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American Journalism Review
Starting Over  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   May 1996

Starting Over   

A newspaper's death is a devastating blow to the psyche of its journalists. Even those who wind up with better jobs don't excape emotional turmoil and deep, long-lasting scars.

By Fawn Germer
Fawn Germer is a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.      

Related reading:
   » Newspaper Closings and Mergers

It was over. After 112 years, the Dallas Times Herald was going out of business. Blaming the recession, owner and Publisher John Buzzetta sold the assets of his underdog newspaper to the thriving Dallas Morning News for $55 million.

The two papers had battled each other for 106 years. The Times Herald was the newspaper that brought forth Molly Ivins and won a Pulitzer for the photograph of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. But on December 8, 1991, it surrendered. The Morning News, which sold two newspapers for every one the Times Herald sold, had triumphed. And there was no climbing out of it, not for the paper and not for the 175 people in the newsroom who banded together one last time for a farewell edition that blared the banner headline they'd dreaded for so long: "Goodbye, Dallas!"

Finally. Alaska called and reporter Laura Cianci had a job. The ordeal was over.

The movers were coming, the dog had his shots, the car was weatherized, and Cianci and her 15-year-old son were ready for adventure.

Two days before the move, Alaska called again. There was no Alaska. The Anchorage Times was folding. Cianci was in the same space she'd been in months earlier when the Dallas Times Herald went down.

The word that Cianci, 46, and her peers all use when looking back on the demise of the Times Herald is death. Maybe the accountants and publishers and corporate managers think of newspapers as businesses, but not the foot soldiers in the newsroom. There is supposed to be more to newspapering than money, the Times Herald alumni say. They saw their work as more of a mission, a service. Not just a job.

The grieving process is one that hasn't ended for many of the people who endured it. The paper's death occurred in the throes of a recession that challenged their bank accounts and sense of self-worth. Many stayed unemployed for months, several for more than a year.

All survived the death, and many prevailed with better careers than they would have had if the paper had lived. Some say the end of the Times Herald turned out to be the kick they needed to jump-start their careers. But like journalists who worked for the Houston Post, for New York Newsday, few have shaken the realization that newspapers in multi-
newspaper cities are very mortal beings.

Before the heartbreaking call from Anchorage, Cianci's landlord had already rented her house to someone else. She had to find someplace else to live. But Cianci had no money and no job, so she just sat there in the middle of her bedroom, crying. Her son, James, patted her on the back and Max the dog licked her tears. "Every time I think of that scene," she says, "I wonder how we ever lived through it."

They drove to Illinois, where they moved from friend's home to friend's home. Her savings was gone. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, left.

Cianci, a lifelong journalist, took a temporary job as a press secretary until her son graduated from high school. After that she freelanced and collected unemployment.

She put everything they owned into storage, but lost it because she couldn't make the payments. Even if she could have gotten her things out of storage, it wouldn't have made a difference because there was no place to put them.

"It was total despair," she says of that time. "I'd always been very sympathetic to the homeless problem in this country, very sensitive to the fact that many homeless people are not responsible for their condition. Never was it driven home how impossible it is to maintain a home if you don't have a job, or how impossible it is to maintain a job if you don't have a home. You can't get one without the other. You need both. If you don't have an address, you can't even look for a job. We were in a catch-22 most of that period because we couldn't do anything. Technically, we were homeless."

Finally, in May 1993, she called David Lawrence Jr., publisher of the Miami Herald. Lawrence had become her friend and mentor years earlier after a cold call to him when she was starting out as a journalist.

"I said, 'Look, I haven't called before because I figured everything would work out fine because I'm an incurable optimist. But nothing has worked out. Can you help me?' "

He told her to write him a letter explaining her plight and to include a resumé. Within a week after Lawrence got the letter, she received five calls. One was from the Bradenton Herald in Florida, where she took a job as business editor.

She now works for a computer company in Illinois as director of strategic planning. She got out of journalism because carpal tunnel syndrome was crippling her. "I was so thankful to get a job after I was unemployed that, when I finally got a job, I was working 15-hour days," she says. "And that killed my hands."

