You’re a good man, Jim Hesson. Hang in there…

Jim Hesson was possibly my best friend on senior staff at The State, except for Warren Bolton. He was the paper’s IT director. Actually, we called it “I.S.,” for “information services,” and Jim lived that. He was helpful, patient, competent, and had a great sense of humor.

Jim Hesson

Jim Hesson

I still remember with embarrassment the time we were all riding up to North Carolina in a van for a senior staff retreat. He and I talked and joked back and forth so constantly that the person sitting between us finally offered to move, so that we would stop talking across her. Which made me feel bad that we’d been so rude. But I always had a good time talking with Jim.

The purpose of that trip, by the way, wasn’t to talk business. It was to go whitewater rafting. Holly Rogers, the life-loving soul who was then our human resources director, had this idea that to work together effectively, people should sometimes have fun together (another year, she dragged us all out to Frankie’s Fun Park). I would grumble and complain and pass critical remarks about these outings, and fret about the work waiting for me, but once there, I would throw myself into it and have as much fun as anybody. Those were different times.

Back to Jim Hesson. Today, Jim posted this on Facebook:

Yesterday morning I was having my quiet time on the train heading in to work. I was praying that God would give me clarity about my job and if it was time to seek another position. After I got in I was called in to a meeting where I was told my position was eliminated , along with a number of others in our IT dept. So God did answer my prayer, just not in the way I expected. God is good. And I know He can be trusted in all things.

I am so sorry, Jim. But I believe your faith is well-placed. You got an answer; it’s just not going to be an easy one to accept. May you soon see clearly the next steps on the path before. That’s the hard part — wondering whether that next opportunity will ever come. The good news is that you’ve got the right attitude about it.

I am deeply impressed by Jim’s honesty in sharing this. I wasn’t like that. Oh, I shared a lot — far, far more than most people who are laid off do. Thousands upon thousands of words, in my last columns and on the blog. On the first day I didn’t have a job to go to, I stood up in front of the Columbia Rotary Club and cracked jokes about it. And I didn’t lie about anything.

But it was superficial, stiff-upper-lip stuff. It was never gut-level. Not that I meant to mislead; I was just so busy figuring out the next step of each day that I didn’t plumb the depths of what I felt. In truth, of course, I wasn’t feeling on a deep level. I wouldn’t fully realize at the time how much I was losing. The grief of losing the job that paid me well to do what I do best is something that has unfolded itself gradually over a period of years. At the time, the bad feelings were offset by relief that I would no longer be the one laying off, and then having to figure out how to do the job going forward, without those good people. I quickly got over the rush of anger that I felt in the moment I got the news. I refused to dwell, even in my own mind, on how it felt to tell my wife and family.

And I certainly didn’t share private communications between me and the Almighty. In any case, they would have seemed rather incoherent and repetitive, not elegant and direct like what Jim shared.

It occurred to me to keep a journal, maybe write a book, about what it was like to have reached the pinnacle of what you wanted to do for a living, and then have it all taken away in an instant, just as you’re stepping into your peak earning years. And about what happens next. It would have relevance, in that year of 2009. (And today as well. How many people out there have never regained what they had? The unemployment figures don’t tell you that.) But I thought, what a bummer that would be — I certainly wouldn’t want to read such a book, much less write one.

Now, if I wanted to go back and write something like that, I’d have trouble assembling the details. I’ve just forgotten so much of it.

In any case, what could I write that would be as powerful as what Jim did?

You’re a good man, Jim Hesson. I know God will bless you going forward…

18 thoughts on “You’re a good man, Jim Hesson. Hang in there…

  1. Doug Ross

    My advice to any middle aged person would be to do a yearly assessment of three things:

    1) Your skills compared to the current trends in your industry.
    2) Your company and its place compared to its competition
    3) Your industry and its place in the global economy

    There are typically a lot of warning signs when a layoff is coming. I worked for a company called Digital Equipment Corporation from 1979-1995. They went from a a three person startup to 150,000 employees worldwide to half that number in about 30 years before they were sold off in pieces to Oracle, Intel, and Compaq. The signs of the collapse were there. Little things like ending the policy of giving out free turkeys at Christmas. The CEO who built the company famously questioned why any person would need a PC on his desk or in his home. Huge strategic mistake.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, I know, Doug — to you, my getting laid off was bad planning on my part.

