Monday, May 18, 2009

Newspapers: A very unmerry birthday

Little cause to celebrate
as Baltimore Sun turns 172,
a shadow of its storied past

The Baltimore Sun turned 172 on Sunday, but the birthday was not much cause for celebration as the pain and uncertainty from its mass firings/layoffs of nearly a third of the news and editorial staff continues.

Latest to go appears to be reporter Nick Madigan, but unlike many others at the newspaper in recent weeks, Nick saw his layoff coming – in painfully slow motion.

Even an act of amazing generosity by a colleague, aimed at saving his job at the cost of her own, could not save Nick because of the seniority numbers game that determined who is in line for the personnel axe.

Jobs started rolling like severed heads at The Sun at the end of April, in two days of instant layoffs that targeted news and editorial managers and then union-jurisdiction staffers. The bloodbath, carried out amid extra security in the newspaper building, claimed at least 61 jobs.

But because of a union contract – a rarity in the anti-union Tribune empire – seniority protected some longtime employees initially given layoffs, enabling them to bump into job classifications they had previously held. Longtime copy editors, for example, could go back to being reporters.

Who was vulnerable to being bumped? Some of the younger staffers were protected by the company with moves into newly-created jobs that were outside union jurisdiction – enabling the company to zero in for firing on older, and higher-paid, employees. Some others with only a few years at The Sun stayed in jobs they loved and hunkered down as best they could in these uncertain times for the print newspaper industry.

The night of May 8, when the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild held a party – a wake, really – to honor both the union and nonunion victims of the purge, it was apparent that job bumping was imminent and some still-employed colleagues like Nick Madigan were on shaky ground. No one was comfortable with the prospect of staffers wanting to keep their jobs having to bump others out the door. It was just another ugly reality of life under the Tribune Company.

That’s when veteran education reporter Sara Neufeld told Nick that, to save his job, she was going to volunteer for a layoff. She’s young, and hasn’t started a family, while Nick is married, the father of a four-year-old son, and faced with a mortgage on the house he and his wife bought after moving from Los Angeles to Baltimore four years ago.

Nick said he didn’t want Sara to quit her job if the only reason was to save his, but that she assured him she had wanted to pursue other opportunities and suddenly found herself with a reason to do so. As it turned out, Sara’s act didn’t help Nick directly, but rather another employee further up the seniority chain.

Still, Nick was stunned at what he called Sara’s “amazingly selfless” offer, a far cry from the manner in which many of their colleagues were driven out of the newspaper they loved.

“I was very touched by what Sara did, and it proves that there are some very fine people at the paper,” said Nick, who left the newsroom Friday to a round of applause from colleagues. “I’m sad to leave The Sun, not only because I'll miss the crew of characters who put it out every day – some of them good friends and all of them very dedicated – but also because its newsroom is probably the last one I'll work for, and after a 29-year career in newspapers and wire services, that's hard to take.”

Nick has written from around the United States and more than 20 other countries, including France, Morocco, Britain, Mexico, Haiti and Cuba. For The New York Times, he covered the Columbia shuttle disaster, the trials of Michael Jackson and Winona Ryder, the William Kennedy Smith rape case and other stories in California, Texas, North Carolina, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. He also worked on the staffs of the Palm Beach Post, Variety and United Press International, for which he covered the Invasion of Grenada among other stories throughout the Caribbean.

He left his position as a contract writer for The New York Times’ Los Angeles bureau in 2005 to take the job as national media writer for The Sun. But after two years, The Sun, which had begun cutting its personnel and narrowing the scope of its staff’s coverage, eliminated Nick’s beat. He was assigned to the “Sun Rising” team, which was tasked with beefing up coverage of breaking news for the Web site and expanding stories for subsequent print editions. More recently, he’s been covering criminal justice stories, notably the case of Nicholas Browning, who murdered his parents and brothers, and the Rodgers Forge parents who starved their infant son.

