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American Journalism Review
Making Too Much of “Downsizing”?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   May 1996

Making Too Much of “Downsizing”?   

By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      


For seven days people were severed, displaced, disemployed, surplused, destaffed, involuntarily separated and downsized on the front page of the New York Times.

And you could be next, the paper theorized in its much talked about series, "The Downsizing of America." The ambitious piece, which ran every day for a full week in early March, documented in overwhelming detail increasing white-collar layoffs and "the most acute job insecurity since the Depression."

But was it Pulitzer-potential material or "econo-hysteria" tailor written to fit the anxieties of upper-middle-class readers?

Such was the controversy surrounding the Times' declaration of a crisis in the American workplace. The grey lady took some subtle and not-so-subtle digs from the New Republic, Newsweek and the opinion page of the Washington Post for raising the nation's anxiety level.

"The Times had a hypothesis and went out and filled in the holes," says Robert J. Samuelson, the series' most vocal critic, who discussed what he viewed as the Times' shortcomings in two of his columns in the Washington Post and News-week. "I think that it was awful journalism... It wrenches things out of context," continues Samuelson, noting that between 1990 and 1995 unemployment averaged 6.4 percent, whereas during the previous decade it averaged 8.1 percent.

The downsizing series evolved late last summer from a suggestion by the Times business desk's economics reporter, Louis Uchitelle, who worked with Kirk Johnson, the metro desk's chief economics reporter, to conduct preliminary re- search. Using Labor Department statistics, the paper calculated that more than 43 million jobs had been "erased" in the U.S. since 1979 and continued working from that premise.

Reporters throughout the paper were recruited to concentrate on individual segments of the story. The project took a look inside Chase Manhattan Bank as it was swallowed by Chemical Bank, followed Bucknell University's class of 1970 into middle age and explored life in Dayton, Ohio, as its hometown companies downsized. Deputy Business Editor Glenn Kramon and Assistant Metro Editor Paul Fishleder did the primary editing under the supervision of Managing Editor Gene Roberts and Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld. By the wrap-up party in March, about 30 Times staffers had had a hand in the project.

Many readers thanked the Times for acknowledging their plight, and many contributed their personal downsizing stories via e-mail, allowing the series to live on in an extensive Web site and a book by Times Books.

But despite mostly positive feedback, some journalists took the paper to task for alarming readers by hyping an abundance of anecdotal evidence that they claimed masked a hollow foundation. "A crisis is when a significant number of people lose their jobs," wrote Newsweek's Joe Klein, "not when they worry about losing them." The New Republic chimed in, referring to the project as an "epic, give-us-a-Pulitzer series" and needling the Times for finding "more victims to celebrate: its nervous, affluent and white readers."

But Kirk Johnson, who wrote the segment that followed the class of 1970, says critics have missed the subtleties of the series' conclusions. "The main thesis of the whole series was that something fundamental has changed about jobs," he says. "As mammoth as the series was, the argument was subtle. This shift is ongoing, even as millions of jobs are being created."

Complete with graphics of miniaturized downsized workers looking at the ground, hands in their pockets, the series brims with stories of the newly laid-off. The first installment alone contains anecdotes from more than 20 people who either were downsized, had to lay off an employee or feared for their jobs.

One man profiled in the series' introduction, Steven A. Holthausen, went from being a banking executive to a tourist guide, losing his wife, children and 75 percent of his income in the process. Readers learned later that several of his old duties were given to a 22-year-old earning a fraction of his former salary. The series then concludes that the "true grimness" of Holthausen's story "lies in the simple fact that it is no longer at all extraordinary" before launching into a litany of statistics, among them one stating that nearly three-fourths of all households have had a close encounter with layoffs since 1980.

Washington Post columnist James K. Glassman takes issue with this approach. "That series is a very good example of the deficiency of anecdotal journalism," he says. "They used a kitchen-sink approach to try to make their point."

Critics say that while the Times heralded the statistic that 43 million jobs had been lost since 1979, it underplayed the fact that 70 million jobs were created during the same period. "Unemployment has dropped from 7.7 percent to 5.5 percent since 1992, workers keep their jobs as long as they ever did, and many companies (including AT&T) are surprisingly generous with the employees they lay off," Glassman wrote.

But Times metro reporter N.R. "Sonny" Kleinfield, who contributed to the initial Sunday overview story and the segment on Chase Manhattan, says he, along with most Times staffers, feels that critics of the series are in denial about both the extent of attitude changes in the workplace and the series' impact. Johnson agrees, pointing out that the articles already have sparked discussion within some large corporations, such as Eastman Kodak and AT&T. "It seemed to touch on something we as a society have not been able to articulate," Johnson says.

But Glassman has an alternative explanation for the rise in anxiety-inducing economic coverage, theorizing that it could stem from the fact that the baby boomers running newsrooms are now turning 50 and are projecting their angst onto their papers. Another possibility raised by critics of the series is that many journalists themselves are being downsized, leading them to eloquently magnify the trend in print. "Anxiety doesn't make a crisis," Glassman says.

For his part, Fishleder, one of the series' primary editors, says critics are merely expressing an alternate theory on the current state of the economy. "That is a point of view and one that was taken account of in the series," he says.

Some journalists fall in the middle of the polarized economic camps the series seems to have created. "Nothing I have read has as compellingly called my attention to [downsizing]," says Boston Globe economic columnist David Warsh. "The writing was beautiful..but the framework wasn't there."

Warsh also notes an "overwhelming" similarity between the styles of "The Downsizing of America" and Don Barlett and James Steele's 1991 Philadelphia Inquirer series, "America: What Went Wrong?" In fact, the Times' series did raise a few eyebrows at the Inquirer, where Barlett and Steele are finishing up their own opus on the global economy, slated for May.

But Barlett says the Times articles, overseen by the team's former editor, Gene Roberts, didn't scoop their latest series, which has been three years in the making and will include a portion on downsizing. "For the Times, it was a really nice job," Barlett says, sounding unmoved. "Maybe five years too late."

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