In this excerpt from the book "Hell and High Water," Rebecca Theim describes the day staffers learned their fates at The Times-Picayune.
Former Times-Picayune staffer Rebecca Theim has written Hell and High Water, a book that covers the dramatic transition of The Times-Picayune from a beloved daily paper to a website-led paper that, as it cut frequency and staff, burned off much of that good will. The story has been told in across a host of publications, websites and Facebook posts, but Theim pulls the pieces together in a clear narrative that fills in some of the contexts. She puts the changes at The Times-Picayune next to changes in other papers owned by Advance Publications - stories less told here - and by retelling harrowing stories of the staffers' coverage of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, she underscores how much better they deserved to be treated.
Theim was a part of the story as an active participant in the Friends of The Times-Picayune Editorial Staff Facebook page, and she created dashTHIRTYdash to help raise money for staffers affected by the changes. Still, she doesn't step with undue weight on the events for cheap drama or impact. She lets what happened and its impact on the New Orleans community create all the necessary heat.
She will read from Hell and High Water Thursday night at 6 p.m. at Octavia Books. In this excerpt from the book, she recounts the day when employees leanred whether or not they would continue to have jobs at The Times-Picayune.
The axe finally fell June 12, 2012, twenty days after Carr’s New York Times story broke. One-third of the Times-Picayune’s employees would lose their jobs, effective September 30, including nearly one-half of the newsroom. “Today is a painful day for many of us at the newspaper,” Amoss said in a statement reported in the morning’s edition of the newspaper and on NOLA.com. “But our goal is to serve our community well into the future. That means moving aggressively into the digital world while maintaining a substantial print presence. We have a well thought-out plan. We’re committed to being the journalistic watchdog of our communities. We’re committed to the high quality of journalism our readers have come to expect from us, produced by a formidable news staff. And we’re committed to deploying by far the largest news-gathering team in the region.”
The day started uncharacteristically early for NOLA.com copy editor Cathy Hughes, who typically worked until 11 p.m. or midnight, but was asked by online editor Cunningham, her supervisor, to report to the newspaper at 7 a.m. “I was totally shocked,” Hughes recalled during a March 2013 interview about hearing the news that she would be losing her job. “I cried, and I guess she didn’t expect it, because she didn’t have any tissue and scurried off to the restroom to bring me some of those brown hand towels.” As she was leaving the meeting, Hughes noticed fliers hanging in the newsroom informing employees that counselors would be available in Human Resources, “but HR was locked up; they weren’t in yet.”3 Although HR was not yet in the building, other employees did report increased security throughout the downtown office.
Amoss, Cunningham, Lorando, and sports editor Doug Tatum— derisively dubbed “the firing squad” by some employees—were stationed throughout the various editorial departments that filled the building’s third floor, and met individually in five-to- ten-minute increments with staff members to inform them of their fates. Mathews was not seen with his new subordinates, or even in the building, on the day of the announcements. As employees emerged from the executive offices where many of the meetings were held, most returned to the newsroom and an anxious throng of waiting colleagues, and signaled—with either a thumbs-up or a slash across the throat—whether they had been asked to stay or would be terminated. For friends, alumni, and supporters who were not at the newspaper’s offices that day, the scene played out on the Facebook page, as recounted by alumna Renée Peck on NolaVie, the New Orleans nonprofit lifestyle and culture website she co-founded after leaving the newspaper in 2009:
The numbers on Facebook’s Friends of the Times-Picayune Editorial page continued to mount, hour by hour.
After 27, it’s a -30-
And thus legacy journalists signaled, succinctly and poignantly, the end of their careers, in a way that only their peers could appreciate and understand. “Thirty” is the traditional notation that a reporter writes after an article, telling editors that the story has come to an end. And so it has for 201 Times-Picayune employees, who were told in one-on-one meetings Tuesday that they will not be among the hires when NOLA Media Group starts up in the fall.
Visiting the Facebook page at just about any point that day was to witness a digital death march.
