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.