Friday, May 1, 2009

Baltimore Sun massacre aftermath

Firings, reorganization
gut union presence
in Sun newsroom

Reorganization message sent to staff
shows calculated planning before purge

Villains? How about publisher, editor

Depression settled in Thursday across the Baltimore Sun newsroom along with the dust of this week’s nearly 24-hour-long personnel massacre in which nearly a third of the staff was shown the door.

By now, media blogs across the nation have added more pieces to the account outlined yesterday in this little corner of cyberspace:

– About Sun writers Rick Maese and David Steele, and photographer Liz Malby, getting word they’d been fired in cell phone calls while they were covering an afternoon Orioles game a mile from the office.

– About how copy editors arriving for work in late afternoon found themselves unable to sign on to their computers, and being given group notification by their surviving editor that their jobs were gone.

– About how Tribune was taking similar actions across most of its chain of newspapers, with plans to produce much of the content (by one account as much as 75 percent) in modular page sections produced entirely by a central staff in Chicago. (That was pretty much in line with the prediction here in February ( when The Sun introduced its first nation & world page produced by nonunion staff in Chicago, at a time when union jobs in Baltimore were being eliminated.)

Reorganization plan unveiled

In Baltimore Thursday evening, just 24 hours after the last of the layoffs that largely eliminated senior editors at The Sun and many union jurisdiction columnists, copy editors, page designers, artists, photographers and support staffers, editor Monty Cook handed down a reorganization plan that appears to complete the newsroom gutting of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.

It transfers many younger staffers into new, apparently nonunion positions as The Baltimore Sun reorients its operation from having a print newspaper mother ship to a focus on other information platforms evolving as part of the world’s digital communications revolution. (The company had long fought to keep employees at out of the union, including maintaining a costly separate office space for the Web operation in North Baltimore in recent years.)

The detailed reorganization plan is a clear indication of the lengthy planning that enabled the management to protect some younger employees through transfers to newly-created positions outside union jurisdiction, leaving more senior and higher-paid staffers exposed to layoffs – in effect, firings.

Even extra security guards were on hand as the layoffs came between 6 p.m. Tuesday and late afternoon Wednesday.

Among those told nothing: The victims.

Villain nominees

And that is why editor Monty Cook and publisher Timothy Ryan win Villain of the Year nominations from The Real Muck. Execution of their plan was calculating and cruel, and victimized employees who had dedicated a large portion of their lives to making The Baltimore Sun the best possible newspaper under any prevailing circumstance.

Two feet of snow? The Sun came out in the morning. Many of the folks who made that kind of miracle possible were treated like chattel this week.

That said, I have a personal dilemma in that those who were fired and nearly everyone moving to other jobs under the reorganization were part of my family across many years as colleagues in the newsroom. I love them all. We fought the good battles together to write, edit and publish great stories, rejoiced in good times and supported each other in sad times.

This is a very sad time, the most awful of times. Shrinking the staff was clearly unavoidable. But being cruel and clumsy in going about it was not necessary. It was flat-out wrong and stupid. And the depth of hurt is evidenced in the many comments from readers added to my previous blog posting on the Sun massacre.

I missed a few names and stories… like Karen Zeiler, who was fired at – even as the company was reorienting toward the digital side. Why? I have no idea. She had no union protection, though – she worked on the then-isolated Web side of the company. She is the sister of page designer Dave Zeiler, who also was fired on Wednesday. Also gone, graphic artist Denise Murray, after nine years at The Sun and a good quarter-century in the business; features page designer Carrie Lyle, also after nine years (and, judging by recent Facebook exchanges with friends, expecting); editorial's letters page overseer Franz Schneiderman. The names keep coming in.

I also failed to make note of recent layoffs on the commercial side of the company, and the voluntary layoff requested by veteran reporter Steve Kiehl. Amid all the uproar I heard of others leaving, but some accounts proved incorrect and so a few feared losses are for now not true. There's so much uncertainty amid the chaos.

A message received from Andy Ratner, an editor and writer also with a quarter-century in The Sun in jobs ranging from editor of the Anne Arundel section during some of its good years, and for the business and sports sections, indicated he was among the victims. He was affable, talented and, clearly like so many others, under-appreciated.

Some writers with the title of columnist were retitled as reporters, so it will be interesting to see if that makes the portrait photos accompanying their work disappear. And one sports reporter, Childs Walker, who also wrote extensively on fantasy sports, was facing a layoff unless he opts to transfer back to the department where he started -- on the metro news staff.

