The personnel gig

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The personnel end of editing a weekly paper is one part of the job that I could live without. Firing people is the worst of it. I haven’t had to do that in a long time but the memory of those mornings, when I went to work knowing the time was at hand to give someone the bad news, is vivid and painful. I always tried to be gentle but direct.

Things almost always went better than I feared. No tears, no rage—except in the case of a woman who roared around the office for a while, howling at the injustice of it all, before she finally disappeared out the door. Later, she sued us in small claims court, claiming I owed her her money. She lost. She also took us to the state Human Rights Commission alleging age descrimination. She lost that case, too. But that’s another story.

Hiring reporters isn’t as painful but it is rarely a breezy thrill. It takes much more time than I can spare to study resumes and clips, and it takes a real knack to read between the lines and spot the warning signs of a bad hire. Too many jobs in too few years? Jobs that, in reality, were just casual gigs, no matter how impressive the thumbnail descriptions? Clips that were heavily edited?

Interviews are equally time-consuming and challenging. I tend to be an optimist; I almost always find a lot to like about the people I meet. I feel upbeat about hiring them. Sometimes, after a day or two, I begin to acknowledge the clues I picked up, almost subconsciously, that a person just might not work out in this difficult job. It’s as if I need a shrink to get at my best instincts when it comes to being completely honest with myself about a candidate.

Even references are nearly indecipherable. No one gives a former employee a bad reference. No one even gives a hint that someone might be a problem.

Having said all that, I must admit I felt lucky during my last round of interviews over the past few weeks. I had a lot of good resumes and clips and there wasn’t one person I interviewed who I did not think could do the job well. That makes the decision-making tough. That’s better than having your back up against the wall and a gun to your head when you make a hire because no sure-fire winner responded to your help-wanted ad.

If there were more science to it, I ?might enjoy the hiring process more. The fact is, no matter how much thought, analysis and background-checking you do, you never know whom you hired until he or she goes to work for you. I dislike that kind of uncertainty. No matter what, we’ve got to get a ?paper out each week. Uncertainty doesn’t mix well with that reality, not if we want our paper to be consistently good. Luck and optimism can carry you only so far.

We’re facing a bit of uncertainty right now. A new reporter is coming aboard to replace Andrew Bielak, who joined the paper a little more than a year ago with almost no experience in the business. Andrew did a terrific job. He worked very hard, learned who the players are and how things work, made the most of criticism and direction, seemed to enjoy his work, and produced a lot of copy to help fill our pages and cover the bases. Okay, I harassed him in the newsroom when I edited his copy, calling out questions—in a very mild and civil tone, I’m sure—to clarify a point or two now and then.

Now, just as he’s coming into his prime as a seasoned reporter we can send out on any story and know we’ll get the goods, Andrew has decided it’s time for a change. Drat.

The timing has something to do with the end of his winter lease. (It’s not easy finding a place to live in East Hampton on a reporter’s salary; his successor, who is scheduled to start five days after Andrew leaves, is struggling with that right now. More uncertainty!) It also has to do with his realization that planning, something to which he’d never given any thought before his stint as a reporter, interested him. He’s headed off to Washington to intern in an urban planning office. He thinks he might go back to school to get his master’s degree and make a career out of it.

I wish him the best of luck and thank him for all his hard work on behalf of this newspaper. He’s one reason why it has been a success.

Having let down my remaining six hairs about the joys of the hiring ?process, I’ve probably undone the y?oung woman who will be filling Andrew’s shoes—if she reads this. All uncertainty aside, my bet is she’s going to be terrific, after a break-in period that is bound to be tough. I’m as close to certain as I can be that she has what it takes to survive boot camp and eventually pick up where Andrew left off. Stay tuned.

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