As of early June, Paper Cuts, a blog that keeps track of announced buyouts and layoffs at newspapers, counted a total of 32,578 jobs lost since the beginning of 2008. Other estimates are more conservative, but they’re all disturbing. For major U.S. newspapers it is as if a dark angel swept through, taking out experience and institutional memory. And people. What happens to them? Lisa Anderson, a CJR Encore Fellow who herself took a 2008 buyout from the Chicago Tribune, focused on one daily, The Star-Ledger of Newark, and found a variety of answers to that question, some of them surprising.
The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest and most influential newspaper, once enjoyed what reads like a newsprint version of a fairy tale. Employees received free medical coverage for themselves and their families. Management made the stunning pledge that nonunion staffers would never be laid off because of an economic downturn or technological advance, as long as the paper rolled off the presses. Family ownership seemed to foster a family atmosphere at a daily that in recent years was aggressive and high in quality. Star-Ledger journalists heard the horror stories unfolding at other papers as the 2000s progressed, but generally were spared that kind of agony. Pay raises disappeared after 2005, but money never seemed to be a major impediment to newsgathering. Some employees felt the Ledger had a special place in the affections of Donald Newhouse, president of the Newhouse family-owned Advance Publications Inc., who worked in the newspaper’s downtown building for more than forty years. Several journalists said they should have known something was up when they stopped seeing Donald regularly at the paper.
Adept at hard-hitting investigations and renowned for its sports coverage, the Ledger was a destination paper for many Garden State journalists. It didn’t maintain its own network of national and foreign bureaus, but it didn’t shy away from sending reporters to follow the story, from Boise to Baghdad. After the appointment of former New York Daily News editor Jim Willse as editor in 1995, the paper won its first Pulitzer Prize, in 2001, for feature photography. A second, for breaking news, followed in 2005, for staff coverage of the resignation of Jim McGreevy, the governor who announced that he was gay and party to an adulterous affair with a male lover. The Ledger, with a current weekday circulation of 236,000 and 360,000 on Sundays, may have been among the happier newsrooms in America.
On July 31, 2008, however, the publisher at the time, George E. Arwady, told the staff that the paper was in much bigger trouble than many of them had imagined. It was, as he put it, “on life support.” And unless 200 nonunion people—or about 40 percent of the staff—signed up for a voluntary buyout and unless the mailers’ and drivers’ unions granted concessions by October 1, he told the gathered employees, The Star-Ledger would be sold. If not sold it would be closed by January 2009.
It was decision time. Many members of the staff had served the paper for decades. But the buyouts were “voluntary” in name only, many former employees point out, as the company nudged and prodded many people to leave (layoffs had been ruled out at that point, due to Advance’s longstanding and unusual job-security pledge to nonunion employees at all its newspapers). Married staff members—there were several—say they were counseled to accept at least one buyout. Meanwhile, Arwady warned that the loss of more than a third of the staff would radically change life at the paper for those who stayed. Everyone who took a buyout would receive a year’s pay at the 2007 level and free medical benefits for a year. Employees over the age of fifty-five with ten or more years of service would receive free medical coverage for life—a serious consideration since, management made clear, after the buyout deadline all bets were off.
Employees who chose the buyout didn’t know it then, but they would be leaving in the teeth of the worst recession since the Great Depression, a crisis even more pronounced in the journalism universe. Tears and wine flowed in the Star-Ledger newsroom on December 31, 2008, as the last of the buyouts packed up their desks. In the end, out of a 334-person full-time newsroom staff, 151 people left. From its peak of 366 in 2000, The Star-Ledger newsroom’s full-time staff currently stands at 190.