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From AJR,   April/May 2005  issue


The Dallas Mourning News   

In the wake of a costly circulation scandal and with the economy soft, the Dallas Morning News last fall laid off 65 newsroom staffers, many highly regarded veterans among them. The housecleaning has shattered morale, and questions swirl about how management decided who would get the ax.


By Charles Layton
Charles Layton (charlesmary@hotmail.com) is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer.     

Rumors of layoffs were in the air last September even before James M. Moroney III, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, summoned his newsroom staff to a meeting at the Dallas Convention Center. But those who had heard the layoff rumors, and were inclined to believe them, still didn't know how deep the cuts would be.

The day was sunny, and the half-mile trek from the paper to the convention center seemed laborious, especially to some of the older journalists. The ground rose slightly in front of them as they straggled in disorderly clumps along the sidewalk, wisecracking as they went. Someone mentioned "cows to the slaughter."

Management had booked a meeting room that turned out to be too small, forcing latecomers to stand jammed along the walls or pressed up to the double-doored entrance, craning to see.

Moroney, in shirt and tie but no jacket, began with a review of the paper's economic problems. Revenues: flat for the past four years. Newsprint costs: going up. The Dallas economy: soft. Classifieds: problematic. According to notes taken by a journalist, the publisher spoke of a "perfect storm" of economic troubles. And so, for "the common good of the organization," he explained, management had decided on a "reduction in force."

He said the paper needed to lose 150 of its 2,300 employees. The cuts would fall across all departments. Severance pay would be one week's salary for every year's service (papers with Newspaper Guild contracts usually pay twice that). Health coverage would continue for a month and then cease (other papers have offered six months or more). There would be no buyouts or early retirement deals. Moroney said the layoff decisions would be based not on individual merit or personalities but simply on which jobs the paper could do without. (This claim later became controversial.)

It would all happen, Moroney said, within about a month.

There was no Newspaper Guild in Dallas, no recourse, no way for people to bargain. It was a fait accompli.

One of the editorial writers, Timothy O'Leary, says that after the publisher declared the meeting over, a handful of employees, maybe 5 percent of those present, applauded. "The applause struck me as surreal," he says. "The others did not applaud but walked out morosely, suddenly insecure in their livelihoods."

The top executives continue to refer to what happened last fall as a reduction in force. People in the newsroom call it getting fired. The contrasting language barely hints at the bitterness and depth of alienation since October 27, the day the ax finally fell.

On that day, the Morning News dismissed about 150 workers, including 65 in the newsroom--just more than 10 percent of the paper's journalists. The cuts included people with 20 and 30 years' service, people held in extremely high regard by their colleagues, people who had recently won prizes and gotten pay raises and glowing performance reviews from their bosses, and then were suddenly sacked.

The News has been a wounded institution since that day. The staff is as angry and sad as any I have ever seen. Many people have told me that upper management was less than honest about the reasons for the layoffs. It is widely believed that office politics played a role. "They got rid of a number of people who were very outspoken," one reporter says, echoing the sentiments of many.

It also seems clear that a large number of those let go were older employees, relatively high on the pay scale.

Many people in the newsroom argue, often quite passionately, that managerial problems--including a major case of circulation fraud--have cost the paper tens of millions of dollars, and that skilled, faithful, entirely innocent employees paid the price for that. The advocates of this theory mainly hold the publisher, Moroney, responsible.

"There really is a sense of betrayal," a reporter says. "Not just the people who were cut were betrayed, but the rest of us as well." This reporter speaks of a deep residual sadness among the survivors. "There is also the feeling: 'This time they came for my neighbor. When will they come for me?' "

There is a palpable fear of speaking out publicly, which is why the above quotes are anonymous. Some of those who were laid off feel freer to talk, but even many of them are wary of offending the company as they try to rebuild lives and careers.

From management, one hears soothing words. Asked if the paper had suffered in quality after shedding one-tenth of its newsroom staff, Robert W. Mong Jr., the editor, says, "I don't see any diminution anywhere." Moroney says he thinks the paper is "as good or better" than before the layoffs.

