Peter Kerasotis: My Take
OPINION – MY TAKE
So many have asked me that. Emails, phone calls, letters, running into you around town.
From August of last year until I write this today, not a week has gone by where at least one person hasn’t asked: What happened? Why are you no longer at FLORIDA TODAY?
I’m going to tell you what happened. But first, I’m going to tell you a story.
Eleven years ago, Tom Squires, the man who hired me back at FLORIDA TODAY in 1989, called me from his Nashville home. He was going to be in Florida in a few weeks and wanted to make sure I would be in town.
“There’s something I really need to talk with you about,” he said, “and it’s important.”
Periodically over the next few weeks, Tom would call to make sure we were still on. When he got into town, he called several more times, his urgency bordering on insistence.
We decided to meet for dinner at Durango’s in Cape Canaveral. I figured that would be a good place, knowing Tom’s penchant for red meat.
When my wife and I were leaving our house, I couldn’t find my wallet. I looked here, there, everywhere, before finally locating it.
We got to Durango’s about 15 minutes late. No Tom. We walked through the restaurant, looking everywhere. No Tom. Surely, he didn’t leave. We weren’t that late. We walked back to the lobby, looked again there, searched outside. But still, no Tom.
We drove back to our house, hoping Tom would call. He did. Immediately, I started apologizing for getting to the restaurant late, but Tom cut me off.
“Where were we supposed to meet?” he asked.
“At Durango’s,” I said, still apologizing, explaining how I couldn’t locate my wallet.
“It was Durango’s where we were supposed to meet?” Tom asked again.
I apologized some more, and then asked Tom where he was at now.
“Applebee’s,” he said.
“Well, you stay there. We’ll come meet you.”
When we got to Applebee’s, Tom had a look about him. He was happy to see me, happy that we’d get to talk, but there was deep concern etched in his face.
“I have to talk with you about something I’ve only talked with Brenda about,” he said; Brenda being his wife.
His worry translated to my worry. I stared straight into his eyes.
“Tom, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“Remember how I asked you if it was Durango’s where we were supposed to meet?”
“That’s the problem,” he said. “I’ve been having some problems with my memory and when I didn’t see you at Durango’s, I thought maybe I’d forgotten where we were supposed to meet. That’s why I drove around to several other restaurants, looking for you.”
Just when I started getting a sick feeling in my stomach, Tom said the dreaded words I’ve so many times wished I’d never heard.
“I’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”
Tom was 53 that evening, an age that seemed so young then; even younger now.
Fast forward 10 years, and now I’m that age – 53. Last August 11, after 22 years at FLORIDA TODAY, and having written for them in parts of five different decades, and even having delivered the newspaper as a boy, I was laid off.
You know who one of the first people I thought of was?
If I needed any perspective, Tom was it. You see, all I was told was that I was losing my job. This man was my age when he was told he was losing his mind.
THREE DAYS AFTER HE WAS LAID OFF, Peter Kerasotis and his wife Shelley sit with their friend, San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, in the visitors’ dugout in Miami before a game against the Florida Marlins. A half hour after this photo was taken, Kerasotis got a phone call from the Football Writers Association of America, informing him that he won first place in column writing and second place in game story writing.
So please understand that what follows is meant as an explanation, not an exposé, although I do feel it’s necessary to reveal a few details to you. And, yes, while it is tempting to share the whole sordid story with you, I’ve moved on. But again, some details are necessary.
Why? Because when so many of you inquired of FLORIDA TODAY as to why I’m no longer there, you were ignored. When many of you learned that they laid me off and complained about it – some writing letters to the editor, some even letters to the editor, Bob Stover – you were ignored.
But here’s the worst part: If you did get a response, you’ve told me that you were told that Peter is no longer with us and we’re not at liberty to say why. Or that we’re not able to offer an explanation.