Cianci says she is constantly reminded about what happened because she has none of her possessions from her past life.

"You think of a pair of earrings or a watch and you know it's not there anymore," she says. "At Christmas, you go to decorate the tree and you realize you don't have any ornaments. But if you spend two years without something, it loses its importance. You go through something like this, and you learn what matters. Really, it's only because of the generosity of journalists, friends and people willing to open their doors to us that we were able to come out OK."

Cianci was not the only one in the Times Herald family to struggle. Nearly five years later, old wounds still bleed.

Mike Boslet still feels bad about it: The day the paper died he wanted no part of the final edition. He'd put in 70-hour weeks for the Times Herald, but in the end, he washed his hands of it.

"There was so much guilt, so much blame," says Boslet, who was the paper's art director and had been executive news editor. "Was I a part of what went wrong? We had a lot of influence on how it looked, how it read, and when something like that fails you have to go through a lot of soul-searching. The one paper I should have had everything to do with, the final edition, I had nothing to do with. I just walked around, talked to people, drank a little champagne and left. There was nothing more I could do. It was like turning off the switch for a dying patient. You just turn off the switch and leave the room."

Kim Marcum, his wife of one year, was an assistant managing editor at the paper. Suddenly, both were unemployed. Within three weeks, they had several offers. They landed in Denver in management positions at the Rocky Mountain News.

Boslet wasn't ready for it. He couldn't stand the politics. After seven months he quit to sell cars.

"I was breaking down," he says. "I just couldn't continue working there. I lost my mind crying one day. I needed something so far away to remove me from the situation. I needed an escape real quick. I didn't feel like I had any self-worth. When I went into that newsroom, I felt like I was a slave to whatever master. It started gnawing on me. I worked for people I had no respect for. But the car thing was totally different. It's very hard to sell cars, but I wasn't bad at it. I could make a living on my own, but not at the level I'd been accustomed to."

Marcum quit three months later. She got a job at Baltimore's Sun as features editor, and Boslet went to the Washington Post where he is now a design editor for the Post's local weekly sections.

"Most of the people who left the Times Herald ended up better off than they would be today if they'd stayed there," he says. "They are working in stable environments making better pay, and they are better trained. They've been through wars and have now seen the dark side of newspapering. And they are stars because they can do everything. They are like stallions."

Cheryl Arvidson is one such stallion. But her old identity went down with the paper.

She'd always been Cheryl Arvidson, journalist. Cheryl Arvidson, Washington bureau chief, Dallas Times Herald.

How could she ever be anyone else?

That was the killer. Faced with an unstable job market and a set of credentials that demanded a good position and a good salary, she knew it was time to change her career and the way she looked at herself.

Within four days of the paper's shutdown, Arvidson "easily had 200 to 300 calls" from people all over the world. Many of them were well-connected journalists, people with clout who know the right people and make things happen.

"It was extremely heartening to me that so many people cared about me," she says. "But in all of those phone calls, I did not get a single job lead. Everyone said, 'You won't have any trouble finding a job.' But no one knew of any jobs. It's not good now, but in 1991, believe me, it was worse. We were in the recession. It was just a very bad time for journalism in general."

Within a few days, she faced her new reality: She was not likely to find work in journalism at the level that she had attained. Not in Washington or anywhere else. So she had a two-track job search: One for jobs in the news business, one for the outside world in public relations or public policy work.

Frank A. Aukofer, the Milwaukee Journal's Washington bureau chief, offered her a desk in his office so she had a place to hang out while she was hunting.

"I was able to get dressed and go to the office every day, as if they were regular hours," she says. "That's vital. You cannot give in to your natural tendency to be a sloth. You have to keep regular hours with it. Make yourself work harder at getting a job than you can at doing a job."

When she finally got a job – in public relations for Blue Cross/Blue Shield – she could have used a week off because she was exhausted, but didn't get it. She soon came to dread the cocktail party conversations that began with the inevitable, "What do you do?"

