The Salt Lake Tribune hired me full time 16 years ago today. Prior to that moment, I wrote a weekly column in the newspaper’s Faith section.
As a part-time employee, or “stringer,” I wasn’t a bonafide member of the staff because I didn’t have a desk.
All that changed Sept. 15, 1997, when I received a summons from Caesar. The Tribune’s managing editor called and told me to show up in his office.
I was nervous. Given the nature of my weekly column, it was entirely possible I was going to be fired. I made a mental list of anyone I could have offended recently: political activists, cats, televangelists, Mormons, the president of the United States, feminists, pigs, witch doctors, Elvis. … It was a big list.
Instead of firing me, the managing editor made me a full-time employee. This entitled me to health insurance, a press ID card and an actual desk.
This was at the tail end of the newspaper glory days. The Tribune was operating at full capacity then. Desks were at a premium. There were so many employees that some desks were being shared.
My first desk wasn’t in the newsroom. It was a cramped nook among filing cabinets and shelves on another floor. It didn’t have a phone or a light. Because I spent a lot of time on the road, I didn’t mind. At least I had a place to keep my stuff.
One day I came to work and found a microfilm viewer on my desk. The desk wasn’t mine anymore. I was handed a box labeled “Kirby’s stuff” and told there was a desk upstairs for me, although still not in the actual newsroom.
I kept this desk for three weeks before it was given to an important unpaid intern. I was moved to another area where the “Kirby’s stuff” box had to serve as my desk. Granted, there was a phone this time, but it didn’t work.
When I finally got a desk in the actual newsroom, it was one no one else wanted. There was a huge concrete support pillar in the middle of the cubicle. If I wanted to work at my desk, I had to type with my arms around it.
When the Tribune moved the newsroom to The Gateway in 2005, there were plenty of desks to go around. I was given a nice new shiny one near an actual window. It was mine for exactly 21 days before someone in Sports needed it.
Change came slowly. One day several years ago I suddenly realized that I no longer had to fight for a desk. I could pick one and reasonably expect to keep it. Also, there was a lot more elbow room.
The desk situation continued to improve as the industry situation deteriorated. Pretty soon, thanks to attrition, I could have a desk in just about any part of the newsroom I wanted to sit.
The change accelerated. Eventually, I could have two desks, three phones, a dozen chairs and sit anywhere in the newsroom. I could almost have my own newsroom.
Then came Thursday’s massacre. Responding to the continual decline in advertising revenue, the newspaper laid off nearly 20 percent of the staff. Some of the people I used to fight with over a desk are gone.
The survivors are still trying to cope. The desks will be circled and we’ll continue putting out a newspaper. The newsroom won’t be the same, though.
It’s easy to find a place in the newsroom now. Looking around, I can have just about any desk I want. But I don’t want any of them. I want the people back who used to work at them.
Robert Kirby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.