From the newsroom and editorial staffs, I hear, the body count was 61. I don’t have all the names, still. But I can tell you, there’s a story for every one of them.

Just one little story

I talked at length Thursday afternoon with Chiaki Kawajiri, who returned my call from Wednesday night after her 14-year tenure as a Sun photographer ended without warning. She could have sought a transfer earlier to one of those murky-titled new jobs under the heading “multimedia,” but with 14 years at the newspaper it was thought she had the seniority to survive in the endeavor she loves: photojournalism.

On Wednesday, she had two assignments – in the morning a press conference featuring the mayor, police commissioner, and school system CEO, and later in the day a photo shoot of a lawyer with his pet bird.

“After [the morning assignment] I tried to call those who were laid off the previous day -- not knowing I was getting laid off that day -- to make sure they were OK and offered to help,” Chiaki wrote in an email after an emotional telephone conversation with me recounting the stunning turn of events.

She said her subject was running late, so she called the office “to make sure I didn't have another assignment after that.”

“Jeff Bill, who was filling in for assignment editor Chuck Weiss who was just laid off, answered the phone and sounded different. He told me Bob [photo editor Robert Hamilton] wanted me to come in the office after the assignment... better yet, if the subject is late, just forget it and come in. As I hung up the phone shaken, he shows up and I finished the assignment which turned out to be my last work... I was trying to be professional.”

Fearing what might be in store, Chiaki came downtown by her husband, who waited in their car with their 5-year-old son Zen while she went into the newspaper building.

“When I came in, [photographer] Amy Davis walked alongside me. Then I saw Peter, whose face looked as if he has been crying. He gives me a big hug and says call him anytime... and others followed. At this point, I haven't been told yet.

“Bob has been a great boss. He was so sad to tell me the bad news. It must have been so hard for him. At this point, he has told six people in the photo dept. that they had been laid off. I was second to last…. His tears rolled down, and we hugged and cried together.

“My dear friends, fellow photographers, Algerina and Jed comforted me. Then Jeff Bill and Karl Ferron came to give me hugs. While I was sitting down, Jerry Jackson, Paul Moore, Mike Klingaman came to offer their support. As I was leaving, I got some hugs from writers starting [with] Liz Bowie. Stephanie Desmon whom I worked with the most came to me crying and we hugged and cried together.

“Dear friend Amy Davis gently helped me go out [of] the building because she didn't want me to be alone when I departed. As she walked me outside, my 5-year-old son ran to me and gave me a big hug and kisses.”

That’s how Chiaki wrote it. Telling it, speaking it, is even harder to do without crying some more.

Here’s what Chiaki said: “My 5-year-old son wiped my tears off and said, ‘Mommy, it’s OK. I love you.’ He caressed my hair. He comforted me.”

She had not been able to send a message out to all of her friends in the newsroom before leaving. Her computer access had already been shut down.

There’s more about the kind of person she is, of course. I have to tell you about one of my favorite photos by Chiaki Kawajiri – a weather picture. It shows four young children in winter, leaning their heads back and trying to catch snowflakes on their tongues. When I retired 23 months ago with a voluntary buyout, I mentioned that photo – which hangs in the building with other examples of the staff’s finest – and she mailed me a print of it. But she apparently had the wrong zipcode, and the package came back to her from the post office.

During my recent return to the newsroom for a celebration of the 30th anniversary of staffer Richard Irwin’s Police Blotter, Chiaki handed me the still-sealed envelope containing that gift.

She has won numerous awards, and received an honor last month from President Obama in a ceremony at the White House. I asked her about that, and she emailed me this account of the award – for a photo from a six-part story on breast cancer. (Editor Monty Cook, in his talk two weeks ago at Johns Hopkins University, said the era of the six-part series is no more.)

“The woman I photographed died a week before I met Obama. Her companion wrote me the nicest letter thanking me for the photo. We were supposed to bring the prints of the award winning images, but I didn't. When it was my turn, I told Obama that this amazing woman passed away a week ago, and I was still mourning for her death. If I brought the photo of her, I would look at the image and start to cry, so forgive me, but I don't have the prints... He felt so bad and comforted me.”

Keep in mind, this is one person’s story, among the reported 61 people fired by The Baltimore Sun. Chiaki was reluctant to be the focus of a story herself… she is a shy, and very wonderful human being. She wanted to be sure none of this account would be harmful to her boss, Bob Hamilton.

