Another development that could push staffers to seriously consider taking the buyout plunge came this past week, when Globe employee-relations V-P Harriet Gould provided a comprehensive newsroom seniority list to Dan Totten, the president of the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents (among others) the newsroom and editorial page's unionized employees. The layoffs, if and when they occur, won't necessarily proceed strictly according to seniority: the union contract allows for exceptions in the case of "substantially demonstrable special skills or . . . outstanding ability." However, the same contract requires management to make a case for any such exceptions — and notes that, when they do occur, they'll be subject to grievance and arbitration. To the extent Globe management wants to avoid tussles with the union, then, there would be a strong incentive to make seniority-based layoffs the rule.
And what does all this esoterica mean for Globe readers? Basically, that some of the paper's top talent looks especially vulnerable right now. In the general-newsroom classification, for example, the prodigiously productive Michael Levenson has less seniority than 44 of his 52 reportorial colleagues — and Noah Bierman, who's covering transportation at an absolutely crucial moment on Beacon Hill, ranks next to last. Casey Ross has done fine work on the commercial-real-estate beat since coming over from the Herald in June 2008, but he's next to last among the 13 reporters on the Globe's business staff. And visual-arts critic Sebastian Smee — who'd been national arts critic at the Australian before the Globe nabbed him this past May — ranks next to last among the 27 reporters in the living/arts grouping. In other words, if layoffs do occur, they could deprive the Globe of some of the journalists it can least afford to lose.
To guard against this worst-case scenario, management needs to convince its most-secure newsroom employees — including those who landed lifetime-job guarantees back in the early '90s — that just because they can count on keeping their jobs doesn't mean they should. According to staffers who attended recent Q-and-A meetings on the buyout, Baron has been doing this in several ways. He's been noting that subsequent buyouts won't be as generous as this one (which, in turn, is less generous than previous buyouts). He's also been suggesting that management will try to protect its best employees, and that staffers currently ensconced in do-little sinecures might be reassigned to more demanding jobs after the cutbacks are implemented, probably by the end of April. (If there's anything capable of making a well-compensated, eternally employed journalist think about early retirement, it's the prospect of having to chase ambulances on the night shift.)
Still, given the state of journalism and the state of the newspaper business, even the most artful cajoling and prodding may not be enough to avoid some serious ugliness this spring. "I think there's a widespread assumption," one newsroom staffer tells the Phoenix, "that the number of people who take the buyout will be considerably less than 50, and that we will have some number of layoffs in April."