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.
Employees who remained—after a handful of further departures in 2009—faced more work for less money. In March 2009, they learned that their pensions were frozen and that they would be furloughed for ten days a year. In May came salary cuts: 5 percent on the first $40,000, 10 percent on the next $40,000, and 15 percent on anything over $80,000. Employees began paying 25 percent of their health care plans. There were also reassignments, including the transfer of a reporter and an assistant deputy photo editor who had resisted the buyouts, to the mailroom. Willse retired in October, succeeded by managing editor Kevin Whitmer. On February 5, 2010, the legendary job security pledge ended.
Beyond the cement and glass walls of the hulking Star-Ledger headquarters, the fortunes of its diaspora are mixed. Some have launched new news ventures: ex-Ledger reporters launched the non-profit NewJerseyNewsroom.com in April 2009, with no financial backing and no offices but with forty writers volunteering to provide news about New Jersey. The cooperative site draws advertising, but not yet enough to support anyone, according to former Star-Ledger sportswriter and editor Garrett Morrison, one of the founders. While journalists dip in and out, the mainstay is former longtime Star-Ledger statehouse reporter Tom Hester Sr., who often writes several times a day. At sixty-six, he said, he has no plans to stop being a reporter. And in May 2010, NJ Spotlight, another online news service founded by Star-Ledger alumni and focused on public issues, began publishing from rented space at the Trenton statehouse. NJ Spotlight secured start-up funds from the Community Foundation of New Jersey, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the William Penn Foundation, and is the brainchild of former Star-Ledger writers John Mooney and Tom Johnson. They are building a roster of freelancers among their former colleagues. “It’s a great feeling to be back in the game,” said Mooney.
A handful of Ledger alumni have landed in traditional media, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, Bloomberg News, The Associated Press, and business newsletters. Some have left journalism and started a variety of new careers. Others are still looking. Some are happy. Many say they still miss their former life at The Star-Ledger, which, as former assistant metro editor Joanne Sills put it, is “severed and gone but haunts me, from time to time, like a phantom limb.”
Here are the stories of six Star-Ledger journalists and the paths they found:
Back Into Uniform
Wayne Woolley had just stepped off a military transport plane in Fort Bliss, Texas, on July 31, 2008, when he got the news. The Star-Ledger military affairs and defense reporter, preparing for his third embed in Iraq covering the New Jersey National Guard, turned on his cell phone to find five voice-mails. They all said the same thing: The Star-Ledger was in critical condition.
One of the messages came from Woolley’s wife, fellow Ledger reporter Judy DeHaven, who filled him in on that morning’s chilling newsroom announcement. Suddenly, Woolley said, it seemed like “the bottom dropped out” in terms of their professional lives, and in the wider world of journalism as well. Both took the buyout.
The couple had joined The Star-Ledger in 2000 after four years at The Detroit News, where Wayne covered the police and Judy chronicled suburban crime. They wanted to come back to the East Coast, and the Ledger was one of the few papers that would hire couples.