      Doug, I knew better than you or anyone else the trouble my industry was in — trouble from which it was not going to emerge in its former form.

      What you fail to understand is that I was a newspaperman. That was my role in this community, in this state, in this world. Not newsPAPERman in the sense that I’m wedded to an 18th-century medium — I actually prefer to distribute, and consume, news and commentary electronically.

      The market for what I did remains strong. What collapsed was the business model, which was based on a separate transaction — between the company and advertisers, not between the newspaper and readers.

      If you are what I was, and am, and your life and your family live in a particular community, and the job you’re doing is the only opportunity in that community to do what you do, you hang onto it.

      I was surprised in one sense — I always thought I’d be the last person in the editorial department. That didn’t cheer me up; it depressed me. But I thought that because I was the only person in the department who was adept at everything we did, to writing to editing to design to production (with the exception of drawing cartoons). If one person could put out an editorial page, I was that person.

      It just never occurred to me that the decision would be made with zero regard to skills or value to the organization. It never occurred to me that it would be based simply on a number, that number being my salary.

      But if it HAD occurred to me, that wouldn’t have affected my behavior. Even if I had known in advance that I would be laid off, and the date when it would happen, I would have stayed there at my post working hard, right up until that day. Because that was my role, my duty.

      I don’t suppose I’ll ever be able to explain that to you.

  2. Burl Burlingame

    The thing about losing a newspaper job is the gut feeling that, somehow, you’re letting down your fellow citizens.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That’s right. Burl gets it. Because he’s one of us.

      It probably sounds deluded and even messianic to think and feel that so strongly. Most readers would probably say, “Oh, get over yourself.” But that didn’t change the fact that I knew that no one would be better at my job than I was (or worse, I wouldn’t even be replaced, which is what happened), and that the community needed someone to do that job.

      Even if I was the only person on the planet who thought that, I did think it, and that left me no choice. I didn’t have the right to quit and do something else.

      1. Doug Ross

        I won’t say it was bad planning. I would call it blind optimism in the face of reality. I won’t try to rehash the past but how many people would be surprised that there have been massive layoffs in an industry that relies on the distribution of yesterday’s news via trucks and cars that drop off hard copy newsprint at individual stores and homes? The industry was woefully slow to react to the changing environment and suffered as a result.

        It’s an absolute certainty that there will be fewer newspapers sold today then next month… and even fewer next year. .. and the year after. that. Adapt or die. The State has no adapted – other than to charge more for less content. Its website is embarrassingly bad. The market has determined that it is not worth its price.

        An analogy would be if in 1980, I decided to build and repair Radio Shack computers. I’m sure I would have done well for a few years. I could have been the absolute best Radio Shack computer repair guy in the world with hundred of customers who loved me. But to not adapt as the market adapted would have been professional suicide.

        Do you seriously think The State newspaper will be distributing a daily newspaper in 2023? If not, then the people who work there should be either making radical changes to its business model or else polishing up their resumes. Jeff Bezos ain’t coming in to save The State.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Actually, in a sense, maybe he is. Maybe he’s the guy to figure out the new business model. No one has yet. But when someone does, everybody else will jump on board to do the same thing.

          Because Doug, the thing is, the demand for the product — the news and commentary — is as great as ever. It’s just that everybody’s been reading it free online.

          Now, newspapers are correcting that huge mistake, and putting up pay walls. That in and of itself is not going to save the industry. One reason newspapers gave it away for free online initially is that subscriptions were never the major source of revenue anyway — in fact, one thing papers have played around with recently is giving the print product away for free. The fact is, that’s almost what they’ve been doing forever; readers, as much as they complain about paying their subscription bills, have never paid more than a tiny fraction of the cost of producing the paper.

          What has to be replaced in order to pay writers and editors to produce the content is the ad revenue. And that’s a really tough proposition.

          That’s because print ad revenue was SO lucrative, until it wasn’t. Sure, you can sell ads online, but you can’t charge nearly as much for them.

