How to Get Laid Off

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 25 2011 12:00 PM

How to Get Laid Off

How are my soon-to-be-former Slate colleagues handling their departures? I've resigned with some degree of disgrace twice -- in 2008 and again in 2010. (It's now written into my contract that I can only be sacked in even-numbered years.) This has given me a well-placed, depressing vantage point to analyze what does and doesn't work when your employer decides that you should explore new and exciting opportunities. These are my tips, and my diagnoses of the moves so far.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

1) Exploit the nerves of your fellow hacks. One reason that every reporter with a Twitter account is weighing in on the lay-offs -- mostly on Jack Shafer's lay-off -- is that it makes them feel their own mortality. (Journalists have huge egos, which is why Shafer's departure is getting the most coverage, and why I am writing this under a logo of my name and a circus tent.) "If Jack Shafer can get laid off, rest of us media hacks better shine up resume," tweeted David Carr last night. Alyssa Rosenberg rightly identifies an "idea in the age of new media that if you write a column or a blog under your own name, or if your brand is honed to a particular fineness, that you can never really be fired." She writes a blog called "Alyssa," so you know where she's coming from.

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I resigned from the Washington Post last year after bitchy e-mails I'd sent on a listserv were leaked, revealing that I mean-mouthed political and media figures as I climbed the greasy pole. Lucky for me, the population of reporters who never say mean things about people is smaller than a George Pataki 2012 house party. In l'affaire Tim/Jack/Juliet/June, there are older reporters who wonder if they'll be vulnerable as the recession digs in, and younger reporters who look at Juliet and get just as panicky. My advice: Exploit this! Take them up on drink offers, bond with them, and possibly interview with them.

2) Grace is a virtue. The people who're leaving Slate aren't jerks, so they don't have to apologize for mean e-mails. I am/was a jerk, so I did, accepting the gracious offer of Big Journalism editors to do it on a conservative media-watch site. When reporters tried to goad me into criticizing my employers, I passed: "Nobody owes anybody a job," I would say. True then, true now! You don't want to end up like Cenk Uygur, getting so angry that you don't have an MSNBC show anymore that you record a YouTube video detailing meetings with your old bosses. Hacks are sympathetic, but not that sympathetic -- nobody owes you anything.

So far, Tim, Jack, Juliet and June are singing Slate's praises as they promote their next assignments. Juliet's even promoting her colleagues' work. Nicely done. After putting in good work at a place and building up its readership and rep, it's not actually in your interest to talk it down. Leave that up to your fans on Twitter, who will graciously say things like "X was the best thing about the magazine!" and "I'll never read the magazine without X!" (Thanks for all of that, by the way.) You won't agree with them publically -- and that makes you look even more gracious.

3) Laugh so you don't cry. Jack's AdWeek exit interview is hilarious. "[O]ne of the things I’ve always prided myself in," he says, "in these first 59 years of my life, is being a controlled drinker. I think now is the time to throw off the training wheels, and see if maybe in the last decade and a half of my life, I can be an accomplished, functional alcoholic. And that’s starting tonight." He says this to a reporter! Is he crazy? No. There's a window in which you can say anything, so deep is the public sympathy. If you're laughing off your crisis, you're clearly still in command of things.

The week after I resigned, I made sure to sprinkle some gallows humor in with the e-mail-answering and job-hunting. I had a line to trot out for minor inconveniences: "This is the worst thing that's happened to me all week." The joke, of course, was that the worst thing that had happened to me all week was leaving my job in a highly public, embarassing, and deserved way. Get it? The people leaving Slate can probably come up with better lines.

These are the basics. Hopefully, everyone will bounce back so fast that I don't have to draft an advanced syllabus.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.