Among those also terminated were assistant city editor Rhonda Nabonne, who had been with the newspaper for nearly forty years, and Katy Reckdahl, who had been lauded for carving out a beat in recent years covering poverty and the large cross-section of often-overlooked New Orleanians caught in its grip (and who had given birth to her son one day before Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005). Twenty-something business reporter Ricky Thompson arrived in the newsroom that morning with a bottle of Crown Royal, which he offered to share with his boss, business editor Kim Quillen, and then with city editor Gordon Russell, with whom he had his meeting to discuss his future employment. Thompson also brought a photograph of his family to his meeting with Russell, in a comically faux attempt to invoke sympathy. It didn’t work; both Thompson and Quillen were terminated. Also dismissed were scores of bureau chiefs and assistant editors, nationally syndicated political cartoonist Steve Kelley, eleven artists, and eight photographers.5 The copy desk—any newspaper’s quality control hub—was devastated. The entire HR department and library staff were eliminated (although librarian Danny Gamble was ultimately “unfired” and remained with the organization), along with nearly half of the display advertising creative department. Forty percent of the pressroom, 42 percent of the packaging center (the employees who assemble the newspaper), and nearly 42 percent of transportation were targeted.
Among those laid off was photographer John McCusker, who had spent his entire twenty-six-year professional career at the newspaper, beginning as a freelancer while completing his college degree at Loyola University New Orleans. “There are things about that day that I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” he recalled in March 2013. “When I went in to see Lynn [Cunningham], I had no illusions about what was going to happen. She said, ‘John, we’re offering you a severance,’ and I replied, ‘OK, fine, Lynn, I don’t want to work for your f—ing company anyway.’”
St. Tammany Parish bureau chief Ron Thibodeaux, who had been with the newspaper since 1981, was scheduled to meet with Amoss, while Thibodeaux’s twenty-odd staffers would be told by Lorando whether they still had jobs. “Jim had very little to say to me,” Thibodeaux remembered nine months later. “He appeared to be reading a script. He said that tough decisions had to be made and there was no place for me in the new organization.” At the conclusion of the two-minute exchange, Thibodeaux had only one question. “I was Father Goose to eighteen or twenty people, and I wanted to know what was going to happen to my staff, but he wouldn’t tell me. He said I’d find out with everyone else.”
Longtime photo editor Doug Parker recalled a similar meeting with Amoss. Parker’s termination came in the same room and in the same chair in which he had sat when Amoss promoted him to his current post eighteen years earlier. “No emotion. No apologies. Not even a thank you. Hell, he couldn’t even look me in the eye,” Parker remembered in March 2013. Parker’s wife, photographer Kathy Anderson had accepted a buyout from the newspaper in 2009 to start her own photography business. She recalled the reaction of the couple’s two high-school-aged daughters when they heard about their father’s termination. “‘Why should we even try to go to college?’ their oldest daughter asked Anderson. ‘We can’t afford to go after Dad got laid off.’ That was the most heartbreaking thing of all of this.” At the time, Parker also was dealing with the terminal illness of his father, who he recalled asking, “‘Doug, how are you going to feed your family?’ Here’s a World War II fighter pilot dying of cancer and he was worried about us.”
A longtime employee, who provided details about his meeting with Amoss on the condition that his identity would not be revealed, recalled an encounter equally devoid of empathy or emotion. “I kept waiting for an acknowledgement, but we just stared at each other,” the veteran employee remembered. “I asked him if that was it, and he said yes. I shook my head, picked up my packet and left. To do that so coldly, without any acknowledgement of what people had contributed over the years, was unconscionable. There was no humanity to it.”