Of course, such a cryptic response implies I did something wrong, which is why I’m compelled now to do something I didn’t want to do – which is write this. I’ve spent too many years in this community, building a name and a reputation, to have cowards cast that kind of cloud of aspersion over my name.
We laid Peter Kerasotis off.
How hard is it to say that? You’re in the communications business. Communicate.
So what happened?
Let me backtrack to June of last year, when then-publisher Mark Mikolajczyk, who abruptly tendered his two-week notice last December, held a company-wide meeting to address the newspaper’s embattled situation – the layoffs, furloughs and never-ending cutbacks to the product; with questions to follow.
I asked the first question.
“Mark, how are we to process all the layoffs and how we keep cutting the product, when at the same time our CEO and COO doubled their multimillion dollar salaries last year?”
Mark stared at me. I felt sorry for him. He’s not a bad guy. He was just in a bad position, trying to wear a smiley face while standing before a roomful of frowns.
Just months earlier, Gannett’s top execs reaped huge salaries and bonuses even while laying off thousands of people and forcing employees to accept salary freezes and furloughs.
In 2010, CEO Craig Dubow raked in $9.4 million and COO Gracia Martore took in $8.2 million, both essentially doubling their previous year’s earnings.
Mark stammered through some sad company-line spiel that even he had to know was nothing more than empty calories.
“Mark,” I said. “We’re in the business of holding people accountable. But who is holding them accountable?”
After a few follow-up questions and comments, Mark said he wished he could tell us what he really thought about corporate, eliciting laughter. It cut the tension, but unfortunately it ended the discussion, too.
Afterward, Mark came by my desk to tell me he instructed Human Resources to send an email to corporate, letting them know we had a company-wide meeting and some employees expressed concern over the salaries and bonuses top execs were making even while they were slashing jobs and the product.
I told Mark that if he’d like, I’d write a letter for corporate to read and circulate it through the building for signatures. Of course, he didn’t like that idea.
A couple of months after the bloody massacre of layoffs on Aug. 11, a bunch of us who’d gotten the axe got together for lunch, and it was suggested that what got me laid off was the aforementioned anecdote.
I hope not. I’d hate to think that an institution built on the First Amendment and free speech would get rid of somebody for speaking up the way I did; speaking up for fellow employees and the quality of the product people pay for.
But who knows? They’ve told me about as much as to why things happened as they’ve told you – which is nothing.
After that company-wide meeting last June, we had a newsroom meeting in July. This is when we were told that, effective Aug. 11, all newsroom jobs would be eliminated.
But between then and Aug. 11, new jobs would be posted in-house – first editor jobs and then writing jobs. We could apply for upward of three jobs each.
In that whole process, about 15 people would be laid off.
A colleague expressed concern that this was corporate’s way of getting around an age-discrimination lawsuit, because almost assuredly those who will not get the new jobs will be folks in their 50′s and 60′s who’d been around the longest.
It’s essentially what happened.
But how did it happen?
When they got around to posting the writing jobs, there was a sports columnist position listed, but I wasn’t sure I wanted it anymore.
The past few years at the paper had been miserable, and I was already pursuing an exit strategy. I’d had conversations with Dr. Maxwell King and some others about teaching at my alma mater, BCC. I’d also just become a Greek citizen, which gives me citizenship rights into the entire European Union, and I’ve long wanted to experience living and working in Europe.
In fact, a year earlier I’d told Stover of my unhappiness and that I might be leaving. I told him I didn’t want to walk in one day with my two-week notice and have him ask me why I hadn’t given him a heads up.
He asked if we could meet for lunch. We did, and for two hours we talked. A few months later, he corrected the glaring problem in our sports department.
Still, a year later, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was time to move on.
I was both weary and wary of working for a company where the rationale for critical decisions was not based on improving the quality of our product, meeting the needs of our readers or providing a stable work environment.
So even while a sports columnist job was posted in the restructuring, I wasn’t sure I wanted it.
