One of the underreported consequences of the newspaper industry's collapse is what happens when grumpy truth seekers have to find work in the Real World.
Exhibit A: What occurred when former New York Timeswoman Laura Mansnerus took a seasonal job in Philadelphia as a supervisor for the U.S. Census Bureau.
She blogged about her experience last week on MyTwoCensus.com. It's a cautionary tale of bad math, black ice, and moose warnings.
We talked about her great misadventure over coffee at Cafe Lutecia by her home near Fitler Square. She began by referring me to a 1971 study of Parisian office workers that found the biggest complainers were those who were most engaged in their work.
This tends to be true in newspapering as well, noted Mansnerus, who worked for the Times for 22 years, most recently as a reporter in Trenton. "People are constantly saying to superiors, 'That's a stupid idea.' You don't get punished for that. People might think you're a jerk, but people understand that the reason we're there is because we are crabby people." Crabby but effective, in theory.
This, she said, is not the culture of the Census Bureau.
Back in January, she answered an ad on Craigslist Philadelphia for census takers. She had just finished a fellowship with the Open Society Institute, and was writing a book proposal to expand her research into the way New Jersey law treats sexually violent predators.
She welcomed the idea of walking around Philadelphia all spring, counting things. "How beautiful!" she thought.
A few weeks after she took a test at a South Philly rec center, she was hired as a supervisor for $19.25 an hour. The person on the phone told her she'd work between 10 and 12 weeks, Mansnerus said. She figured on pocketing as much as $10,000 before taxes. Her goverment career was over before she knew it.
It wasn't just that she and her boss got along like cats and dogs, as she put it. (She was the cat.) And it wasn't that she told her boss once to shut up, though she did.
Her problem was the numbers.
The assignment was address canvassing, which is necessary before 2010 census forms are mailed out next March.
Crew leaders were assigned assistants - called listers. Mansnerus had 17 people working under her initially. Their job was to walk around and figure out where people were living.
She was startled to look at the number of addresses she had been given to verify. The whole job looked as if it could be knocked off in a week or two. When she questioned her supervisor - divide the number of workers by the number of addresses, she suggested - he didn't see her point.
"I think your math is a little off there," he told her.
Her people were finishing their second week of canvassing when the worked dried up. A couple of hundred temps across the city met similar fates. "People had put their kids in day care," she said. "People really thought they could pay some bills for a few months."
At a meeting where crew leaders were hoping to hear that the bureau would find more work, they received a memo from regional director Fernando Armstrong stressing the importance of deadlines.
They were also given information sheets to hand out that she suspected were boilerplate, since they warned of the dangers of black ice and moose. No more work materialized. Neither did black ice or moose. Listers who needed to reopen their unemployment claims asked if the bureau would write letters to certify they were out of work. No.
I asked Armstrong if it was true the bureau had hired too many people for too little work, as Mansnerus contends. He said he didn't know.
"Assuming what she describes is accurate, it is not unique," he said. "We have other areas that have a similar situation."
As for Mansnerus, she figures this might be her last hurrah with Uncle Sam. "We were just cells," she said, "that showed up on someone's performance sheet."
She took leave of her newspaper job once before to go to law school, clerk for a judge, then prosecute environmental polluters for the Environmental Protection Agency.
But newspapers drew her back in. When her fellowship ended last summer, she looked at what was happening in the industry and called it a career.
The loss of people like her in newsrooms is a tragedy whose magnitude we have yet to fully appreciate - all that talent sitting idle. It's not easy to change a bureaucracy like the Census Bureau when you're just another of its numbers.