          But the main problem isn’t about technology or which platform you’re on. The fact is that marketers no longer want to reach entire communities — and that’s killing metro-sized papers, TV and radio stations. Marketing is more targeted now — and it was getting that way long before the Worldwide Web. Initially, the threat was direct mail. One of the reasons why there are so many inserts in your paper today compared to 30 years ago is that advertisers can print those, and distribute them any way they like — in newspapers, by direct mail, in the store. For that reason — and because advertisers paid less for those than for ROP (run-of-press, the ads on the actual pages of the paper, with the news) — newspapers for a long time resisted the inserts. But when it’s a choice between getting that business and no ad at all, you say yes, thank you.

          Given that fundamental shift in the way of doing business out in the marketplace, it’s very difficult to see the way to that new business model. Maybe it isn’t advertising. But if it isn’t, that seems to suggest subscriptions. And it’s really hard to imagine readers being willing to pay the true price for what it takes to cover and present the news. They never, ever have before.

          Maybe Bezos can come up with some miraculous alternative source of revenue. Someone needs to. Because our republic needs a vital press (physical or virtual). And reporters gotta eat, just like everybody else. You can’t work 8 or 10 or 12 or (when there’s something huge going on) 24 hours a day covering the news for free.

          1. Doug Ross

            What percent of the expenses go toward the production and distribution of a hardcopy newspaper? Every dollar spent on that process is a dollar in ad revenue that must be collected. Imagine the cost savings that could come from making a bold decision to not distribute a hardcopy paper any more. I would expect you could run The State website with, what, 25-50 employees? No more than 100. Wild guess – 10 million revenue per year from subscriptions and ads required. How far off am I?

            Look at the model Andrew Sullivan started using this year. He’s got a subscription model that gives free riders access to the main content but only a limited number of “read on” clicks per month to get the full content. According to a post yesterday, they have 5 employees working on the website and all are paid and their benefits include health insurance. Sullivan is not taking a salary this first year (he has plenty of other outside income opportunities). They set a goal of $900K in subscriptions (no ads) in the first year and have reached $800K with three months to go. I pay for a subscription because I get value out of it. I don’t pay for a subscription to The State because the content doesn’t match the cost.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            Doug, some papers are trying that — going print-free.

            I don’t know what the costs are these days. In fact, my memory may be faulty in terms of what the percentages used to be, but I want to say that costs were roughly 40 percent newsprint, ink and distribution; 40 percent personnel; and the rest various supply and support costs.

            I have always said it would be wonderful if newspapers could drop the print product. It would set them free, in terms of what I care about. Believe it or not, I’ve wanted to do that since the early 80s. As soon as we went from typewriters to a mainframe (about 1980), I started wishing that when I hit SEND on one of my reporters’ stories, that it would go straight to the readers, rather than just to the copy desk. Even before the infrastructure for a new delivery method existed (widespread ownership of computers, the WWW), I was chafing at that 19th-century production and delivery system that stood between me and readers. I wanted them to get our news instantly, not several hours later.

            Not even to mention the vast amounts of money saved.

            But here’s why few papers have gone paperless up to now: They can’t afford to give up that revenue. A huge share of the revenue still comes from print ads, because as few as they are, the rates are more lucrative for the paper.

            Never mind the fact that a significant (although aging) segment of the reading public still demands a print product — a demand that competitors would come in and snatch off the table if newspapers walked away from it.

          3. barry

            There are ways- quite easy- around pay walls.

            That newspapers haven’t figured this out is probably evidence of one of their biggest problems.

            I have no interest in telling them though.

            I quit taking The State because about half the time my Sunday paper wasn’t in my box. My wife had purchased a subscription for me to receive the paper a few days a week- weekends included- and about 50% of the time over the course of several months I had no paper. I called and complained. Called and complained. Called and complained.

            One Sunday after getting home from church, I called again. One of the editors said he’d personally bring a paper to my house. I said “no thanks.” I didn’t expect that. I did expect them to deliver it to my box more than 50% of the time though. I canceled my subscription that next morning and that was several years ago now. I haven’t even considered renewing.