For starters, it was posted with a job description that included more work and less pay. Keep in mind that in recent years, they had continually cut personnel while increasing our workload.
For a company so jittery about lawsuits and labor laws, it amazed me how they documented in our annual reviews all the added work – writing it into our job descriptions – without any more pay or compensation.
I was tired. Tired of the corporate machinations, tired of working for puppets instead of people, tired of seeing so many friends and longtime colleagues laid off again and again and again. I was just … tired.
On top of all this, they had now created an environment where colleagues were forced to compete against each other for fewer available jobs.
While it was demeaning to have to reapply for jobs, it was downright dehumanizing to force friends to compete against each other for the same job. It felt like some sadistic corporate game of musical chairs, and I wasn’t interested in playing it.
If they hadn’t reposted a sports columnist job or not posted a newly created job that interested me, I would’ve surely walked, because one thing I was not going to do was apply for a job that had already been someone else’s. That’s not in my DNA. But I understood that other people felt they had to do that.
John Torres and Mark DeCotis both applied for the sports columnist job. I don’t hold it against them, and John, whose own job had been eliminated, respected me enough to pull me aside and tell me he’d applied for the sports columnist position.
The night before the deadline to apply for the new jobs, I talked with the newspaper’s local editor, John Kelly, who ostensibly is second in command in the newsroom.
“John,” I told him, “I’m thinking of not applying for the sports columnist position. I think I’m going to voluntarily leave.”
We talked, and John talked me into applying for the job. He referenced Stover, telling me, “Bob would be very disappointed if you were not part of this team going forward.”
A week later, Stover laid me off.
And Kelly? The day of the layoffs, he was nowhere to be seen, and I’ve never heard from him since.
So much of what happened sure seemed scripted, with personnel moves prearranged. The journalist in me wants to write about the surname of a certain spouse, and in relation to that how one writer was told to book travel even before the rehiring and restructuring was finalized. But I’ve decided not to get into all of that. Instead, all I can say is that I don’t know how some people live in their skin.
At any rate, on Aug. 11, we all had appointment times at Human Resources to find out if we’d been rehired.
Ideally, you’d walk in, be ushered into an office with a department head and go through a dog-and-pony show of being offered a job, then (finally) being told what the salary was, and then asked if you accepted it. If so, then go back to work.
When I walked in, Stover and the HR director were waiting for me. And I knew.
Stover looked as if he hadn’t slept.
“How are you doing?” he asked, extending a limp handshake.
“You tell me,” I said.
The HR director handed me a manila envelope and less than five minutes later, 22 years of dedicated work was over.
The last thing the HR director did was ask me if I had any questions. I turned to Stover.
“Why?” I asked.
“Whatever I could tell you wouldn’t be satisfying,” he said.
I wanted to say: Duh. Obviously, I’m not looking for satisfaction. I’m looking for the decency and respect I believe I’m owed after all these years, especially after I afforded you those same two things last year, when you asked if we could meet for lunch. Satisfaction? No, I’m not looking for satisfaction because I know nothing you can possibly tell me will be satisfying. But I am looking for an explanation.
He never gave me one.
Evidently, he hasn’t given you one, either.
Instead, you’ve either been ignored or given some cryptic response that puts the onus on me to write this.
As I do, I can tell you that I’m fine. Actually, I’m better than ever.
I’m doing regular work for the New York Times, for Orlando Magazine, have been commissioned to write the biography for my friend and local businessman Tom Wasdin, as well as doing other things meaningful to me.
You can also still find me Friday afternoons at 12:10 on WMEL 1300-AM.
And now here, at SpaceCoastDaily.com.
Editor’s Note: On December 19, 2011, after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s Disease, Tom Squires died at age 63. The opening story from this column was read at his memorial service by Joe Biddle, whom, like Peter Kerasotis, was a longtime Gannett columnist and friend of Squires. Biddle worked at the Nashville Tennessean, where he was laid off from last year.