Friday, May 29, 2009

Newspapers: Staff shuffles, angst at The Sun

Bumping, new layoffs,
a reporter’s job recall keep
personnel door spinning

Five reporters volunteered to leave;
others keep eye out for new pastures

A month after Tribune Co. reapers rudely dispatched nearly a third of the news and editorial staff at The Baltimore Sun, the revolving personnel door is spinning again from the after-effects.

Several laid-off employees have exercised bumping rights under the union contract, moving back to former job classifications – at the cost of jobs or assignment transfers for less-senior staffers.

And in a newsroom seething in angst and discontent, several reporters have taken voluntary layoffs – with the happier result of saving the job of colleague Nick Madigan, and protecting others.

Two weeks and three days after departing the newsroom amid the supportive applause of his friends, Madigan is scheduled to return on Monday thanks to the latest voluntary departures -- of reporters Sara Neufeld, Rona Kobell and Rona Marech. Others leaving by choice are Stephen Kiehl and Tyeesha Dixon, both of whom are taking up the study of law. Given the rapid decline of the newspaper industry, that sounds like a mighty good career move.

Neufeld, as noted in earlier postings here and on her own education blog, decided to leave in hopes of saving Madigan’s job – Sara being young and unencumbered by family responsibilities, while Nick is the sole provider for his wife and young son and has a mortgage to pay.

Kobell's farewell note

Kobell, an environmental reporter and mother of a young daughter, was completing a journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan when she made a similar decision. She posted a message about that on her former blog at the newspaper Web site. It said, in part:

This year, I wrote a screenplay. I read good books. I put more miles on my bike than I did on my car. I picked up my daughter early from school and took her out for ice cream and to the library. I went out with my husband. I cooked dinner occasionally. I traveled - to Russia and Argentina and Northern Michigan and New York. I had time - a luxury foreign to journalists and working mothers - to think about what I want. And what I want is to keep doing all of those things. The two journalists in danger of losing their jobs want to keep them; to the extent that I can make that happen, I want to do that, too.

Rona Marech was on maternity leave during the newsroom massacre. Asked about her departure, which was effective this week, she wrote in an email:

Yes, I volunteered for a lay-off…. On July 1, I'm moving to Berlin for the year with my husband and baby. Josh was awarded a fellowship and will be teaching at a university in Berlin (and is also on research leave from his job at U. of Maryland for a semester). I'm hoping to freelance and have an adventure.

In addition to Madigan, the voluntary layoffs protected the jobs of reporters James Drew and Nicole Fuller – even as multi-talented copy editor Arthur Hirsch and sports writer Childs Walker bump back to the metro news reporting staff.

Bumping back to copy desk jobs

Coming back from layoffs, according to colleagues, are copy editors Connie Knox, a longtime union officer; Mark Fleming, who worked on the newspaper’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Shipbreakers” series by former Sun reporters Will Englund and Gary Cohn; and Jeffrey Landaw, for years a late-edition rear guard for breaking global news whose incredible breadth of knowledge saved The Sun from innumerable errors. As The Sun moved toward importing all its national and world news from Tribune’s nonunion content production staff in Chicago, Landaw found himself working as a copy editor in the sports department – where arcane facts of the likes of eastern European history are pretty much irrelevant.

Unfortunately, their returns meant layoffs for colleagues Norine Schiller, who had been at The Sun for 11 years, and Helen Jones, who had been at the newspaper longer – but because earlier positions she held have been eliminated, according to a colleague, could count only her nine years as a copy editor for seniority purposes.

Norine said she had been anticipating her own layoff as she watched the personnel numbers game play out – and like others losing jobs, she had no ill feelings for those bumping back inside to remain employed: “I don’t begrudge the people coming back one bit.”

Unlike the initial firings and layoffs that sent some 61 employees out without notice in less than 24 hours at the end of April, the subsequent personnel moves – layoffs, bumping and the departure and apparently lone company recall, of Madigan – have seemed deferentially polite by comparison.

Schiller said she might have as much as a week of work remaining before her tenure ends. A month ago, colleagues getting axed arrived for their evening shift and found their computer access denied. Electronic pass cards that got employees into the staff garage would not open the gate as they were leaving. Carried out amid the presence of a beefed up security guard presence, the firings and layoffs were a virtual ambush utterly lacking in respect for dedicated professionals.

Morale: How low can it go?

Despite the company’s more mannerly demeanor in the latest reshuffling of personnel, morale in the newsroom has reached a new low, according to accounts from those still there.

They tell of extreme disorganization as the newsroom staffing reassignments announced in detail less than 24 hours after the mass firings and layoffs moved reporters from their focus on important beats toward Web contributions and blogging. New editors were assigned to oversee areas of coverage in which they lacked experience or knowledge, and some found themselves writing headlines and overseeing page layouts for the first time. Reporters who had worked in partnership with well-versed editors found themselves alone in decision-making on coverage, and their stories getting minimal editing before rolling on the press.

And they’ve seen the only employee protection from arbitrary dismissal – the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild – eviscerated by buyouts, layoffs and selective transfers to newly-created Web-oriented jobs outside union jurisdiction. The contract expires in 2011, and union-jurisdiction survivors of the Purge of 2009 will find what little job security remains to be on very shaky ground.

