- Times-Picayune staff members gathered at Wit's Inn in Mid-City after a day that saw more than 200 people fired at the newspaper.
On May 29, Times-Picayune reporter Danny Monteverde was covering the murder of Briana Allen, the 5-year-old who was shot to death at a child's birthday party at Simon Bolivar Avenue and Thalia Street. Monteverde was tackling the delicate task of interviewing Briana's family.
When the interview was over, one of the girl's cousins said to him, gently, "I'm sorry about what's happening to your newspaper."
Two weeks later, on June 12, Monteverde lost his job.
He was just one of more than 200 Times-Picayune employees who were told that day that their services would no longer be required after Sept. 30. Eighty-four of the cuts came from the newsroom staff that previously numbered 175 — a 48 percent reduction.
Besides the newsroom carnage, the paper's entire marketing department was fired save one person. All special sections employees, the library staff and human resources employees were presented with severance papers. The pressroom was cut by nearly 40 percent. The cutbacks came in preparation for the end of the paper's daily publication schedule this fall. The Times-Picayune will publish thrice weekly after the fired employees' final day: September 30.
No one from the Newhouse family or its privately owned Advance Publications, the parent company of The Times-Picayune, was on hand to deliver the news. That morbid task fell to a small group of the paper's editors in brief individual meetings with those whom they supervised — some of them for decades. In what became a common display of gallows humor, some reporters took to calling the cast of supervisors who culled the staff "The Death Panel."
The paper's new publisher, Ricky Mathews, who also is overseeing similar if not more drastic cuts at Newhouse papers he has been running in Alabama, was absent from the newsroom throughout the termination process. On the day of the firings, Steven Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net, told The New York Times' Campbell Robertson, "We have no intention of selling — no matter how much noise is out there."
Many staffers had taken comfort in that "noise" — calls and emails from readers as well as an online "Save the Picayune" petition and the work of the Times-Picayune Citizens' Group, which has issued letters from business leaders and advertisers urging Newhouse to reconsider its plans to scale back the print edition. City Council President Jackie Clarkson, who had no comment on the changes when Gambit reached her two weeks earlier, finally issued a statement last week. "It is with deep regret that I have to write this after speaking with Mr. Mathews and [editor Jim] Amoss," Clarkson wrote, "but I find it hard to discuss the situation with friends, family and colleagues (from across the country), who all agree that not having a daily paper will hurt our city's image."
Two days after the firings, Amoss appeared on PBS' NewsHour with moderator Judy Woodruff and New York Times media columnist David Carr to discuss the cuts. "The changes are indeed dramatic," Amoss told Woodruff, "but the overall intention — and we will follow through with it — is that we will be a strong and accepted deep news report that has both immediacy and depth to it.
"We will continue to have by far the most complete and the most formidable news-gathering muscle in this community, and readers will just have to hold us accountable to that promise that I'm making."
It was hard to see that bright future on June 12, when axes were falling everywhere at 3800 Howard Avenue.
Richard Thompson, a business writer, brought a bottle of Crown Royal to his meeting with his supervisor. He ended up splitting it with business editor Kim Quillen. Both were fired.
So was longtime religion reporter Bruce Nolan, who had confronted Amoss — with whom he had graduated from Jesuit High School more than 45 years ago — in a speech that was taped and leaked out of the newsroom after a contentious meeting with employees. So was St. Tammany bureau chief Ron Thibodeaux, a three-decade veteran who just the week before published a book, Hell Or High Water, which gave a Cajun perspective on Hurricanes Rita and Ike. So was St. Tammany reporter Christine Harvey.
So were education reporter Barri Bronston, reporters Katy Reckdahl and Paul Purpura, sportswriter Lori Lyons, editor Dennis Persica, Baton Rouge reporter Ed Anderson, columnist Sheila Stroup, horse racing writer Bob Fortus, political cartoonist Steve Kelley, photo editor Doug Parker and photographers John McCusker, Matthew Hinton, Scott Threlkeld, Ellis Lucia and Eliot Kamenitz — along with dozens of others.