I replied: "There is nothing harmful about telling how a boss cries when he has to tell an employee he deeply cares about that she has been given a layoff. There is nothing harmful about saying that human beings can cry at circumstances beyond their control. The public needs to know there are people of great compassion at The Baltimore Sun doing the best they can, even when the company they work for makes horrible errors in judgment and causes great hurt to dedicated and talented employees."

Chiaki was raised in her native Japan, where a work ethic and dedication to one’s employer are deeply ingrained. Chiaki brought those attributes to the newspaper every working day for 14 years.

“I am stunned,” she said, “that after 14 years of giving my passion to The Sun that I come back at 5 o’clock and am told it is my last day.”

Monte’s Message Thursday

For those who haven’t seen it elsewhere, following is the message sent to survivors Thursdays evening, some 24 hours after the last ax had fallen:

Today, we begin announcing our working newsroom structure for the journalism we produce across all platforms.

While we publish for multiple platforms, our singular focus will be on journalism, news and information. Producing and maintaining the best local reporting in the region is our top priority. These changes will enhance The Sun's ability to provide greater access to the solid beat reporting, enterprise reporting, the relentless watchdog journalism and personally relevant stories that form our covenant with the Baltimore community.

We've said this before: Circumstances may change. How we perform our jobs may change. But our values do not.
Some of the titles you will see in this note reflect not only the new world we work in, but the world of The Baltimore Sun's audiences who expect their news delivered in print, online or on their Blackberry or iPhone. That means gathering news and information as real-time reporting -- whether it is in the form of the quick-hit information of our blogs or the in-depth investigative and enterprise reporting from our beats -- and publishing when those stories are ready.
We will also increase our focus on growing the total audience for Sun stories, photographs, videos and graphics. Everyone has a role to play in creating conversation and forging greater connection and interaction with readers around our stories and content. We want them to select The Sun as the first read among myriad choices they have.
Over the past six weeks, many of you have acquired greater skill sets and understanding about new media and our online content management system. That training will continue in the coming weeks and months as we transition to a platform-neutral newsroom.

Last week, we announced these key leadership positions:
Head of print: Mary Corey
Head of digital media: Matthew Baise
Head of night content & production: Chris Rickett
Director of audience engagement: Mary Hartney
We will be surrounding our journalism and coverage around specific areas led by topic heads, who will be responsible for overseeing dynamic, interesting and timely print and online stories, blogs and communities for their designated topic. Most topic areas are broad and will have several communities and sub-topics included.

Today, we are announcing the following positions. The topic managers will report directly to Corey and Baise. These changes take effect Monday, May 4.

Director, content editing and enterprise: Marcia Myers
Marcia will oversee development of stories for print and online across all departments, with a particular focus on Page One candidates and with direct responsibility for investigative and enterprise projects.

Head of Maryland news: David Nitkin and Dave Alexander
Politics & Government Editor, Jean Marbella
Crime & Courts Editor, Michelle Landrum
Education Editor, Jen Badie
Director of Breaking News, Ben Pillow
GA Editor, Liz Atwood
Content editor/chief makeup editor, Linda Schubert

David and Dave will focus their efforts jointly what we consider the core of what we provide to our readers: coverage of the city and its surrounding counties across multiple platforms. David Nitkin brings a wealth of experience as an editor and reporter. He's a rock-solid journalist whose instinct for news is unparalleled. Nitkin has been a reporter in Baltimore County, the state house bureau chief, Maryland editor, and spent time covering the White House. He oversaw coverage of the 2006 and 2008 elections. Dave Alexander's success as online deputy editor and his unique and keen understanding of our diverse audiences -- he has print experience at newspapers in Virginia and North Carolina -- provide the perfect complement and the leadership we need. Dave's career at progressed from sports producer to news producer to senior news producer before becoming online deputy editor.

Head of money & spending: Tim Wheatley
Content editors, Justine Maki, Liz Hacken

While much of Tim's career has been spent in sports, he was also AME/Business at the Indianapolis Star and responsible for coverage of the Conseco bankruptcy, Eli Lilly and the downsizing of the auto industry. He brings a broad approach to story development and knows how to surround an issue, providing readers with greater context. In his time here he has led our Sports staff to one of its most successful years in 2008 with multiple writing and section awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors, and we expect him to continue that success in leading our business staff.