          4. Brad Warthen Post author

            I find paywalls to be inconsistent. Sometimes they block me from getting to a story; sometimes they don’t — and the pattern isn’t always logical…

        2. Scout

          I could be wrong, Doug, but I think the difference in what you are talking about with your radio shack work analogy and what Brad seems to be describing is the difference between a vocation and an occupation. If you feel your work is a calling that you are particularly suited for and you feel it is a core need of the community, then it gives you motivation to make it work as long as possible in the face of what you would probably consider unrealistic odds, even though you are aware of them. Because it’s not just about you, and you feel the part that is not just about you is important.

          If it’s just a job and just about you, it’s a lot easier to get out when signs indicate that would be prudent.

          I feel similarly about my job. Speech language therapy through the public schools is a bit of a thankless service delivery model. And I don’t feel it is necessarily all that safe in the current climate where public schools can do nothing right and there is a rabid hunger to indiscriminately defund all things federal. But it’s the only way to reach the population of kids I work with, and I feel it is important that someone helps them, so I will make it work as long as possible.

          1. Doug Ross

            If you are the primary breadwinner for your family, sometimes you have to consider that as well.

            Brad’s vocation was the dissemination of opinion and information to the subscribers of The State. The mechanism to do that effectively is different now than it was twenty years ago. If the intent is to influence as many people as possible, why wouldn’t you pursue the medium that allows you to do that rather than stick with an ever decreasing population?

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            Wow, this one is an easy one to answer:
            “If the intent is to influence as many people as possible, why wouldn’t you pursue the medium that allows you to do that rather than stick with an ever decreasing population?”
            Because the old model was the only one that has, to date, ever offered to pay me a salary. It goes back to your breadwinner thing.

            If I’m going to do something full-time — which thereby prevents me from holding another job — then I have to get paid for it.

            No one has yet come up with a model for me doing that — getting a decent, or even halfway adequate, salary and benefits for writing news and/or opinion — online only, in South Carolina. Which is where my life is. If I had no family, I could probably make a living doing that in D.C. But I have a family. And between the two, I infinitely prefer having a family.

            A friend in D.C. sometime back said, “Well, all your kids are out of the house, so you’re mobile.” No. When your kids are living with you, you’re relatively mobile, because you can take them with you. When they have jobs and homes here, and that’s where your grandchildren are, you’re not. Not unless you have very different values from mine.

  3. Jim Hesson


    Thank you for the incredibly kind words. You brought tears to my eyes. I have always considered you a friend as well and certainly enjoyed our time working together.
    It is hard having all that you have worked hard for pulled out from under you. But for me even though I loved my time at the State Newspaper and at the Dallas Morning News I serve a greater ‘boss”. And I trust in his career guidance more than any company I might work for.

    So God is good in all things and I know we can both trust him even in these little storms of life. I know that sounds kind of maudlin. But so be it.

    Thanks for all the good work you have done and continue to do. Maybe the next time I am in Columbia we can try to get together and catch up.

    Jim Hesson

  4. Jamie

    To Jim Hesson:

    I did not have a normal childhood. I grew up with parents who genuinely loved each other, a mother who left me notes in my lunch box, and an involved father. Most of my friends did not have that.

    Growing up, my family would have “family devotion night” which was led by my father. I hated it. We all sat around in the living room while my dad taught us a Bible lesson. As I grew into a teenager, my dad would walk into the same room as me and it would drive me crazy. He had no idea how annoying he actually was.

    Life went on and I grew up. I went to college and my parents left our home of South Carolina and moved to Texas. Every time I went to visit them, I realized that my dad was a hard working, God fearing man. After graduating college, I moved to Texas. At first, the move was because I could not find a job, but as time passed, I realized I never wanted to live far from my parents again.

    When my dad called me and told me that he was being let go from his position, I was just so sad. It just goes to show that life is not and will never be fair. My father taught me how to be a hard worker. He taught me how to be a friend, what a Christ centered marriage looks like, and what a Christ centered life looks like. A Christ centered life looks like the father who led devotions for my family, the father who drove me crazy, and the father who is a hard worker because he knows that he is representing Christ to a broken world. A Christ centered life looks like my father.

    I love you dad. You have taught me more then you will ever know. So, hang in there Jim Hesson. You are not just a good man, but a great man. There is much more to life then a job, but I think that you know that. In your own words, “God is good. And I know He can be trusted in all things”.

    Your Daughter

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