So were managing editors Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea, who had been shut out of earlier discussions with Mathews about the scale of the cuts and the plan to race toward digital publishing. Shea told colleagues his last day would be June 15.
Some who were tendered chances to stay were offered new assignments. Political columnist Stephanie Grace and investigative reporter Cindy Chang, who helmed the paper's recent eight-part investigation into Louisiana prisons, were both offered general reporting slots. Ramon Antonio Vargas, a Northshore crime-and-courts reporter, likewise can stay on — covering sports. Reporter James Varney was offered a job as political columnist; he appears to be one of the few for whom the change resembles a promotion. Overall, those in the sports and features departments — and on the city desk — fared better than co-workers who worked specific news beats or in the paper's bureaus, some of which were decimated. The K-12 state education beat, which was covered by four reporters and a part-timer, was reduced to one person.
Among the few beat reporters offered a chance to stay on with NOLA Media Group, the newly minted company that will run NOLA.com and the thrice-weekly Picayune, was veteran environmental writer Mark Schleifstein, who shared in two of the paper's four Pulitzer Prizes. Schleifstein described the scene in the newsroom on the day of the cuts as "Katrina without the water."
"It was very disconcerting and very emotional," Schleifstein told NPR the next day.
"There was a lot of crying and a lot of hugging and people streamed in all day long to meet with individual editors, who provided them with a packet that was either a job offer, like mine was, or a severance package that gave them the news as to whether or not they would still be around."
The list of those fired dribbled out of the building throughout the morning and afternoon. Employees described scenes of watching their co-workers emerge from meetings into the newsroom with either tentative thumbs-up or throat-slashing gestures. Many of those who had been fired left for the day, clutching white envelopes with the details of their severance packages. Others took to Facebook and Twitter to spread the news and commiserate.
Those invited to stay with NOLA Media Group were given two weeks to decide whether to accept the "conditional offer" (which includes a background check and drug testing) or opt for severance. Several of those who spoke to Gambit afterward said the offer didn't include even the most basic details of the new jobs, such as to whom they would be reporting or what their specific duties would be with the new company. Some said they faced certain reductions in job benefits.
Those offered severance will get roughly 1.5 weeks of pay for each year of service (capped at one year of compensation) and 45 days in which to decide whether to accept the offer. If they accept severance, their jobs will continue until the end of September, unless they find another job in the meantime and leave early.
Staffers — both those invited to stay and those fired — were angry at the lack of specificity in the packages, saying they still have many unanswered questions. Some requested a meeting with Amoss and online editor Lynn Cunningham before they had to decide. (Amoss and Cunningham had ignored a written list of questions in an open letter from staffers the week before.) Others had already consulted lawyers.
"They botched this like everything else," said one person who asked not to be quoted by name, citing a company non-disparagement clause in the severance papers.
There were more botches to come, all of them unprofessional and some incredibly painful.
NOLA.com's original story about the firings said, "Among the more notable names leaving the paper are award-winning restaurant critic Brett Anderson and longtime sports columnist Peter Finney." This came as news to Finney's family and friends, as Finney had not yet had his meeting with his boss — and was said to be at home composing his latest column when news of his firing appeared online. Margaret Albert, a family friend, told Gambit that several comments she later posted about the "heartless timing debacle" were removed from NOLA.com.
"Pete Finney got one line in the rewrite," Albert told Gambit in an email. "Once again, I tried to comment. Even though I'm signed in, my comment simply wouldn't post. ... The censorship of comments calling attention to heinous publishing errors causes me grave concern over what to expect in the future from Steven Newhouse."
On NewsHour, Amoss told Woodruff that "Finney will be writing for us with the same frequency with which he writes for us now, albeit on a correspondent, freelance basis."
That further came as news to Finney, as he had signed nothing — because the NOLA Media Group had not tendered a financial offer for his services.
