The Effect

I was in Month Six of my job at America Online when I finally accepted The Effect into my life.

The Effect (more commonly known as the Lilleston Effect, but that seems redundant here) is this: Ever since I jumped the fence from print and went into online news, the companies I work for start to tank shortly after I arrive, and start to recover right after I leave. At first I thought it was a coincidence, but the AOL situation made the scales fall from my eyes.

Think I’m joking? A short work history:

  • CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY, 1995-1999: During this time, CQ went into the red for what I believe was only the second time in its history. Employee profit-sharing payments — an important attraction to me and one reason I took a job here at the same salary as my previous job — completely disappeared. The company’s initial online efforts floundered. I left, profitability returned, and the online products began to drive the business.
  • CNN, 1999-2001: The company limped along until a deep budget cut in late 2000, which led to a huge round of layoffs in 2001. Hundreds of CNNers, including eight of the 11 people who worked in my shop, lost their jobs. This remains the only mass layoff in CNN history; the company is now a cash cow.
  • AOL, 2001-2003: You probably know the story of AOL, and much of the bad part took place during this time. When I left, my stock options were more than $400,000 under water. “Wait — where’s the recovery?” you ask. It’s true — we’re still waiting. The lingering aftermath of The Effect can be hard to wash away.
  • USA TODAY, 2003-2008: The parent company and the newspaper went into a screaming decline starting in 2007. In the subsequent months, the parent company executed what probably were the biggest layoffs in the history of American media.The stock flirted with penny territory.  I left in December. The stock in the last six months: Up nearly 300 percent.
  • NPR, 2008-DATE: After I was hired but before I came to work, NPR announced its first layoffs in decades and made deep budget cuts that still linger to this day. The Effect apparently has become so powerful that it kicks in as soon as the word goes out that I’m hired. It is so powerful that USA Today even paid me to go away, treating my departure as a “voluntary layoff” even though I already had another job lined up.

There has got to be a business in all of this. All I have to do is figure out what it is and package it so it doesn’t look so much like sheer blackmail.

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