Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Self-immolation at the Houston paper

The layoffs at the Houston Chronicle cut much deeper into the editorial side of the newspaper than the announced company-wide 12 percent reduction that was announced by publisher Jack Sweeney.

By the count of newsroom workers who survived, 27 percent of the paper's editorial staffers were let go yesterday. That amounts to 90 employees, they said.

"Unbelievable," said one writer who managed to stay employed.

Chronicle management has not released any raw numbers regarding newsroom employees who were laid off, an omission that was noted by several readers who reacted to the online offering of reader representative Jim Newkirk, who posted a two-sentence "column" asking for reaction to the newspaper's "reorganization" -- without giving any details of the changes.

Several readers obliged.

"It is impossible to comment when almost no information is provided.
I find it humorous, actually. If another major business in Houston announced a 12% staff reduction with as little information as this, the Chronicle would be all over it like white on rice," said one.

Wrote another: "Funny that you have to read the Houston Press blog to find out the details of what's going on. The Chron is acting just like the TV stations do...they invite you to become familiar with a personality/writer, but give you no information when they're gone."

The newspaper, naturally, soft-pedaled its layoff coverage with a three-paragraph story that was buried. The online story promised readers "more information" in Newkirk's column, which, naturally, provided none.

The good news, at least for editorial workers, is that all the newsroom layoffs were handled yesterday.Today, management will notify employees in advertising, circulation and other departments that will be laid off.

Those who survived were left to ponder how the decisions were made and what it will mean for the future of Houston's only daily newspaper.

Several points stand out, some of them not-so-shocking and a few of them weird.

-- No upper management employees were laid off. Natch.

-- Management told employees no serious consideration was given to invoking wage cuts or involuntary furloughs, two strategies other newspapers are trying in dealing with the newspaper industry's decline.

-- The only two women on the editorial board -- Claudia Kolker and Veronica Bucio -- were laid off, leaving the board composed entirely of five white males. "They're talking about moving somebody up there that doesn't have a penis," snarked one miffed employee.

-- Houston is home to NASA, right? And they lay off the guy (Mark Carreau) who's covered NASA since the Challenger blew up in 1986?

-- The Chon, just a few months ago, brought in Tracy Barnett, the travel editor for its sister paper in San Antonio, to handle the travelogue beat for both papers from her new home in Houston -- then canned her yesterday.

-- The religion writer's gone. The book editor's gone. The transportation reporter's gone. Details to be worked out later, evidently.

-- With this layoff and previous ones, the newspaper has effectively abandoned the suburbs outside Beltway 8, where in past years the Chronicle was finding circulation gains. If you don't count the so-called Neighborhood staff, which puts out the weekly zoned editions (Zzzzzzz) and offers a handful of blogs (but which also suffered at least two layoffs we know of) there aren't any Chron newshounds in Sugarland, Katy, Conroe, Brazosport/Angleton or Beaumont. Ah, they're all hayseeds anyway, right? Good news for the local rags, we guess.

-- Four Chron newsroom couples were effectively "split up," with one getting the ax and the other remaining employed. Lawyers call that splittin' the baby.

-- Medical coverage to those laid off during this reduction will be given only 5 weeks medical coverage; the last layoff extended medical coverage for 3 months and the layoff previous to that payroll reduction provided for 6 months coverage. It has something to do with federal stimulus money now available to laid-off workers that's too complicated for us to fully explain, but it's a money-saver for the Hearst Corp. in New York.

-- Chronicle Vice-President and Editor Jeff Cohen never came out of his office to address the staff during the day-long process of buttonholing employees to deliver the bad news. Instead, he issued a memo. What a leader.

So what kind of newspaper will the Chronicle be with so many employees gone?

"Less a paper of record and more of the quote/unquote Big Picture," opined one.

We'll see.

Good luck to those who lost their jobs.

An Update

Wednesday afternoon --

It's clear now that mid-ranking managers at the Chronicle had no idea the newsroom reductions would be so dramatic.

As one worker bee put it, a management figure told him "he knew they'd be laying off a lot of people, but had never heard an actual figure. He also said that if Dan Cunningham or Jeff Cohen had told him that 90 people were getting the ax, he'd have figured his time had come and would have had his bags packed."

The Chron manager went on to say, " that he's been told the cuts were so deep this time because Hearst wanted to get down to the bare bones in hopes of riding out this downturn. The corporate prognosticators apparently are expecting a really rough year or 18 months ahead, and then a gradual rebound until things turn around at about the two-year mark," the employee told me.

More than one person with whom I once worked at the Houston Post when it was bought out by the Chron in 1995 said that in a way it's better losing your job at a newspaper that entirely collapses instead of watching coworkers get fired by the droves while you, somehow, manage to stay.

"At least back then, we were all in it together. This time, so many familiar faces have just vanished, and we're left with a much bigger workload and a load of survivors' guilt. I'd better stop there. This is getting way too depressing," the Chron employee said.


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Ryan Vennell said...

It looks to me like they probably just ran the numbers and cut some of the more fiscally beneficial people who were not "mission critical."

It's a raw deal for those let go, but unfortunately it's just a sign of the times. I can't blame them for trying to keep ends meeting in our present economy.

There were a lot more than 90 people let go at the plants down in the freeport area... I'm guessing a lot of these chron people won't have a terrible time finding new employment, although some may need to move elsewhere to do so. :-/

Anonymous said...

I'm told the Chron is making money hand over fist but has to subsidize Hearst's mismanagement in San Francisco and Seattle.

It's interesting to note that Express-News editor Robert Rivard wrote a column personally thanking many of the people laid off there, while Cohen didn't come out of his office.

Mrs. B. said...

The decline of the Chronicle began with Jeff Cohen, the "leader" who hid out in his office on firing day. No goodbye handshakes, good luck or well wishes of any kind. No courage, no class. What a wimp!