That is debatable. We are talking about a paper that laid off its national editor, closed its Havana bureau, reduced its strength in Europe from two reporters to one, cut the size of its Washington staff and its Mexico City bureau, killed its weekly personal technology section and eliminated a weekly science section (firing three of six staffers) that had won numerous accolades and prizes. Those prizes include a National Association of Science Writers award that was being announced even as one of the winners, the esteemed writer and editor Tom Siegfried, was losing his job.

Those who were laid off also included a long list of cultural critics and specialty writers--the horse racing writer, a highly popular pets columnist, the paper's personal technology writer, its resident expert on the local film industry and others. Just the kind of writers, in other words, who over the years build emotional bonds between a newspaper and its community.

Even after the layoffs, however, it is important to note that this paper has more newsroom staff--about 550--than all but a handful of U.S. dailies. It remains rich in talent. It still can move fast and hard on breaking stories. It still puts resources into investigative projects. It is well-written and well-edited. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 2004, its seventh Pulitzer in 18 years. More than many large media chains, its parent company, Belo Corp., still puts a premium on good journalism. Few people expect the Morning News to slide into mediocrity as some big metro papers have.

And yet, no one can deny the gravity of its morale problems.

In the month following Moroney's meeting with the staff, everyone lived under a sword of Damocles. "That month was really grim," says reporter Gretel Kovach. "People were talking about, 'I'm going to lose my house! What am I going to do?' " One veteran beat reporter was so sure he would be fired, she says, that he began cleaning off his desk and packing things away. (As it turned out, he was spared.)

In late October, supplies of flattened cardboard boxes began to appear around the newsroom--for people to use when cleaning out their desks. Reporter Doug Bedell recalls that in his department, business news, the boxes were in plain view on a shelf above a coat rack, "and the number of them was what was shocking to many of us. There must have been 20 or 30 of them up there. So everybody was kind of staring at them and getting more and more on edge."

A metro reporter, Steve McGonigle, began collecting a newsroom fund for those who would soon be out of work. He bought some white plastic buckets from Home Depot and distributed them around the building, where donors could drop off their contributions. "I lined up people in each of the big departments to help me collect money," he says.

Since no one knew who the victims would be, McGonigle declared that anyone who gave money to the fund but then was fired would receive a share of the fund plus his own contribution back. He enlisted two colleagues, Ed Timms and Jeff Weiss, to carry on in case he himself was fired. The day before the layoffs, McGonigle photocopied all his records. "I had been doing all the banking, all the collection of funds," he says. "I also had a database, a spreadsheet, with names, amounts contributed and so forth. And I made copies of all this and gave them to Ed and Jeff. And they said, 'Why are you doing this?' And I said, 'Because none of us knows what's going to happen.' "

McGonigle did survive. His fund, which grew to more than $50,000, was parceled out among the 65 newsroom employees who were less lucky. Sure enough, some of those people (11, by McGonigle's count) had been contributors and got their donations back. McGonigle says that a "very high-ranking" manager made up the difference.

On the day of the layoffs, October 27, people had been told to come to work early. Some in outlying bureaus were told to come to the downtown office for a "meeting" or on some other pretext. Some didn't realize what this meant, but others had a pretty good idea.

"It was the strangest day I've ever experienced," Bedell says. He had felt pretty good about his own chances. After all, he'd recently gotten "the best raise I ever had in 20 years at the Dallas News. And I was told I was doing just an incredible job. I had been a finalist twice for a Pulitzer on breaking stuff when I was G.A." Now he wrote a column and product reviews for the weekly Personal Technology section, plus Internet and high-tech trend stories and some front-page pieces "that they were really proud of."

Soon after 9 a.m., the staff watched in silence as the business editor, Ed Dufner, and a woman from human resources took their paperwork and headed for a conference room where there was a table, a phone and some privacy.