Then there was the chaos in the paper's dining section. Anderson, the James Beard Award-winning writer who chronicled the rebound of the restaurant industry and the seafood industry after Hurricane Katrina and the BP disaster, was fired as the paper's restaurant critic Tuesday in a five-minute meeting, igniting outrage across the culinary community and objections from some of the paper's advertisers.
Amoss and Anderson were seen dining together at Lilette Wednesday and Mandina's Thursday. On Thursday, Amoss reassured The New York Times that dining reviews would continue in the new paper. Meanwhile, Susan Langenhennig, the paper's fashion editor and recently promoted restaurant columnist, went on Twitter Thursday to say she would be easing into the role of reviewer in the fall, stressing she could never take Anderson's place.
Then the rug was pulled out from under Langenhennig. On Friday, Amoss reversed course, announcing that the paper would indeed tender an offer to Anderson to stay on after he completes a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University over the next year.
As of press time, Anderson had not accepted the offer.
After Tuesday's firings, many T-P staffers gathered at Wit's Inn, a Mid-City bar. Colleagues from the Chicago Tribune phoned in and opened a tab for their compatriots. Of the editors who had carried out the firings, only one showed up by 10 p.m. — city editor Gordon Russell, who chose not to speak to Gambit about the events of the day.
Kovacs came by. Shea was there, dressed all in black. Longtime reporter Frank Donze, who opted to leave his job at the paper, donned a souvenir post-Katrina T-shirt that noted the paper published "come hell and high water." McCusker, a New Orleans native with more than two decades of service to the paper, chewed his trademark cigar, shaking his head. "It's a sad day for journalism," he said, "and for the city of New Orleans."
Many wouldn't speak on the record because of non-disparagement clauses in their paperwork. "It's unfair to start the clock without giving us all the information," one said, citing the two-week window to accept the offer of continued employment. Another asked, "Can I lose my severance by talking to Gambit?"
Susan Finch, a veteran reporter who left the paper in 2009, was outside the bar with her dog Nola Marie. "They [the Newhouse organization] have no knowledge of what this paper has meant to this town for 175 years," she said. Joking acidly about the marble squares in The Times-Picayune's entranceway, she said, "Hey, if it ceases to be profitable, they [Newhouse] can always turn it into a mausoleum."
Karen Carvin Shachat, a longtime New Orleans political consultant, surveyed the crowd, which included married reporters Bill Barrow and Michelle Krupa (both received offers to stay) and their new baby. "Frankly, I don't think this [digital and limited print production] is the future for all newspapers," Shachat said. "And I don't believe NOLA.com can have the same sort of in-depth investigative reporting as The Times-Picayune.
"I have been the victim of, and the beneficiary of, the [paper's] editorial agenda," Shachat added, "and I know that a lot of people who don't like the Picayune — and there are a lot of them — are upset by this."
Outside Wit's Inn, someone called up NOLA.com on a smartphone and tried to watch a video of Amoss that had been posted earlier in the day. It was addressed to the paper's readers. In the video, Amoss promised the new, smaller news operation's future might be digital rather than print, but it would be just as bright.
The video, however, was not formatted to play on smartphones.
While employees and soon-to-be ex-employees sobered up the day after the ax fell, they got a few bits of good news. The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), which begins its annual convention in New Orleans this week, announced it was opening its job fair to affected T-P employees, regardless of race. Author and humorist Garrison Keillor sent a note of support, as did Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau. And the journalism team behind "Louisiana INCarcerated," the paper's recent eight-part series on state prisons, won the Hillman Foundation's prestigious June Sidney Award, which is given for "investigative work that fosters social and economic justice."
The team that produced the series included Chang and fellow reporters Jan Moller and John Simerman, as well as reporter Jonathan Tilove, photographer Scott Threlkeld, graphics artist Ryan Smith, copy editor Katherine Hart, designer George Berke and managing editors Shea and Kovacs.
All but Chang, Moller and Simerman had been fired from the paper the day before.