A Horrible Week for Newspapers

newspapers against plain background shot with very shallow depth of field
newspapers against plain background shot with very shallow depth of field

For those who love newspapers, this has been a horrible week.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which had already cut back its daily print run to three days a week, announced layoffs of an additional three dozen editorial side employees.

The Los Angeles Times -- which recently laid off its publisher, though I have never been consumed by concern for publishers -- is planning a new round of cuts on top of previous cuts, which would leave a newsroom with just half of the staff it had at its journalistic heights. The report by the Poynter Institute says other Tribune properties plan comparable cuts, as newspaper economics continue to try to come to grips with the challenges of online journalism.

But nothing compares to the blood-letting at the Daily News, where virtually the entire institutional memory of New York City's most important local newspaper was decimated. Some of the names are known widely -- Hall of Fame baseball writer Bill Madden, Albany columnist and editorial board member Bill Hammond, chief political reporter and blogger Celeste Katz, and Mike Lupica, the sports columnist and more recently front-of-the-book political columnist whose contract, according to reports, has not been renewed.

Sports took a particularly savage hit, with investigative editor Teri Thompson out the door, along with columnists and writers Roger Rubin, Hank Gola, Wayne Coffey and a personal favorite, Filip Bondy.

The paper also laid off veterans newsmen and women like political editor Ellen Tumposky, desk editor Jim Harney and assignment editor Jill Coffey. TV critic David Hinckley and music critic Jim Farber are gone, as is features writer Justin Rocket Silverman.

These people's tenures at the Daily News combined reached into the centuries.

I watched this with a particular sense of dread, having been unexpectedly laid off without warning by the News in 2001 from my post as a senior political reporter who covered politics, Brooklyn, City Hall and elsewhere. As I learned six years earlier when my old paper, New York Newsday, was shuttered with no warning, newspaper people tend to mind everyone's business but their own.

In my case, my layoff happened at the scariest possible time. I had two pre-schoolers at home, and my wife was unemployed for the first time in decades. I went in to see the editors at the time, not in the expectation anything would change, but just to make them as uncomfortable as possible.

I asked them if they knew I had two pre-schoolers and a wife out of work and they said no. I asked them why I was laid off, and they said - no doubt carefully avoiding saying anything that could come back at them in an employment discrimination suit I had no intention of ever filing - it was just one of those things.

Was it because I was too old? No, just one of those things. Was I paid too much? Just one of those things. Was it because I was a lousy reporter? No, just one of those things.

I suppose the statute of limitations has run on this offence, so I can admit that at that time, our separation agreement required us to abide by a gag order or face the loss of a severance aimed in part at buying our silence. Appalled at the idea of a newspaper imposing a gag order, I immediately leaked it to a former colleague now at a separate paper who wrote it up which got the gag order reversed. Not the layoffs - just the gag order.

My heart breaks as a former reporter who has ink in the blood, but also as a New Yorker that has depended on the News for the closest thing we have in this city to a newspaper that covers the neighborhoods of the city, although their closing of borough bureaus in recent years was as clear a case of writing on the wall as you could find.

It is clear to me, though of course I have no inside knowledge to say this is true, that billionaire real estate mogul and News publisher Mort Zuckerman -- who tried and failed to sell the paper earlier this year -- plans to shut down the print edition and try to make a go of it on-line. That may make some sense economically despite the fact that online journalism has yet proven to be dependably profitable.

But New York is still a newspaper town, if for no other reason that we need to read tabloid-shaped papers on the subway because if you look up and lock eyes with someone in a subway car, that person may stab you for invading their psychic space.

I do have advice for my former colleagues facing sudden separation from a job they love, some of whom have held that job for as long as Madden's 37 years at the News.

One of the problems in confronting a layoff from a newspaper is that being a reporter is supposedly a reality-based job, and I realized immediately that the world would go on without me. I didn't think it should, but I realized that everybody would rue my departure but get over the shock quickly and go on with their own lives.

At the time I was laid off, journalism was already a shrinking business, a trend that has gone beyond the epidemic stage today. I tried to find another journalism job. One such attempt was to call my former editor at Newsday, who told me he would like to help me but the only opening he had was for a minority columnist.

"I'm Jewish," I said.

"This is not Atlanta," he said. I told him that instead of suing him for impolitic comments, I would steal that line.

And I realized that looking for a job was a job in and of itself. I resolved that I would not sit at home feeling sorry for myself, because that would accomplish absolutely nothing. One thing each laid-off journalist has, especially those who were still working the streets and beats, is an extensive network of influential contacts they should contact.

That's what I did, and got lots of lunches out of the deal, and eventually four job offers in public relations before the buyout the News gave me ran out. I did not take the highest paying offer but the one that promised the most interesting and political client base.

So the world will go on, and I urge those facing sudden layoffs not to seize the time for a long delayed vacation or extended period of deeply-desired loafing. Just as the layoffs reveal that we are all ultimately little more than variable costs, the pace of public affairs in the modern world means our shelf-life as a known quantity has an expiration date.

There is life after ink. You have to go out and find it.

But don't let that change the fact that what the Daily News - and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and apparently the Los Angeles Times and other Tribune papers - is doing is not only cutting costs, but cutting a piece of the heart out of the cities they claim to care about.

That sucks.