"I found myself saying, 'I was a journalist for 20-plus years, and I was the Washington bureau chief for the Dallas Times Herald, and the paper went under, and now I'm doing such-and-such.' I heard myself and I went, 'Wait a second. This person is asking you what you do, not what you did. Get it together.' It was a very defining moment. I realized I didn't have anything to apologize to anybody for.

"I did not realize how much of my self-worth and self-image was defined by what I did," says Arvidson, 48, now media relations director for the Freedom Forum. "I let that happen. I was a reporter. I was a Washington bureau chief. This was who I was. And to suddenly discover that's not what you are, it was very disconcerting. There were a few times early on when I was afraid people who were my friends might think less of me. That was stupid."

Besides, she was able to get out while the getting was good: in her mid-40s, with no signs of burnout. She'd done more than she'd dreamed of doing as a journalist and had done it well.

"I never had to face losing any of that, including the edge and ability to do quality work," she says. "I went out at the peak of my career. And I'm proud of what I do now."

She admits she's a "flack," but she's flacking for journalism. And in the years since the Times Herald died, she's had time to consider what such shutdowns do to communities in Texas and elsewhere.

Readers in two-newspaper towns, she says, take the luxury of choice for granted until the morning they wake up and there is only one newspaper left.

"I cannot tell you how many people have come to me in the years since the Times Herald went down and told me how much they loved and missed the Times Herald. I'm very cold with them because I say to them, 'Well, did you buy it? Did you buy it when it was alive? Did you subscribe to it? Did you advertise in it?' And, almost uniformly, the answer is no. I don't have a lot of sympathy for readers who don't know what they've got until they lose it."

Readers took the Times Herald for granted, and to a point, so did its staff. There are no secure jobs in journalism, Arvidson says, there are no secure jobs anywhere.

But some Times Herald employees had deluded themselves into thinking they were secure. The paper had lifted its wage freeze. Everyone knew the bean counters would not have freed up the beans if there weren't any. So they relaxed.

Many say they will never relax like that again.

"It's like you've been hit by a tornado," reporter Lisa Hoffman says. "Whatever your life was before is just picked up and whirled around, thrown like a mobile home until it is scattered in pieces around you. Whatever plans you have, whatever illusions you have about life, go up in this big maelstrom of a disaster."

Hoffman, who had been a reporter in the Times Herald's Washington bureau, lived on severance and took a job at the Library of Congress to pay the mortgage until she landed with Scripps Howard News Service in Washington nine months later.

When the Houston Post went down in April 1995, Hoffman and three fellow Times Herald alumni went to the Post's Washington bureau with cold beer. They didn't commiserate. Instead, they gave tips on how to pick up and move on. They told the Post reporters to snatch their clips from the bureau quickly and discussed what they needed to know about getting unemployment and dealing with unemployment. They talked about what the death of a newspaper does to the psyche.

"Newspapers are living entities," says Hoffman, 43. "Everyone who has ever worked at one leaves something behind and takes something of the paper with them. Newspapers really are alive. And when one goes down, it is like a murder or a horrible, horrible death. Even if it is anticipated or thought to be inevitable, it is terribly sad to lose an entity like that. And each one that dies, there is a whole personality and history that is gone. In a bureau, you lose friends and family. Suddenly you are in a very difficult time of your life, kicked out without any support system. You don't realize how intertwined you are with these other people until the paper is cut out from under you. You will never feel completely secure again."

When did newspapering become a business? David Pasztor, a 10-year Times Herald veteran, can't figure it out.

"As well-intentioned as they might have been, the people who ran the company somehow seemed to think that their investment of money and their protection of their capital was far more important than those of us who had invested time, work and commitment to that newspaper," he says. "They closed up shop. It was a business decision. It's almost like you were supposed to feel sorry for them because they might have lost some money. But people lost their careers. I can't get too upset over whether they lost money and weren't able to pay their notes when I saw people who were working at that paper for decades lose their jobs. What were those people supposed to do?"

When the paper died, Pasztor was in his early 30s, single and mobile.

