Grey Cardigan: Meeting The Invisible Man

Another day, another board meeting, another round of budget cuts.

The week hadn’t started well. I’d spent Monday at the funeral of an old colleague whose liver had disgracefully betrayed him. He was an old school regional daily sub, from the days of marking up triple carbons in pencil and pasting together paragraphs on copy paper with Gloy glue. His claim to fame was that he’d once confronted an idiot, fast-track whiz-kid sent to us from a management training scheme and kicked him cleanly in the bollocks. The whole newsroom stood and applauded as the tosser who is now the editor of a national newspaper slid slowly beneath his desk.

Anyway, the day disintegrated as you would expect given the disreputable company at the wake and I suddenly came round at 11.30pm to find myself slumped in the corner of a fetid, flat-roofed pub just as the police arrived to break up the inevitable fight.

Nine hours later and I’m sitting in a windowless meeting room 30 miles down the road from my Evening Beast haven, for this is from whence we are now ruled. I’ve showered (twice), shaved (badly) and bathed in assorted perfumeries, but I can still smell the beer sweating out of my pores. A team of midget miners is excavating areas of my brain and my tongues tastes like a Turkish wrestler’s jockstrap. The really bad news is that I’m surrounded by bean-counters. Think Zulu, only with spreadsheets and calculators rather than shields and spears. I’m silently humming Men of Harlech as the agenda is passed around.

Since they sacked the Eminence Grease, our local MD (who, incidentally, is now setting up a glossy magazine to compete with the Evening Beast on our own patch), we’ve come under the control of this weird bloke down the road whose most recent retail experience seems to be a few years as an accountant with Lidl and who now runs a rag-bag of failing weeklies and crap frees. He’s had no experience of a daily newspaper in his life, yet Those Who Must Be Obeyed deem him worthy of running the Evening Beast.

Such is his impact on the business, I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t even recall his name. I’m sure I read it in a memo somewhere, but for the moment it eludes me. But I can say that he is grey, very grey. In fact, he’s so fucking grey that he’s almost transparent. He drifts in and out of view like heat haze on the horizon. We shall henceforth call him The Invisible Man.

And so the nonsense begins. The Invisible Man is surrounded by his acolytes, a pack of Jackanory jackals. As each performs their party piece, it turns out that the Evening Beast is overstaffed and over budget. “And how have you arrived at this conclusion?” I ask? Ah, well, apparently it’s all about KPIs: Key Performance Indicators.

One of the junior suits fires up a Powerpoint presentation showing that the Evening Beast costs more to produce than any of the weekly newspapers in the group. They sit, seemingly awaiting an explanation. “You do realise,” I say, “that we publish six days a week? We’re bound to be more expensive.” Amazingly, one of them clearly hadn’t and begins rattling away on his calculator like Jerry Lee Lewis in full flow.

They try again, this time with a year-on-year ‘cost per page’ calculation. Why do we now spend four per cent more per page than we did this time last year? I patiently explain that they’ve hammered our pagination so much that we’re producing fewer pages. Therefore the cost per page has risen slightly. For example, whereas last year we’d routinely do a 48-page paper on a Monday, we’re now down to 36 pages.

I can see where the next one is coming from, and, sure enough: In that case, can’t we get by with fewer reporters? Yes, I say, but what do we do on Tuesday? That flummoxes them somewhat and we move on to petty bickering about shillings and pence.

Yes, I’ve spent quite a lot in The Shivering Whippet this year, but we have had quite a lot of leaving ‘parties’, so much so that I’ve now banned office collections and just stick a few quid behind the bar.

No, I don’t know why one of my best reporters only ever seems to use the same curry house and the same taxi firm and, judging by the handwriting on the submitted expense receipts, the same person works at both.

And no, I don’t know why there’s an outstanding cash advance form for £100 charged to my employee number, with the reason for advance given as ‘Imminent drunkenness’ and signed by ‘M. Mouse’.

After a couple of hours of this, The Invisible Man re-materialises and brings the meeting to an end. I don’t recall him having spoken, even once. Perhaps he communicates with his minions through telepathy.

I emerge feeling like a Hitchcock victim from The Birds – pecked to death by a thousand irritants. I’m disheartened and disillusioned. The proud newspaper that was the Evening Beast has once again been chipped away at by know-nothing number-crunchers. Still, we battle on. Just.

And, 12 hours later, I suddenly come round to find myself slumped in the corner of a fetid, flat-roofed pub just as the police arrive to break up the inevitable fight…

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