For the folks getting their jobs back, there is inevitably fear that the return to work may prove no better than a reprieve. And it makes for a strange atmosphere when many, if not most, of the employees are keeping an eye out for jobs elsewhere and the opportunity to escape an oppressive and depressing work environment.

No stranger to layoffs

For Norine Schiller, a layoff is not a new experience. But at least this one was better-timed.

Layoffs around 1979-1980 from her first two newspaper jobs, at the Catonsville edition of the Star and at the Carroll County Evening Sun, came a day before and a day after Christmas; and after marrying and moving to Connecticut, she was among nearly 50 people shown the exit at the New Haven Register in 1990 – in her birthday week, she said.

As Norine noted in a Facebook comment after receiving the news on her latest layoff Thursday:

I have had a month to expect and mentally prepare for this possibility, so I am not floored by it -- unlike all the others who were shown the door the same day. I have made some volunteering arrangements to broaden my experience a little bit. Also, the other three times I was laid off, it was in fall or right at Christmas, so ... hey, summer vacation!

Her husband, Don Schiller, also was a Sun copy editor and was one of several people who briefly held the job I left as night metro editor two years ago in the Buyout Class of 2007. Don missed a buyout opportunity by a month last September as he took an editing job on a private industry’s internal magazine. “Right now we’re pretty happy he did this,” Norine said said of her husband’s new job. They are the parents of two sons, ages 10 and 12.

Looking around for freelance writing opportunities, or a new job, Norine said that for herself and some others leaving the newsroom, “It feels like we’ve gone back 20 years in our careers.”

Arthur Hirsch, meanwhile, was looking forward after three years on the copy desk to his imminent return to “the ringside seat” he enjoyed as a reporter.

“I learned a lot; the copy desk was a very good experience,” said Hirsch, who since 2002 has been teaching nonfiction writing as an adjunct instructor at Johns Hopkins University. He added that he missed the role of being an observer of people’s lives and “being able to ask questions.”

Hirsch, bumping over from the copy desk, is expected to be moving into an open news beat he had inquired about as “a faith and values writer” – working with editor and former Sun religion and national reporter Matthew Hay Brown. “He knows more about the subject than I do. I can learn from him.”

He was relieved that in returning to the reporting ranks, thanks to the voluntary departures of Neufeld, Kobell, Marech, Kiehl and Dixon, “I will not be pushing someone else out the door.”

Timely symposium looks to future

"The End of Local News? If Communities Lose Newspapers, Who Will Fill the Void?" That’s the title for a symposium in Baltimore scheduled from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 2, in Westminster Hall at 519 West Fayette Street. (Not to be gloomy and doomy, but the hall is a former church built in the cemetery where Edgar Allan Poe is buried.)

Panelists include Baltimore Sun editor Monty Cook (he probably still won’t apologize for the rude manner of last month’s staff massacre); Mark Potts, former reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post, co-founder of and proponent of hyperlocal, user-generated news sites; Jayne Miller, chief investigative reporter, WBAL-TV; John J. Oliver Jr., publisher, The Afro-American newspaper; and Timothy A. Franklin, Louis A.Weil, Jr. Endowed Chair, Indiana University School of Journalism, who is Cook’s predecessor as Sun editor.
The symposium was arranged by Sandra A. Banisky, who left her job as deputy managing editor of The Sun to become the Abell Professor in Baltimore Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
Details on the event, which is open to the public :

More food for thought

If you really want another peek at the future of local journalism, check out this look at Tribune’s next big thing about to have its rollout in Chicago – and likely a model for what’s to come at The Baltimore Sun. (Personal prediction: When it comes to Baltimore, The Sun’s journalistically embarrassing free tabloid ‘b’ will be quietly rolled into the Web project and then killed.)

This comes, by the way, via the blog of symposium panelist Potts:

Yet another very worthwhile read, particularly considering that its author, James Warren, is a former Chicago Tribune managing editor (and, as my not-so-shabby friend and former colleague Bill Glauber notes, a terrific journalist):

Finally, this appears at on Saturday May 30 -- yup, I update these posts occasionally -- on the union concessions vote aimed at saving a couple of Maine newspapers. Interestingly, The Sun provided far more detail on this story than on its own recent cutbacks . But it is an interesting development in the wider story of newspaper failures:,0,2814742.story.

That should be enough to keep you off the streets and out of trouble until Tuesday.


Kris Antonelli said...

I just want to wish everyone still at or leaving the Sun the best of luck in pursuing their journalism passion..and thank you Ettlin for keeping this former Sun staffer up-to-date on it all...

thom loverro said...

Ettlin, thanks for getting all this down somewhere for people to read and look back on when history shows the mistakes that were made by the bean counters. You know, someone should be doing video interviews of city hall reporters, cop reporters, hell, baseball writers all across the country for posterity, or else Hollywood will start doing it and muck it up

David Ettlin said...

The Real Muck likes how you use the word 'muck,' Thom.

Unknown said...

David - Thanks so much for this and all of your other Sun-related postings. -- Harry Merritt

Unknown said...

David - Thanks so much for this and all of your other Sun-related postings. -- Harry Merritt

Maria Stainer (formerly Sague) said...

David, thanks for keeping us in the loop on our hometown paper. To all of my friends who have lost their jobs and those who are still there, I'm thinking of you, crying with you, praying for you and wishing you all of the best...