According to Bedell, an assistant editor got the first call. Dufner called him on a speakerphone and said, in a very quiet voice, "Would you join me in the conference room please?"

A few minutes later the man emerged, "and in kind of zombie fashion everybody migrated over to him as he gathered up his stuff. He was shaking. Some people were kind of crying.... And everybody was just kind of standing around, saying, 'This really sucks.' "

Then the phone on Bedell's desk rang. At the News, a double ring indicates a call from outside; a single ring is a call from inside. This was a single ring.

"I picked it up. He said, 'Would you join me in the conference room please.' I jumped up and I said, 'I'm gone!' "

He remembers the editor telling him something like, "As you know, we're eliminating some jobs around the building. Your job is being eliminated." The woman from HR then gave him a packet of information and a severance check. He removed his ID badge from around his neck and asked, "Do you need this?" and the editor said yes. "And I tried to hand it to him, and he didn't take it, so I just laid it down on the desk."

As Bedell emerged from the conference room, people rose from their desks as one. "It was like 'The Night of the Living Dead' or something--people dragging their feet, coming forward, coming to commiserate." He remembers telling them not to worry, that he would be OK. "They were all crying and hugging me and stuff. I've known some of those folks for a very long time, so it was a little tough when they started crying."

Five people were laid off in business news that day. In features, the number was 13; in sports, 18; in photo, three; on the editorial page, five; in graphics, five. It went on for hours, versions of the same drama running simultaneously throughout the building.

In features, Book Editor Cheryl Chapman recalls, people were "dead silent, sitting in their cubicles, not saying anything, not doing anything, just waiting. Waiting for the end of their careers."

Then people started to get called out, one at a time. They would walk across the hall to a small office, get the news from their editor and a representative from HR, then walk back and start cleaning out their desks.

Gary Dowell, who wrote reviews and compiled movie listings, says that every time someone got summoned there would be gasps and cries of "My God! You too?" When Dowell's turn came, he says, "People were so upset. One of my editors gave me a hug and was crying on my shoulder, saying they were sorry. Everybody in that department came up and gave me a hug or a handshake. A lot of them seemed angry."

Nearly every person who was laid off tells a similar story of how it went. People describe their supervisors as delivering the news in a strange, sometimes almost robotic manner, as if working from a script. Which, in fact, they were.

The script was provided by a Dallas consulting firm, Lee Hecht Harrison, brought in to coach the people who would do the face-to-face firing. The editors at these sessions--"firing school" some people called them--learned things that you don't learn in J-school. They were advised to have Kleenex and bottled water on hand. They were told what to say and do if someone turned hostile or was overcome with grief. They were told to stay calm, stick to the facts, not shift blame to their corporate superiors, not say anything apologetic such as "I don't want to do this but..." or "I'm sorry." They were to say that the employee's termination had "nothing to do with your work" but that "your position no longer exists and we were unable to identify another position which you could move into."

The basic script, which the editors were asked to take home and memorize, went like this:

As you know, the uneven economic recovery has affected many organizations, including ours. We've had to take a hard look at how the company can reset its expense base strategically to align with our expected revenue in the changing competitive landscape we're experiencing. Regrettably, this means that effective today your position will be eliminated.

Next came a short paragraph about severance pay and help for getting a new job. And then, this conclusion:

I want to thank you for your service to the company, and we wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.

It's not clear that anyone followed the script verbatim, but people apparently did adhere to its overall format and much of its phraseology. This did not go over well.

Gary West, a sportswriter, says he listened to a couple of sentences of what he calls "specious drivel" about the economy "and I said, 'Bob, I don't want to listen to that bull, just tell me.' And he said, 'Well, your position has been terminated, effective immediately.'"

Several of the editors who had attended firing school wound up getting fired themselves. One was Cheryl Chapman. When she was called into the conference room, she says, her boss "opened her mouth and began the spiel that we had all memorized, and I said, 'Lisa, just stop right here, because I know what you're going to say, and you know what you're going to say, and there's no point in your saying it.' And she looked at me and she got up and walked out the door."


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