Jack Shafer: “Everybody is Replaceable”
The Slate media columnist discusses his surprise layoff and says he’s confident that he’ll soon find a new home for his press criticism. Thurs. August 25, 2011
By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.
Jack Shafer is a baseball guy, so it's no surprise that he reacted Thursday to his stunning dismissal as Slate's media critic with a baseball metaphor.
"Everybody is replaceable," he says. "Had Derek Jeter in his prime been struck down, the Yankees would have found someone, maybe not as good as Derek Jeter, but someone to replace him, and they go on. No one in this business is essential to the mission. Journalists sometimes forget that they don't leave a legacy behind, they're just replaced."
Shafer seemed composed, thoughtful as usual and without self-pity as he discussed being laid off by Slate, where he has worked for 15 years. He says he is pretty confident that he'll be writing about the press somewhere and soon, although he had gotten no offers on the day after news of his layoff surfaced.
"I think anybody who is working at any publication during a time of a double dip recession and is one of the better paid members of the staff should not be surprised when this happens," he said in a telephone interview. "I never thought I was immune to cutbacks." Having reported on and analyzed hundreds of layoffs in old media and new, why should his layoff shock and inflame?
Adweek reported on Shafer's layoff on Wednesday, moments after AJR posted my profile of Shafer, in which many respected journalists described him as one of the best media critics in the business. The development triggered an outburst of outrage in the Twittersphere.
Shafer says learned of his fate Monday afternoon when he met with Slate Editor David Plotz, who had worked for Shafer at Washington, D.C.'s City Paper. Shafer complied with Plotz's request not to discuss his layoff and those of three other staffers at the online magazine until Plotz could meet with the rest of the staff Wednesday afternoon.
Shafer says the two did not discuss the reason Shafer was being laid off. Plotz offered Shafer a severance he declined to discuss and a contract for a weekly column, with an editorial latitude that excludes media criticism.
Shafer says he'd like to write his future columns for Slate about technology, politics and culture. Writing media criticism for the same publication in a diminished role would be awkward for both parties, he says.
Plotz put it another way Thursday morning. "I will say Jack is a fantastic media critic, and we want to our fullest extent to give him the opportunity to do it full throatedly, wherever that is."
When asked about the layoffs Wednesday by Adweek, Plotz issued a statement from which he says he won't deviate. "The industry we're in changes very quickly. This was a decision that made sense both financially and editorially. It was a painful decision for us. But it was a decision that we think — coupled with some new editorial and technological investments that we're going to make — will pay off in the long run."
But doesn't losing someone of Shafer's stature somehow crimp Slate's mission? Plotz first reiterated the pain of the decision. Shafer, he says, "is a great journalist, a wonderful colleague and a longtime friend."
And then he adds that Slate will continue doing what it has always done. "Our only mission is journalism, witty, intelligent, creative journalism, day after day, after day," he says.
Shafer agrees. And, heaven forbid, should a meteor one day crash to earth taking out Plotz and Slate Publisher Jacob Weisberg, Shafer says, Slate would find two excellent people to replace them.
"Which," he adds, "shouldn't be interpreted as any sort of argument for somebody not to hire me to do press criticism at a high wage."