Tuesday, August 23, 2005

In defense of geezers

Dan Rather would be sitting in the anchor chair today if CBS had employed some of my fellow geezers in its newsroom. But he isn’t, because the network evidently didn’t.

Now, other media companies, eager to lighten their payrolls by eliminating comparatively high-paid older staffers, are fixing to make the same mistake.

Among them is the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which is offering employees over age 50 “a generous early-retirement incentive that rewards long-term employees who have helped make and keep our newspaper strong,” according to a P-D memo posted online by Jim Romenesko of the Poynter Institute. “It is unlikely that an offer this generous will be offered again,” the memo generously advises.

Easing older staffers out the door admittedly is a good way to trim payroll costs. They tend to make more money than younger colleagues, they tend to elevate the company’s medical-insurance premiums and they tend to cost more when it comes to funding 401(k) or other retirement plans (if any).

We’re not talking about geezers costing tons more than thirty-something employees. But every little bit will help Lee Enterprises pay for the recent $1.46 billion purchase of the P-D and its sister properties.

Because geezers are older, they are prone to being set in their ways and arguably less adaptable to new things. Chicago columnist Jack Mabley famously declined to part with his treasured wooden swivel chair and San Francisco’s late, legendary Herb Caen refused to the end to yield his trusty manual typewriter.

Notwithstanding their idiosyncrasies, older people possess (generally) sound judgment, valuable perspective and a significant amount of institutional memory. Accordingly, businesses operate at some peril to themselves when they attempt to institutionalize older workers before their time.

Proof of this is Dan’s rather ignominious departure from CBS after his last big scoop blew up in his face.

The scoop, you will recall, dealt with a handful of 1970s-era memos that seemingly added new credence to the charges President Bush shirked his National Guard duty. The problem with the neatly typed memos, as alert bloggers quickly observed, is that they were neatly typed in Microsoft Word, which was not created until a full decade after the memos ostensibly had been authored.

As any geezer could have told you, an authentic memo written in the 1970s would have been produced on a typewriter, whose output looks significantly different than the proportional typeface manifest in the now-discredited Rathergate manifestos.

Unfortunately, this fatal flaw was not spotted by the eager young staffers at CBS. Or, by Mr. Rather, who frankly should have known better.

The innocence of the youthful staffers, though unfortunate, is understandable. While Dan’s fumble could be taken as an argument for expeditiously pasture-izing all geezers, I prefer to believe it was the type of mistake that could have made by an egomaniacal anchorman of any vintage.

Buyouts or otherwise, the laws of nature assure that all geezers inexorably will pass on. Before they do, the 20-, 30- and 40-year-old virgins working in America’s newsrooms should learn as much from them as they can.