Thursday, December 31, 2009

Surviving the massacre

It's New Year's Eve but I'm in no mood for celebrating anything considering I lived through one of the most wretched days I've had in a long time.
Yesterday, the Washington Times laid off 65 percent of the newsroom; approximately 110 reporters, editors, photographers and other employees. Today, most of them showed up to pack their belongings. It was absolutely horrible having to say good-bye to people whom I've known for more than 14 years. Four departments: photo, sports, metro and entertainment, were decimated. Business did not fare too well either. Nearly everyone in management was wiped out. Both our managing editors (David Jones and Jeff Birnbaum) are gone. The deputy ME, Ted Agres, is also gone, as are nearly all the assistant managing editors, such as Barbara Slavin and Geoff Etnyre (who was my boss). Only 12 editors remain, I believe: six on the news desk and another six elsewhere in the newsroom although that number is fungible. Several people on foreign desk, including old friends like Willis Witter, are gone or their fate is unknown. Four employees remain on that desk. Our web desk also lost quite a few folks, such as Jilly Badanes (the bright, cheery face on our webcasts who was the face of the newsroom each morning), Jim Ivancic and David Eldredge.
National desk, which I am on, fared a bit better although Ben Conery, Richard Slusser, Mike Wheatley, Andrea Billups and Sean Lengell (some of them did politics as well) were let go. Sean was the last person I bade farewell to when I left this evening and he was busily trying to go through all his emails, as were many other folks today (before their accounts were shut off).
I missed the big staff meeting yesterday when all this was announced (we were flying into Dulles at that moment - more on that later) so it was with lots of trepidation I arrived at work today. Arriving at the human resources department, I was handed a thin envelope, which meant I was staying. About 60 of us were retained. Those who were being let go had thicker packets detailing their severance packages. A hapless sports writer, Mark Zuckerman, walked in with me. He was one of 25 sports department workers who was let go. He gamely said he expected it. Then it was back down to an awfully grim newsroom where folks were cramming their belongings into boxes and hugging each other.
(By the way, a staff writer at the Washington Post wrote a really classy column here that said really nice things about our sports department and how they often did a better job than did the Post at covering sports stories. I also was heartened by how, in the past few weeks, people from outside the paper including several competitors, emailed me to see how I was doing. Thank you, all.)
It was impossible to concentrate and do much work with all this happening, so I spent much of my day saying good-bye to everyone and getting emails from folks I wished to keep in touch with. Although a lot of the politics reporters were kept, long-timers like Greg Pierce were let go. The big shock on national desk was that Audrey Hudson, our national security reporter who spent Christmas Day at work reporting on the Northwest Airlines would-be bomber, was also let go. No one could understand that one. I wandered over to features, where I said good-bye to Stephanie Green, who has really made a name for herself doing what I'd call investigative society reporting, for lack of a better description. She ended up having to write the article that announced her own layoff. She was packing up. So was Gabriella Boston, Denise Yourse and Cindy Brown.
Barbara Slavin, who was brought in from USA Today only about 18 months ago, was a real class act, as she went around the newsroom shaking hands with everyone and wishing them well before she left. It was just heartbreaking to see some of the editors and reporters who, on their last day there, were faithfully working on their last assignments to get out tomorrow's paper instead of walking out on the spot. One poor woman on news desk was celebrating her birthday with two chocolate cakes by the coffee pot - and she was being let go as well.
Most of the folks I talked with had no idea where they will end up. One of the librarians, Clark Eberly, may go back to school. Only two had definite jobs they were sure they'd get. Everyone else who had been sending out resumes said they'd had no luck whatsoever. My across-the-aisle seatmate, Don Lambro, will still have his syndicated political column but he's in no mood to retire yet. He was let go. So was Rita Tiwari, who helped do bookkeeping for the newsroom. One of the worst-luck stories is Lois Carlson, who worked alongside Rita. Not only did she lose her job; so did her husband, Eric, who works in the library. They have three kids but no income. Wally Hindes, who did radio for us, is also gone.
And our photographers - I got to say good-bye to a few, but we had an excellent batch who nearly landed a Pulitzer in 2003. Only two - Joe Eddins and Melissa Cannarozzi - are being kept on, mainly to do desk work. The new photo editor, Janet Reeves, had fortunately kept her home in Denver when she moved here last fall. Good thing she did.
Lots and lots of conversations were held about what is in store for those of us who stay. Nothing has been revealed as to what we should expect but fortunately for me and two other reporters on related beats, the Higher Ups wanted to retain reporting on social and cultural issues, which includes religion. Considering that so many religion reporters have lost their jobs this year, I am very fortunate to still have mine.
But to lose so much unbelievable talent is such a sad way to close out the year. I am enclosing a photo of Veeka in the cockpit of our Boeing 757 which flew us back from Seattle yesterday. We got up at 4 a.m. to make the flight, but she acted like a little angel the whole time.
Here's to hoping 2010 will be a better year.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Farewell Aunt Dot & hello snow