Religion reporter Bruce Nolan was regarded by some in the newsroom as bullet-proof after his heralded statement at the May staff meeting. That proved not to be the case. His termination meeting with Russell was at least more humane than many held by other managers. “By the time I came in, he was pummeled,” Nolan told the Columbia Journalism Review in March 2013, referring to Russell. “He was beaten up. He was very sorry; he was remorseful. He said, ‘This is a terrible thing; I’m sorry this is happening to you. You know how much I love you.’ We both understood we were being carried along by forces bigger than both of us. And I came out, and I walked through a corridor and into the newsroom, where everyone is standing around. It’s a death march. Every face turns to me, and I draw my finger across my throat. It was stunning.”
The suburban bureaus and the “Picayune” community news sections, which two decades earlier had helped secure the newspaper’s financial health by holding suburban competition at bay, were savaged. Two-thirds of the newspaper’s East Jefferson Bureau—where I had my start at the newspaper twenty-four years earlier—was terminated, while its bureau chief, Drew Broach, was told he would be spared after September 30—if he would return to reporting. (He did and was subsequently re-promoted back to an editing position after a rash of resignations in May 2013, including by Russell and news editor Martha Carr.)
Community news editors Annette Naake Sisco and Eva Jacob Barkoff, the latter of whom was the newspaper’s first community news editor and was with the paper for twenty-eight years, were fired, along with most of the editors and reporters for every one of the five sections. Four of the five employees in the River Parishes Bureau would be laid off, along with five of eight working in the West Bank Bureau. “Half of the newsroom was terminated, prompting readers to question how the paper’s—and the website’s—coverage could remain comprehensive and in-depth,” Rose observed in his Oxford American essay. “Newsroom cuts seemed random, an equal blend of new folks and 40-year veterans.”
“Even those who knew we were going, [fellow managing editor] Peter [Kovacs] and me, were shocked by the scale of it,” Shea recalled in March 2013.
Somewhat in contrast—and in presumed support of NOLA.com’s future focus on entertainment and sports—just a few of the newspaper’s sixteen sports staff members were laid off, while only three of its fifteen Living section employees were terminated.
Elsewhere in the newspaper’s main offices, the layoffs were handled equally haphazardly. “My boyfriend and I were getting ready for work, and it was on WWL-TV,” Patty Pitt, who had worked in the display advertising department for nearly fifteen years, recalled in May 2013. “I knew I was gone” she said, primarily because of personality conflicts she had had with Kelly Rose, then vice president and director of advertising for the Times-Picayune, who would be promoted to NOLA Media Group’s vice president of sales less than two months later. Pitt waited with eleven other employees, all of whom were women, in an office on the building’s first floor. Only she and Sue Schneider, a forty-year veteran now in her sixties, met with Rose. Because Pitt’s meeting was scheduled last, at 4 p.m., she departed for the walk she routinely took during her afternoon break. But at 3:15, “they came outside looking for me, they came hunting me down.” When Rose broke the news that she would lose her job, Pitt couldn’t help but recall that she lobbied for a buyout in 2009, which would have provided a significantly better financial deal for her and would have offered the added advantage of putting her back in the job market at forty-four, instead of forty-nine. At the time, however, “Kelly [Rose] told me ‘We can’t let you go. We need you,’” Pitt recalled.
Confusion abounded among those asked to stay, and among those labeled as “unfired”—employees who were originally told they were losing their jobs, but in the succeeding days, weeks, and months, were instead asked to remain. Few whom the newspaper hoped to retain initially were told what their jobs or who their bosses would be. “Among the more notable names leaving the paper are food writer Brett Anderson and longtime sports columnist Peter Finney,” the story on the newspaper’s website read. This came as news to Finney, who had joined the newspaper right out of high school a few months before the end of World War II in 1945, and had not yet had a meeting about his employment status. When the story appeared on NOLA.com, he was at home working on his latest column, Gambit reported. (Finney ultimately retired but agreed to continue writing his column on a freelance basis. The sixty-seven-year veteran’s initial response to the reprieve? “I hope they won’t expect me to twit or toot, or whatever they call it. I’m a writer, not a twitter!”)
From Hell and High Water by Rebecca Theim, © 2013 used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing Company, Inc.