On one of my increasingly rare visits to the newsroom a few months ago, I found Nick working a police story and expressed hope that he hadn’t been thrust into a beat he didn’t want or enjoy. But Nick said, enthusiastically, that he was doing the job he always loved – news reporter. He had no complaint about the role.

Not that it much matters now, but Nick said he received his last “performance evaluation” from the company Wednesday, and it was, he said, “pretty damn good.”

(The company went to enormous lengths to create its performance-evaluation system and force a change in the union contract so that annual raises could be based on merit – although it proved to be grossly arbitrary in determining the winners and losers, and was more demoralizing than constructive. And now that The Sun is simply firing people – many of them among the most talented and experienced – it proves the evaluation system to have been an irrelevant waste of time and resources.)

As for Sara, a Sun staffer since 2003 and earlier an education reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, she emailed a note to friends about her decision, in addition to announcing her imminent departure on her education-beat blog at (The responses from readers are telling about how highly her work was regarded by the community that The Sun ostensibly wants to reach online.)

In her note to friends, Sara wrote of the reporters with low seniority about to lose their jobs through bumping:

“One is a friend who is the sole provider of his family of three and stands to lose his house. As he was telling me about his plight last week, I found myself blurting out that I'd like to give my job to save his.

“I was shocked by my words as soon as they were out of my mouth, but ever since then, it's been increasingly clear to me that leaving now will be the right thing for me as well as for whatever reporter whose job I save (unfortunately, I don't think it will be his, but it depends on how the bumping situation plays out over the next few days).

“I'll get five months of severance and vacation time, and I am confident from some job inquiries I've made recently that something will come through during that period. And, though I'm really sad to leave some wonderful colleagues and a great beat, I'll get out of what has become an increasingly unhappy environment. I would also be incredibly sad to leave my adopted home of Baltimore, but so far most of my prospects are in New York City, which would put me with my sister and a quick train ride from the rest of my family.

“So, I don't know what's next, except that 16 years after I fell in love with newspaper reporting as a high school sophomore, it's time to try something new, likely in education. I'm lucky that I've developed a second passion for the subject I've covered for nearly a decade, and public schools aren't going away nearly as quickly as newspapers are.”

Today, Monday, will be Sara’s last day at The Sun.

Nick said his treatment by top Sun editors was at least humane, given the advance notice a week earlier from Sam Davis, the newsroom’s assistant managing editor for administration who has found himself in the unfortunate role of a messenger with bad news for so many employees. Nick said he was advised to hang on to the possibility of a call-back until the bumping deadline of May 27 should others ahead of him in seniority rankings decide not to come back or, like Sara, volunteer for a layoff.

But even if he manages a return, there is no certainty of a future for anyone at The Baltimore Sun these days.

Sunday, as noted earlier, was the venerable newspaper’s 172nd birthday. When an institution is that old, such occasions rarely get notice – except maybe at numbers divisible by 25, when the marketing folks take advantage of it as a sales pitch.

The last such occasion included a specially fat commemorative Sunday edition of The Sun and this slogan: “The Story of Our Lives for 150 Years.”

I have that slogan sitting in front of me, emblazoned on a white commemorative mug produced for the 150th birthday. The metallic gold lettering is beginning to chip away with the passage of time and the mug’s delivery of an occasional dose of caffeine.

The Sun will turn 175 on May 17, 2012 – if it lives.

A lot of people have their doubts.


Anonymous said...

You've done an amazing job covering this horrifying event. I feel nauseated as I read about what transpired, but I continue reading because I worked with many of the fallen (1999-2003), respect their gifts/diligence tremendously, and in a weird way feel that knowing the details is a way of honoring them. Thank you, Ettlin. And to all my former colleagues, I hope that you soon have meaningful, decently paid work -- you're in my non-denominational prayers.

Kris Antonelli said...

What can any of us say..this is all so sad and even though I have been gone from the paper for awhile, I still have that sickening slow death feel in the pit of my stomach when I read about this..

Anonymous said...

Mr. Ettlin
Thanks for your commentary. I'm having trouble finding your email address and would be very interested to discuss some of this further. Could you drop me a line at