Head of sports: Trif Alatzas
Executive Sports Editor, Ron Fritz
Deputy Sports Editor, Pete Sweigard
Assistant Sports Editors, Kevin Eck, Steve Gould, Matt Bracken
Content Editor, night: Andy Knobel

As business editor for the past nine months, Trif has been known for his great sense for news and for knowing how to develop sources that deepen our readers' knowledge and understanding of stories. Bringing that type of experience and drive will enhance our Sports coverage, particularly with a greater emphasis for breaking news online. He has been an outstanding editor, helping guide coverage of the Constellation Energy Group and quickly mobilized the staff around coverage of the economic meltdown last fall and Wall Street's collapse. The proposed sale of Constellation won a breaking-news award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. He will be excellent at leveraging our highly popular Sports content online.

Head of opinion: Andy Green
Deputy Opinion Editor, Michael Cross-Barnet

Andy brings a wealth of politics, state house and government coverage experience, with broad understanding of the issues affecting the lives of Marylanders. He also understands the heightened role that readers and online audiences are increasingly playing in helping to shape public opinion; that it's just as much about "what we say" as it is helping focus discussion and debate around what our readers and online audience are intensely interested in.

Head of lifestyle & entertainment: Dave Rosenthal
Arts & Entertainment Editor, Tim Swift
Content editor, food: Sarah Kelber
Content editor, nightlife/bands: Sam Sessa
Content editors, lifestyle: Kate Shatzkin, Michelle Deal-Zimmerman, Matt Brown, Kim Walker
Events coordinator, Rebecca Hyler

Dave will guide our lifestyle and entertainment topics. In lifestyle, these topics reflect how we live and events and issues that directly impact our readers' lives. These topic areas include parenting/family, health & wellness, green living, science, faith, home, commuting, recreation and travel. In entertainment, we will focus locally on food and dining, the arts scene, nightlife, bands, celebrities, television and movies. Dave has guided The Sun's weekend and Sunday edition coverage where many of the important projects and investigations of the past few years have been showcased. His insight into readership habits and his creative approach to story ideas will be invaluable for increasing our online audience in these areas.

Head of visuals: Jay Judge
Director of Multimedia, Steve Sullivan
Director of Photography, Bob Hamilton
Director of Interactive Design, Lauren Custer
Multimedia/interactive art director, Kevin Richardson

Jay will guide the visuals presentation for our print and online platforms, bringing solid versatility and a knowledge of the importance visuals play in helping tell stories in myriad ways. You've known Jay as a highly creative colleague, an acute problem-solver and an editor who applies great journalistic skill to visual presentation.

Head of night content & production: Chris Rickett
News Editor, Steve Young
Design Director, Anthony Conroy
Assistant News Editor/Pagination, Derrick Barker
Copy Desk Chief, Phil Klinedinst

Director of audience engagement: Mary Hartney
Community coordinator, Maryland news, Julie Scharper
Community coordinator, money & spending, Phill McGowan
Community coordinator, sports, Dean Jones Jr.
Community coordinator, opinion, Nancy Johnston
Community coordinator, lifestyle, Maryann James
Community coordinator, entertainment, Carla Correa

The community coordinators are responsible for cultivating one or more dynamic communities of interest in their topic areas on the Web using blogging, social media and other community outreach tools. Community coordinators are responsible for generating loyalty, frequency and advocacy among users so that they help our audiences grow. They will report directly to Mary.
Newsroom technology manager: Jeff Bill
Jeff, as he has done so ably for the photography staff as deputy director of photography, will expand his role into providing technical assistance, system performance, and inventory for the newsroom's computer and cellular telephone equipment.

Please congratulate our colleagues on their new roles.

Again, these roles become effective on Monday, May 4. During the transition of the next few weeks it is important that we remain flexible. Everyone will be getting used to the new roles, new relationships with supervisors, a new way of thinking about newsgathering and audience engagement, and new process requirements.

The topic managers will hold introductory meetings with reporters and columnists beginning tomorrow to talk about beats, coverage and our focus on providing journalism, news and information across multiple platforms.

Monty, Mary and Matthew

About this blog...

I started writing The Real Muck last year after getting comfortable with the idea that I was free of journalistic constraints about expressing my own opinion publicly. That's not easy after 40 years of trying to be fair to all sides, so the reader can figure out the truth. And the truth, often very elusive, really comes down to being what any person believes it to be.

For a long time, I averaged around 38 readers a day. At times, I worked daily to post what I considered to be interesting tales and commentary, and finally movie reviews. I saw the blog readership growing past 100 a day after panning Disneynature's "earth" movie.

