ACS addresses this issue because I think all of us paying dues should have transparency.

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  5. Here's a suggestion: C&EN needs to sever itself from the ACS and be much more broadly affiliated. Their standards are much higher than those of the ACS and unlike the plutocrats at the ACS, C&EN staff (sans Rudy "OMG global warming" Baum) actually work hard, write well and don't pull million-dollar salaries. Unlike the greedy ACS whose main function is to milk members for meeting fees and dues and act as shills for outsourcing, C&EN does actual, real work. Sever the bonds with that empire and you will be able to pursue life, liberty and happiness without the yoke of embarrassment.

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  6. I don't understand it either.

    Derek Lowe mentioned that outsourcing of ad sales was one of the contributing factors in the layoffs. If this is accurate, then it seems like laying people off in response was not a logical step. Outsourcing sales would require careful adjustment of incentives to make sure that C+EN gets enough money and the outsourced gets enough money to drum up sales. It's possible that it was a bad idea, that it was too soon for the outside firm to establish sales, or that the incentives were badly determined. None of these conditions are ameliorated by laying off staff; it might even make it harder to get sales because if you don't have sufficient content to get people to read, ad revenue is going to fall. In addition, if there was uncertainty about what would happen to sales, there could have been some readjustment of funding responsibilities in the short term to deal with it. I know there's lots I don't understand, but this makes little sense to me.

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    1. Regrettably, they neither are the first nor will they be the last people to lose their jobs due to other people's massive errors.

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  7. Wouldn't it help if C&EN weren't behind a paywall, so there were more eyeballs on ads?

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    1. That would be in complete opposition to the ACS's business model, which is to strongly lobby researchers to submit their federally funded research to their journals for free, then charge those same researchers to access the journal. Oh, and they're not about to do the editing or review themselves either, they ask you to suggest some people to do it for them. Also for free. So they can also charge the reviewers to access the journal.

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  8. If the writers don't sell ads, they shouldn't be fired when ad revenues drop.

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    1. You mean, people shouldn't be held responsible for the actions (or lack thereof) of others? What Panglossic paradise is that?

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  9. I wonder if the business model of selling chemistry jobs to support C&E N is no longer currently viable:
    (a) over the past ca. 3 years, the number of jobs being advertised in the print edition has dropped sharply - even over this summer!
    (b) simultaneously, the number of non-chemistry jobs on the C&EN website has strongly increased.
    (c) there are a number of other websites which advertise chemistry-related job openings (are they less expensive?)

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