"But there are copy desk people, people who do calendar lists, people who aren't high-profile, who aren't easily transferable, who were counting on that company to carry them through to retirement," he says. "What about them?"

Everyone saw it coming, but no one was ready.

"Everyone knew it would go down sooner or later, but we had no warning," he says. "You wake up and you realize you are unemployed, and you realize all the money you've got is all the money you've got in a shrinking market, and you know you and all these other people have been dumped on the market, and it's a buyer's market. You've got no leverage. If you don't have friends, contacts, somebody to help you out, you know you are hosed."

Pasztor knew a lot of people and started making calls the instant he heard the news. He had offers from USA Today, the Palm Beach Post and the Houston Post, but took a job with an alternative newspaper, New Times, in Phoenix. Pasztor, 37, now works with the Dallas Observer, a sister paper of New Times.

The switch to the alternative press was an unexpected adrenaline boost. Stories there take a month, and to him, that beats the daily grind. He works at home a lot, writes 12 to 15 stories a year, and no one tells him to cut the stories to fit the hole.

"I'm back in Dallas, so I see the Morning News every day," he says. "I know, being a reporter in Dallas, that the edge is gone. Whatever compulsion the Morning News might have felt in a competitive position to try to be thorough and try to lance the sacred cows, they no longer do. With all due respect to them, you can see that the whole institution and the whole paper itself has become very complacent."

All of the Times Herald survivors remember where they were when they heard the news. It's not the kind of thing you forget.

Rick Dunham heard about it somewhere near Shreveport. He'd been on an extended vacation with his wife in Texas and was headed back to the Washington bureau, listening to a Dallas Cowboys pregame show, when an announcer broke in and said that in 45 minutes there would be a press conference to announce that the Times Herald was going out of business.

Dunham pulled off at the next rest stop and called his coworkers in Washington to tell them. He called his family and friends so they would hear it from him. He talked to his wife, wondering what they should do. They kept driving.

"A hundred and fifty miles east of Dallas on I-20, you're halfway across the country and have no job to drive back to, but you have no choice but to keep driving."

Crossing the Tennessee border he heard a radio interview with Times Herald columnist Frank Luksa. It was painful.

"My heart was breaking because of all of the good times. Here we were in the middle of nowhere and reminiscing about a job I no longer had," Dunham says. "I figured I'd get a job, but it felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach. I'd thought about the possibility before, about the chance that it would go under. But I stuck with it because I liked the paper so much. I hadn't applied for a job since I'd graduated from college in 1978."

As he made the drive back he plotted his job search. He set a six-month timetable to find a national reporting job, trying to use the situation as an opportunity to move up. If that didn't bear fruit, he would spend three months looking for a regional reporting job, something lateral. And if that didn't work, he would consider moving out of Washington or changing his profession.

It took two-and-a-half months to get a job at Business Week, where he now covers Congress.

Like Dunham, others have had a hard time shaking the loss. "I had so many things undone," says Mindy Donnelly, who was a reporter at the Times Herald for four years. "I was so in shock. It was like somebody in the family died."

Donnelly and reporter Lori Montgomery had flown to Chicago for the weekend and were waiting for their baggage when they heard their paper had closed. They cried in the airport, and Montgomery was so flustered that she forgot her wallet at the phone bank. They'd gotten in too late to work on the final edition, but Donnelly didn't even want to go into the paper.

"I was so disgusted that it had been eaten by the competition," she says. "It was extremely competitive. We were not friends with the Morning News. We were the gritty newspaper, the Morning News was this bureaucracy that was just as bad as the bureaucracies we covered. So I was very angry that it ended that way, with the competition buying us."

She joined other staffers at a reporter's home where they held a funeral. They watched television coverage of the paper's demise, somebody opened some champagne, and everyone sat around trying to comfort one another.

Donnelly, 33, is now city editor in the Delray Beach office of Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel. She learned plenty in Dallas.

"It made me accept corporate journalism a little more than I would have otherwise," she says. "I can appreciate the financial stability more than I could before the Times Herald closed. It made me less of a renegade and more of a team player. It also helps your confidence if you can make it through that kind of situation and keep your career on track."