Yesterday, my posting on the Baltimore Sun Massacre had more than 4,000 visitors -- thanks in large measure to links generously given in other blogs and media outlets across the nation.

Curiously, in the posting's first hour online, there were more than a dozen hits from China -- but maybe that had more to do with a report out of the United States headlined "massacre."

Apology to the Baltimore Burn

Amid all the newspaper hubbub, I failed to get around to reporting on the Baltimore Burn women's tackle football team which had its opening game last Saturday... alas, losing by a score of 43-8 to the Philadelphia Liberty Belles.

Its scheduled road opener a week earlier in Connecticut had been canceled because the Burn's opponent forfeited and may have folded due to insufficient players.

The Burn play again at 4 p.m. this Saturday, MAY 2, against the Binghamton Tigercats. The game site has been moved to Northwestern High School, 6900 Park Heights Ave., with tickets priced at $10 for regular admission but discounted for children and seniors.

Hopefully the weather will be better than predicted, and the Burn more successful after enduring a tough opening day before a crowd of about 140. Information:


Brian said...

"This is a very sad time, the most awful of times. Shrinking the staff was clearly unavoidable. But being cruel and clumsy in going about it was not necessary. It was flat-out wrong and stupid."

This is perfectly stated. Yes, newspapers have to change and evolve and, in some cases, become more lean. But you need to treat people with respect. You simply don't make massive changes with such disregard for what these people have done over the years. You don't try and re-invent yourselves without the minds of people who have seen it all.

And one thing jumps out at me in the new staff positions - who is handling science and medicine? In a city with JHU and UM and at a paper which has done some amazing work in this field, who is keeping an eye on one of the city's most vital economic and educational interests?

Rollie Fingers said...

Dear Mr. Ettlin,

I'm sure you don't remember me, but I met you once when I worked at WYPR with Sunni Khalid. We interviewed you in a car parked at a Towson Burger King. :)

Anyway, I'm sorry it took such a sad event for me to hear about your blog, but now I have, and you have a new reader. Best of luck to you, and to the journalism profession as a whole.

-Chris Merriam

bob said...

Dave, unlike Chris, I've never met you but you've gained yet another reader. I'm also sorry it took such a tragic event to discover your blog (through Baltimore Brew). Thank you for doing such a great job reporting on the ongoing saga at The Sun. I especially appreciated Chiaki's story in this post.

Bob Dewey

Len Lazarick said...


Thanks for your full account of the massacre and aftermath. This was clearly a well thought out plan.

Last time we met, during the 2006 campaign, you conmplained about the Examiners thrown into your bushes.

Alas, all the complaints about the Examiner have stopped. The number of newsroom layoffs at the Sun this week was more people than we ever had, which explains some of our writing and editing.

I competed against the Sun in various ways for 35 years, but as we all know, out on the street, we are both competitors and colleagues with common purpose.

I share your grief. The newspaper business which supplied a comfortable livelihood to us and our families is evaporating before our eyes. The once vibrant Patuxent Publishing, part of my working life for 21 years, is now a skeleton. I grieve for those laid off, and for the survivors as well. We have no idea how this will end.

It is interesting that the most common term I hear about the Sun is "sad," often from people who've read it all their lives.

Amelia said...

Thank you so much for covering this so thoroughly. Of all the accounts I've read, yours have been the best, day by day. I sat here crying about Chiaki, crying for all of us, as I read. Those of us who remain don't know what's coming next; we only know that some of us are not in the grand plan, and we found out when everyone else did, by reading Monty's memo and not seeing ourselves in it. It's sad, it's awful, and it's NOT OVER.

Dan Thanh said...

I heard from Chiaki this morning. I think had she called me, I would have been crying just as I was while reading this.

I want to ask again, please, if anyone knows of jobs (inside or outside of the industry) that can be filled by our friends in search of jobs, e-mail me or Gus. You can reach us at consumrgrrl(at) or GusSentementes(at) We run a private jobs blog for Sun staffers in look of work. If you want to join the jobs blog, just e-mail Gus.

We've had some great tips already from a Towson journalism professor, from Spin and from a great, former colleague of ours, Bill Glauber.

Please everyone, keep the leads coming. Every lead counts and our friends can use the help.

Best to all.

Justin said...

Hi David - This is Justin at The Marc Steiner Show. Please contact me to discuss this at or 443-934-0264.