Lay off the layoff stories

The dot-com business press is going ga-ga over dot-com layoffs. Enough, already.

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 2, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

If you've seen one dot-com layoff story, you've seen them all. It doesn't matter if it's an online pet store, an open-source operating system enterprise, a senior citizen site, a toy store or a home furnishing e-tailer. The executives make brave statements about "belt-tightening." The analysts pooh-pooh corporate performance and warn of a "shakeout." And the reporters -- who, incidentally, usually work for some fat dot-com news organization flush with dot-com advertising moolah -- wrap it all up with barely concealed morbid glee, as if joyfully sending semaphore signals from the deck of a sinking Titanic. They're hardly finished filing one story before they race to the next, desperate to be first with the latest layoff scoop.

It can't be denied that the current rash of layoffs spreading like such an unsightly blemish on the once pristine surface of the New Economy does have a smidgen of legitimate news value. Since the moment the Internet bubble began to expand, observers have been waiting for it to pop. Now it's finally happening. IPO madness is over, and a semblance of sanity is returning to the marketplace. And every new round of layoffs is another excuse to ask the Big Question -- is there really any money to be made on the Net? Is the so-called "long boom" finally beginning to end?

But somehow, it is nearly impossible to work up any interest at all about the fact that another 50 employees just got axed from another start-up hemorrhaging millions of dollars a month. Layoff stories, to be blunt, are mindbendingly boring. These layoffs barely qualify as news, and hardly even deserve to be called layoffs.

Back in the old, pre-Internet days, layoffs were serious. When IBM trimmed 100,000 or so jobs from its roster, or General Motors closed a manufacturing plant, lives were ruined and careers were cut short. But when a dot-com sends out pink slips, it delivers them to people who have only been working at the company for a couple of years, at most, and were probably prone to constant job hopping to begin with. With national unemployment at its lowest level in three decades, its hard to care about the prospect of online pet store employees suddenly being dumped on the street. Should a story be published every time one of these fast-moving companies hires a hundred people? Of course not. Neither the hirings nor the firings are worth a raised eyebrow.

Unless of course, these layoffs really are just the bleeding edge, the first signs of drastic economic upheaval. But that just doesn't seem likely. Take, for example, the case of The Industry Standard noted on Thursday that layoffs at presaged "a long-awaited consolidation, and even the unraveling, of the beleaguered online pet-supplies retailing sector."

The very fact that there is a beleaguered online pet-supplies retailing sector at all makes me question whether we are actually living in a real world, and not some virtual reality satire dreamed up by a cynical novelist. Don DeLillo, anyone? Or maybe Thomas Pynchon? Can one possibly judge the health of the Internet economy by the news that a pet store that is losing money on every single sale has had to shed a few employees? No, just as one can't judge the health of open-source software by the fact that one open-source company, Linuxcare, incompetently mismanaged its affairs after landing $20 million in venture capital, while another, Turbolinux, has run into some speed bumps.

Of course, the amount of advertising money still pouring into the dot-com business press mandates that more stories than anyone can read nevertheless have to be written. And there's a certain satisfaction, I suppose, in publishing articles detailing the woes of the very companies whose marketing budgets are paying your salaries -- it makes a sweet kind of infinitely recursive twisted sense.

But like the ads themselves, it's little more than froth. Excuse me if I turn the page.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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