"If you ever have the opportunity to work for a newspaper that folds, you ought to try it," says Jim Henderson, 54, a former Times Herald national correspondent who has made his career in the aftermath as an author and freelancer. "After that it doesn't matter how much money you have in the bank. You're afraid to spend it."

Henderson was one of the writers chosen to write the paper's obit.

"It was just crap, probably the worst news story I've ever written," he says. "Not so much because it was hard to write. There's not a lot to say. The paper died. But it was so hard to focus. I walked around the building like everyone else – semi-comatose and wondering what the hell happens next."

He waded his way through interviews with the publisher and other staffers wondering why he was even bothering. After 15 years on the staff, his Times Herald was dead. What was he going to do? He was 49 years old. A middle-aged white guy in a business that loves the young.

When he called contacts to let them know he was available, "they were saying, 'We don't care how much we like you, we don't hire middle-aged white men.' " So he figured he'd better find something else to do.

A friend had written several country music biographies and swore the writing was easy. All he'd need was 30 to 40 hours of taped conversations. He figured Charley Pride would be a good subject, so they got together and sold books.

That was his new start. He made it work and didn't starve. But he has had to learn to live with the insecurity of being off the newspaper payroll.

"I realized on December 9, 1991, that I would never again be dependent on anyone," he says. "I would happily take a job that I liked, but I would never again put all my eggs in that one basket. It woke me up. I was getting fat and lazy, sliding happily through middle age."

If you are fat and lazy on a major daily in a multi-newspaper market, don't get sucked in, writer Mark Potok warns. It's naive to assume that the competition will take you in if your paper goes down. You are gullible if you think your talents will carry you along in the profession, no matter what.

Even before the Times Herald died, Potok had tried to insulate himself by meeting in secret with editors of the Morning News. He was buying a house and he wanted to make sure he'd be safe if the Times Herald collapsed.

"I got a very good reaction and was convinced there was no problem for me," Potok says.

So when the Times Herald folded, Potok was sure he'd have a job across town. The courtship did continue, he says, and he was sure he was on the verge of being hired about four times.

"But I never was hired," says Potok, 41, who eventually landed with USA Today as its Southwestern correspondent. "Many of us felt that the Morning News would take the top tier of reporters. Certainly the top five or six people, but more like 20 or 30. In fact, the Morning News acted for a long time like they were going to. They put the entire staff of the Times Herald through a very humiliating, nasty series of tests, including spelling and grammar tests, tests for children in the profession."

Unemployment killed his ego. He'd always had an attitude about his work. He thought he was great. He was sure he was headed to the top.

He was unemployed for more than a year. His self-esteem foundered until, new to his job at USA Today, Waco made him a star again.

"But I'll never forget what happened," he says. "I'll never get too comfortable again."

Morning News Executive Editor and Senior Vice President Ralph Langer says that there came a point where the Times Herald could no longer escape its fate. He could see it coming, he says.

"The Dallas Morning News was clearly the dominant paper in circulation, credibility, readership and advertising revenue," he says. "Because of my situation in the newsroom, I wasn't privy to the company negotiations, and I'm glad I wasn't. But a few days before it happened, we did some very high-level planning so we could produce the papers in sufficient quantity to get it to all the people who couldn't get the Times Herald. I was the only person in the newsroom who was aware it was happening."

Only a dozen Times Herald staffers landed in the newsroom of the Dallas Morning News.

"Obviously, we didn't have any way of absorbing 175 people from their news staff," he says. "..When the Dallas Times Herald died, we added a number of positions to the news department in order to expand coverage in several areas. We told the Dallas Times Herald staffers that we welcomed their applications." Eventually, 12 Times Herald staffers were hired, as well as seven or eight new staffers from elsewhere.

