Thursday, January 24, 2008

Shrinking the Sun-Times

Posted By on 01.24.08 at 06:09 PM

The hammer has come down at the Sun-Times, where more layoffs were just announced. (Read here about earlier layoffs.) Names you'll recognize are about to disappear, and the strange thing is the palpable degree of relief, even satisfaction, among the staff -- it could have been a lot worse.

Editorial columnist Steve Huntley asked for and received a buyout, though he'll continue his column as a freelancer. TV critic Doug Elfman has been laid off. Special Barack Obama correspondent Jennifer Hunter, wife of former publisher John Cruickshank, took a buyout. Columnist Esther Cepeda was laid off, though there's a possibility she'll continue to freelance her column. Religion reporter Susan Hogan/Albach (known as "Slash" around the office) was laid off. Reporter Kara Spak, who's married to star investigative reporter Steve Warmbir, was laid off, a loss people seem to be mourning in particular. Editor in chief Michael Cooke's old pal Garry Steckles -- Cooke summoned him from Saint Kitts to help out and then gave him management status to protect his job -- was returned to Newspaper Guild status when the guild protested and then lost his job. Deputy metro editor Phyllis Gilchrist resigned because she knew that eliminating her management salary might save a couple of guild jobs. Assistant city editors Nancy Moffett and Robert Herguth took buyouts, as did veteran writer Jim Ritter and business copy editors Chris Whitehead and Bob Mutter. Business editor Dan Miller had resigned earlier.

In all, 14 full-time and 3 part-time guild employees were laid off (on the basis of seniority) and 12 others took buyouts, says Gerald Minkkinen, executive director of the Chicago Newspaper Guild. "In the long run," he says, "the company worked with us and did as much as they could to lessen the pain. I really have to give them credit." So does Elfman, with a cat to feed and a new job to find. "It's not a situation where they're laying off people unjustly," he says, well aware of the fact the company's bleeding money, "and I'm in favor of seniority in theory. It just happened to bite me in the ass." I've caught Elfman on his way out of the office to get a drink. "The Sun-Times has really been great about the way they've handled a lot of this," he says. "But there's a but. I was recruited here, I was asked to come here," he muses. "I guess my message to the newspaper editors of America is if you recruit someone don’t lay them off."

That's the temperate end of the spectrum of reactions to getting canned. So it was a little surprising to be told that Bob Mazzoni, the sports copy editor who's cochair of the Sun-Times's guild unit, seemed to be in a "a pretty good mood" Wednesday night, which is when calls were made to the staffers losing their jobs. It's all relative of course, but Mazzoni allows that in a sense he was. "To get down from [management's] original request of 35 jobs to 17 who are leaving involuntarily made us feel like we had really accomplished something," he told me, explaining that when the guild proposed buyouts management agreed to them at once and -- as was not true with a round of buyouts a couple of years ago -- accepted everybody who applied.

Managing editor Don Hayner is being hailed as a hero around the office. Mazzoni said, "We were told that whenever they had a meeting of any kind with stockholders or the board, Don would be there to plead the newsroom's case. Had it not been for his efforts the original number of 35 would have been higher and therefore the ensuing number of layoffs greater. He looks at the newsroom as his baby and he really felt an obligation to save as many of these jobs as he could, especially a lot of the less tenured people he was instrumental in bringing in."

Layoffs usually poison the atmosphere between management and labor. Not this time, said Mazzoni -- "I actually think this process as we went through it strengthened the trust both sides feel with each other."

Friday is the last day for Nancy Moffett, a buddy from my own Sun-Times days, a happy warrior who joined the paper in 1970 and has been there through Marshall Field, through Rupert Murdoch, through Conrad Black. Moffett told me she feels like a "basket case" knowing it's all about to end, even though she's leaving on her own terms. "It's a circus," she said. "It's a lot of smart people being funny all the time." Working at a newspaper, she's discovered, is something she can only explain to people who already know. It's addictive. "It's like being on crack."

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