Wednesday, June 13, 2012

After the cuts at The Times-Picayune

Posted By on Wed, Jun 13, 2012 at 12:12 AM

The logo for the new NOLA Media Group, overseer of The Times-Picayune, which appeared on the letters of severance and job offers presented to employees June 12.
  • The logo for the new NOLA Media Group, overseer of The Times-Picayune, which appeared on the letters of severance and job offers presented to employees June 12.
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."

Today Monteverde lost his job.

He was just one of more than 200 Times-Picayune employees who were told today that their services would no longer be required as of Sept. 30. Eighty-four of the cuts came from the newsroom staff, which numbered 169 — a 49 percent cut.

Besides the newsroom slashing, the paper's entire marketing department was fired save one person. All special sections employees, the library staff and human resources employees were also presented with severance papers.

No one from Advance Publications or Newhouse, the parent companies of The Times-Picayune, was on hand to deliver the news — leaving the job to the paper's editors in brief individual meetings with those whom they supervised. The paper's new publisher, Ricky Mathews, was not seen in the building.

Richard Thompson, a business writer, brought a bottle of Crown Royal to his individual meeting. He ended up splitting it with business editor Kim Quillen. Both were fired.

So was dining critic Brett Anderson, the James Beard Award-winning writer who had chronicled the rebounding of the restaurant industry and the seafood industry after Hurricane Katrina and the BP disaster. So was longtime religion reporter Bruce Nolan, who had confronted editor Jim Amoss in a speech that was taped and leaked out of the newsroom after a contentious meeting with employees. So were education reporter Barri Bronston, reporters Katy Reckdahl and Paul Purpura, sportswriter Lori Lyons, editor Dennis Persica, graphic artist Ryan Smith, political cartoonist Steve Kelley and photographers John McCusker, Matthew Hinton and Eliot Kamenitz. So were managing editors Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea, who had been shut out of discussions with Mathews. Shea told colleagues his last day would be Friday.

Others who were tendered chances to stay were offered new assignments. Longtime political columnist Stephanie Grace and Cindy Chang, who helmed the paper's recent eight-part investigation into Louisiana prisons, were both offered general reporter slots. Ramon Antonio Vargas, a Northshore crime-and-courts reporter, was offered to stay on — covering sports. Reporter James Varney was offered a job as political columnist. Overall, those in the sports and features departments fared better than their co-workers on the news beats or in the paper's bureaus, some of which were decimated.

The list of those fired dribbled out of the newsroom 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 who were invited to stay with the newly christened NOLA Media Group, which will oversee NOLA.com and the thrice-weekly Times-Picayune, now have 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 tonight said the offer didn't include even the most basic details of the new jobs, down to whom they would be reporting or what their specific duties would be under the NOLA Media Group.

Those who were offered severance received approximately 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 Sept. 30, 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 were still left with unanswered questions. Some said they were requesting a meeting later this week with Amoss and online editor Lynn Cunningham before they made a decision. Others had already consulted lawyers.

"They botched this like everything else," said one person who would not be quoted by name, citing a company non-disparagement clause in the severance papers.

Among the most serious botches: 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, as Finney had not yet had his meeting with sports editor Doug Tatum — and was said to be at home composing his latest column when news of his firing appeared.

It was later clarified that Finney would indeed be retiring, but contributing a column on a freelance basis — as would longtime society columnist Nell Nolan, whose alliterative prose and copious Living section real estate had been sacrosanct under former publisher Ashton Phelps Jr. Parents of debutantes and other social notables, it was said, would be encouraged to submit their own fete photos for online publication.

After work, many staffers gathered at Wit's Inn, a Mid-City bar where the drinks were flying so furiously a harried bartender with a cigarette tucked behind his ear was permanently in the weeds. (Colleagues from the Chicago Tribune phoned the bar and opened a tab for their compatriots.) Of the senior staff who had carried out the firings, the only one who showed up by 10 p.m. was city editor Gordon Russell, who chose not to speak to Gambit about the events of the day.

Shea was there, dressed all in black. So was Kovacs. Reporter Frank Donze donned a souvenir 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 employees and ex-employees would not speak on the record, saying they were uneasy about the 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 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 can always turn it into a mausoleum."

Karen Carvin Shachat, a longtime New Orleans political consultant, surveyed the crowd and shook her head. "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 — a video addressed to the paper's readers, in which 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.

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