Langer says he misses the battle, but in his mind it ended long before the Times Herald died. "When the fight was really going on, there was competition at most levels – state coverage, competition in Washington, sports, business and metro," he says. "But as things got tighter and tighter, things started to go away. They stopped covering Texas, bureaus went away, their business coverage shrank, their veteran staff left, and it worked its way down the food chain from owner to owner to owner. A good percentage of staff didn't have institutional memory. The competition had shrunk. It wasn't like two papers equally matched that were fighting. It's like one wins and somewhere down the road they give up."

Columnist Frank Luksa was one of the writers nabbed by the Morning News. He was unemployed for all of three weeks.

"I don't want to go through it again," says Luksa, who was 56 at the time. "The anxiety, the uncertainty – What if nobody wanted me? What would I have done? This is the only skill I know."

Everybody wants to know what Roy E. Bode knew and when he knew it. The idea that he woke up one morning and the paper was dead goes beyond anything many of his former employees can fathom. Yet the former editor of the Times Herald says that's the way it happened.

He'd seen the numbers. He knew the paper was in trouble. So, Bode says, he asked Publisher John Buzzetta to leave him out of it. If there was a restructuring of the debt, a settlement, a sale, he didn't want to know until it happened.

"That was for the simple reason that I couldn't manage the newsroom if I knew the place was on the block," says Bode, 47, who is now vice president for public affairs at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. "In good conscience, it wasn't anything I could have kept from my staff. So when the sale came, it came as a complete surprise to me as well as to about 900 other people in the building."

The call came at 6:30 a.m. Sunday morning. Buzzetta told him the paper was being sold and asked him to come into the office. Bode put on a suit and entered the building through the back door.

He'd first entered the building as a high school sophomore in town for a journalism convention. He'd done an interview for a freelance story, and he was allowed to use the Times Herald newsroom to type his notes. He spent most of his career at the paper. He started as a general assignment reporter, came and went a couple of times, and after tours as Washington bureau chief, state editor, assistant managing editor and associate editor, was named editor in 1988. He relished the irreverence of the staff. A pig, a goat, even a bear made cameo appearances at editorial meetings. These were very serious journalists, he says, but they sure knew how to have a good time.

Bode says he did not expect the Morning News to buy the Times Herald, and he hadn't envisioned its closure. The paper was making an operating profit, but it couldn't handle its debt service. It might not have been attractive to a chain, but he thought another business or group in Dallas would buy it out.

Bode says other papers have gone down after a steady deterioration. The Times Herald was a Pulitzer finalist in its last year of life. It was still winning its share of awards. Without the debt service the paper would have been profitable.

But it was over nonetheless. The day the paper died, his discussion with owner Buzzetta focused on logistics. How would they put out the final edition of the paper? What would become of the staff?

"I remember him saying he'd done the best he could to make arrangements to take care of everyone who was there, which he did," Bode says. (Buzzetta did not return repeated phone calls.)

Bode called in the other editors of the paper. Within a couple of hours the entire staff was there. "There were quite a lot of tears," he remembers. "I cried, but not there. I was too busy."

Bode wanted the final edition to make a statement, he wanted the entire staff to have a part in it. "That day was madness," he says. "We got all the columnists to write, even if they weren't scheduled. We got all the reporters into the paper, brought out whatever projects we still had waiting for Sunday and engaged everyone in the newsroom in the discussions of what ought to be in that last edition.

"If you look at newspaper closings, this was probably the kindest and gentlest of any I know of. People were treated very considerately. At the Houston Post, the phones were disconnected and people were practically thrown out. In Dallas, people continued to come up to their desks after it closed to write resumés or copy clips or whatever. The Dallas Morning News deserves a lot of credit for that. They didn't come through with security guards and lock it down. They helped people readjust."

About two years ago the Times Herald building was leveled. It's a parking lot now.

"The destruction of that building, that was surreal," Bode says. "It was heartbreaking to watch that, but at the same time I'm not sure that it wasn't more sad to drive by and see it vacant. A newspaper has an animation of its own. It's a 24-hour operation that's almost living and breathing, with people coming and going and so much hustle and bustle. To see that as a vacant building with a dark lobby was probably sadder than to see a parking lot. Still, it hurt to see it go." l

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