Soon after Miss Veeka arrived on these shores, my Uncle Ed passed away and she came with me to his funeral on a sunny March day, adding much light and joy. She fulfilled this duty again on Thursday when we had a funeral at the same church and same grave site locale for his wife, Dorothy Duin, who passed away Dec. 9 in California. Her family flew here (from California and London at no little expense) to have a pre-Christmas funeral and so we all showed up on a sunny-but-wintery day of 40-degree temps to say good-bye. It was so odd to be back at the same places we were at nearly three years ago when we said good-bye to Ed. Instead, this time it was Nancy who gave the farewell sermon instead of my father.
It being Dec. 17, I was the only member of the family who got there as tickets were at a premium this crowded time of year. The first photo is of Veeka posing with Nancy and Alex, one of Dot's daughters with the only grandchild. After the funeral, we all went to the lovely home of one of the St. Paul's Lutheran Church parishioners who put on a great spread. The second photo shows Veeka on Alex's lap. Sadly, I am not sure when I'll see him or his aunts/my cousins again.
Speaking of which, they are stranded here as we speak due to the lovely two feet of snow we are receiving as I type (on Dec. 19). All the flights in and out today have been cancelled. Turns out we have tickets to Seattle and for a time, I was unhappy that I could not get us out of here until Christmas Eve. Now I am very grateful we are not leaving for another five days because the airports will be horribly jammed at the beginning of the week with all those poor folks who could not get out today. I put Veeka in her old snow suit and photographed her romping around the backyard. Problem is, I forgot to buy her new boots and her feet were way too small for the tiny boots we crammed them into.
I did, I will add, teach her now to make a snow angel.
The big mercy is this is all occurring over the weekend, so no one has to get to work for two days. The snowplowing in town has been lackadaisical at best, so at present, my car is trapped in my garage as the alley is piled high with white stuff.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

40 % to be laid off

Well, the other shoe did drop and we were told Wednesday (the 2nd) that 40 percent of our 370-person workforce would be laid off. That means about 170 people. All sorts of guessing is going on right now as to which sections (entertainment? metro? sports?) will get the ax and whether those of us who work on national desk are truly safer. Providentially, our main competition ran a front-page story on the layoffs and the last thing the president of our company said is he wants to keep the religion/values reporting. So *my* job seems secure although technically we have all been laid off. Then 60% will be told they are retained, although the conditions they will continue to work under might be quite different. Which is what a lot of us are also wondering about.
Anyway, the first wave of people who will have to go will start in about two weeks, we're told, JUST before Christmas. Isn't the timing lovely? So of course all of us are wondering how much to spend for Christmas, whether that bathroom remodel we'd planned for January will have to be scrapped; that sort of thing. Many people in the newsroom are quite depressed and angry at the recent revelations of some of the obscenely high salaries that the higher-ups in my organization were getting while the rest of us have been scraping along. It's been a real morale killer.
But at this point all of us are simply glad to have work - and health insurance - which puts us in a better place than where many Americans are at this point.