The Indianapolis Star Tuesday executed one of the most dramatic force reductions in its history, eliminating 81 positions — 62 by layoffs — and dramatically downsizing its news gathering operations.
The Indianapolis Newspaper Guild lost 26 of its own copy editors, reporters, librarians, photographers and others. It was nearly equal to force reductions conducted two years ago, when 28 people were laid off in multiple reductions in 2008-09 in the darkest depths of the market meltdown.
Those are the raw numbers — the hard news lead to the story. But the more in-depth analysis shows that Gannett Co. Inc., the Star’s parent company, didn’t like the looks of its bottom line. The Star is still turning a profit. Its editor and publisher have said that repeatedly in recent weeks. But the Star’s revenues have been on the decline. Translation: The Star is making money, just not as much as it once did.
So, the answer that Star publisher Karen Crotchfelt came up with was to gut suburban coverage, eliminate an entire layer of copy editors (that last line of defense which separates us from the animals in the blogosphere) and make a nip here and a tuck there to reduce expenses. Crotchfelt didn’t sugar coat things. Asked a question about the prudence of such cuts at a time when her corporate bosses are getting six-figure bonuses, she answered straightly: That’s how the corporate world works — boards of directors set profit targets, execs try to meet them, if they do they get bonuses. She said it well, I thought, and with the precision of an oncologist delivering word the cancer is malignant.
Star editor Dennis Ryerson, meanwhile, tried to put the happiest face on the reductions at a staff meeting Tuesday afternoon following the carnage. He barely paused to acknowledge the blood-letting, or to show empathy for everyone’s pain. Instead, he charged into a discussion of an exciting new flow chart that will guide the Star into its next chapter. He talked about how the Star would focus less on incremental stories and more on big picture, magazine style packages. He said readers would still find “magic” in their daily paper. And he said the elimination of one complete layer of the copy desk wouldn’t affect the quality of the news product, something that seems truly an incredible statement to this reporter, who’s had his bacon saved more than once by a rim editor who’s caught a misspelled name or an errant fact before it could find the light of print.
The essential message from Ryerson could be a slogan in Gannett’s next marketing campaign: “Less really is more.”
At the Star, like so many Gannett papers, Reductions in Force have become a periodic fact of life. They tend to come along every time we get a new publisher. Still, somehow, the staff gets back to work and gets lulled into thinking it’s safe to go back into the water. Only to be eaten alive again. It had been two years since the Star’s newsroom had taken a hit. We had seen more than 20 Guild-covered people leave of their own volition since then, with only one or two being replaced, hurting greatly our ability to cover the news. But those folks who left were picking a different life for themselves. That wasn’t the case Tuesday, when folks got a phone call at home or a summons at their desk to visit HR (short for “Hit the Road”). They were shown the door to a new life, then given a kick in the ass on the way out, whether they wanted it or not.
On Tuesday, I watched as a veteran copy editor of more than 30 years packed his dictionaries and thesauri (?) and wheeled them out the door on a dolly. I met another copy editor as he walked out carrying only his brown bag lunch. At least he had something to eat. I got calls from home from the newly-unemployed. I called one of my guild officers to relay that the Grim Reaper was on the move. He said he knew that, because the reaper had called his house, looking for him. I delivered a bass guitar to a photographer who had loaned his to a co-worker but forgot to collect it with his belongings on the way out. At his home, he thanked me and offered me a beer. I took it, gladly.
I also watched those of us who remain — who will have to work harder to try and make the journalism still happen — suffer in grief for our friends. There’s nothing like hearing loud sobs in the newsroom — from one of the survivors. It’s a sound I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
It will be my task on Wednesday, as the president of The Indianapolis News Guild, to meet with a representative of The Newspaper Guild of America to review the facts of this massacre and see if our contract was followed. I will do this at home in the afternoon, as I will be recovering from a cortisone shot — and the accompanying heavy doping — that will be administered in the morning by my doctor. I’ll be taking a 4-inch needle delivered between two vertebrae in my back. It still sounds preferable to picking through the wreckage at the Star.
In the days ahead, I will be trying to ensure that the victims of this corporate downsizing get their due severance, among other things. And we, as leaders of the The Indy News Guild, will have to regroup. Our own treasurer and resident expert of all things about the contract, Geoff Ooley, was among those let go. He will be missed. Just as all the other folks will be. But someone else will have to try and step up and take his place. If you’re interested, I’ll be seeking applicants soon. Finding a newsperson who’s good with numbers is never easy.
Finally, I’d like to say that despite Tuesday’s unpleasantness, despite the corporate greed that made it possible, and despite the sense of loss we all feel, our readers still depend on us to put out a newspaper. They still need us to tell the stories of their city, to root out the corrupt officials, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We do it to pay the bills, as did our friends. But mostly we do it because we feel it’s important, and because we will never concede defeat to those rat bastards at corporate headquarters.
— Bobby King, President Indianapolis Newspaper Guild, CWA Local 34070