After the Storm

What happens to the journalists who get pushed out of their newsrooms?

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.

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 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:

Wayne Woolley
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.

It was an exciting time to be there, too. Under editor Jim Willse, “All of a sudden the paper was lively and aggressive. It was fun to read and they were clearly, clearly just trying to hire good people,” said Woolley. The paper encouraged him to treat the military affairs story as a national beat, traveling around the country and overseas to cover soldiers, sailors, and airmen, whose stories he “loved telling.”

Now what? Woolley and his wife, parents of two small children, looked beyond journalism. DeHaven, a former business writer, eventually landed a job as a financial writer at an investment service. Woolley thought public affairs might be fulfilling, but only if it was for something he could believe in. An obvious answer was the military.

By the end of November 2008 he landed a temporary job in the public affairs office of the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which was swamped with work following the deployment of nearly 3,000 Army National Guard soldiers to Iraq. Woolley said the tasks there came naturally to him after covering the military for six years, and after spending eight years before that in the Army Reserve after going through Penn State on an ROTC scholarship.

But to have a shot at keeping the job permanently, he would have to be a person in uniform. Due to his prior service, the National Guard would take him—but only if the forty-two-year-old could pass the physical. To do that, he had to lose fifty pounds and get in shape. Through the power of vegetables and exercise, he did it. These days he sports a military haircut along with the fatigues he wears to his office in Lawrenceville.

He uses a lot of his old expertise writing for the department’s external and internal publications as well as press releases and occasional op-ed pieces. But Woolley says he’s also learning about desktop publishing, photography, newsletter and video production, and about how to make a budget. “A lot of new skills,” he said. “You can’t beat it.”

Susan Alai
When Experience Hurts

Over three decades as a writer and journalist, Susan Alai welcomed the challenges that came along. She covered politics as a cub reporter at the Daily Advance in Dover, New Jersey; interviewed Yves Saint Laurent in Paris for Women’s Wear Daily; profiled Prince Albert in Monaco for W magazine; and supervised multiple sections as lifestyle editor at The Star-Ledger.

But nothing prepared her for the discouraging realities of job loss in an exceedingly bad economy at the age of fifty-six. For the first time in her adult life, Alai, who took the 2008 buyout after eleven years at the Ledger, is out of work. Worse, like many among the thousands of unemployed journalists, she is confronting the problems that age can pose in the job marketplace. “I don’t think the experience, which goes along with age, is valued anymore,” she says, sitting in her suburban Morristown living room.

The decision to take the buyout was painful, she says, and the pressure to leave was formidable. “We knew nothing good was going to come of it, but you had to get out. They were firing bullets at you.” But the problems facing older journalists, she says, are uniquely frustrating in a contracting industry that appears to want younger workers for lower pay. “There are so many Baby Boomers who need to be reinvented, and it’s not just journalists. Where are you going to find something else to do?”

Alai, youthful and energetic, is married to an attorney and is the mother of an adult daughter. She has looked steadily for full-time work since leaving the Ledger, to no avail. She has also freelanced—for The New York Times, the local news site, and Inside Jersey magazine, a monthly owned by Advance Publications, as well as New Jersey Life and But she notes that the freelance market is shrinking along with its compensation.

So far, numerous applications for magazine and public relations jobs have produced nothing—often not even an acknowledgment, she says. Alai considered becoming a teacher, but the prospect of investing time and money in education courses and state certification seemed questionable at a time when many school districts are shedding experienced teachers.

She has found ways to use her skills in community service. Alai is on the Community Health Advisory Board for Morristown Memorial Hospital and works on the publicity committee for hospital fundraisers. She has become involved with the Rotary Club of Morristown, where she writes for the newsletter, and she recently helped raise money for Haiti earthquake relief. “It gets you away from thinking about yourself—‘Poor me, I have no career because my industry collapsed,’ ” she said. “For these people in Haiti, their world literally did collapse.”

Chandra Hayslett
An Unexpected Gift

For Memphis-born Chandra Hayslett, journalism was a calling, education reporting a passion, and New Jersey the place she wanted to make her career. So in January 2003, when Dick Hughes, her former editor at Gannett’s Home News Tribune in East Brunswick, New Jersey, asked her if there was anyone, anywhere he could call for her before he retired, Hayslett knew the answer.

“I said, ‘You know what? I really love New Jersey. I want to stay in New Jersey. Can you call The Star-Ledger?’” At the time Hayslett, thirty-five and full of can-do spirit, was a municipal reporter at Gannett’s Asbury Park Press. As a young reporter at The Home News (the paper merged with The News Tribune in 1996), she had competed against more seasoned Ledger reporters, admired the quality of their writing, and envied the resources the paper offered. The Ledger “was the destination paper.”

Hayslett joined the Ledger in September 2003, covering twenty-four school districts from the Middlesex County bureau. She loved the job. By the beginning of 2008, however, staff cuts made a dedicated education reporter an unaffordable luxury in the bureau and Hayslett was reassigned to a municipal beat, which she didn’t enjoy as much. And after three years without raises it was clear to her that the industry was in trouble. When the buyout was offered, she took it. Her husband is an engineer and they have no children; she decided she could afford to go, and did so on December 10, 2008.

“I thought I was marketable,” she says, “but I probably applied for 300 jobs and went on three interviews in 2009.” She notes that her eleven years of experience exceeded the requirement for many of the jobs she sought.

So she considered public relations. She started Hayslett Media Consulting from her home in February 2009 and picked up some clients, though not enough to live on. In March, while still looking for full-time work, she decided to volunteer a couple of days a week—press releases and clerical work—at her church, the 6,000-member First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset. It was partly just to get out of the house. She also thought her politically connected pastor, a former New Jersey secretary of state named DeForest B. Soaries Jr., might be able to help in her job hunt. But he was so busy that for eight months Hayslett never even saw him in the office.

When she finally did, she gave him her résumé. “He called me that afternoon and said I need you on my team,” Hayslett said, still excited at the memory. “I started January 4th.”

Hayslett is director of communications and marketing for First Baptist and its affiliated Central Jersey Community Development Corp., which runs five nonprofits that deal with such issues as housing assistance and foster care. “This is a gift from heaven, this job. I mean literally—it’s the church,” she said. “I loved journalism. I had a great run in journalism. I never thought I would be this happy after journalism. But I’m happier.”

Brad Parks
‘A Pretty Wonderful Floor’

Brad Parks got his first byline on November 5, 1988, covering a high school hockey game for The Ridgefield Press in Connecticut. He was fourteen.

“I fell in love. I fell hard and absolutely. Journalism was what I was going to do with my life. What always amazed me was the number of people in the newsroom who had the exact same story,” says Parks. A former sportswriter and investigative reporter at The Star-Ledger, he took the buyout in 2008.

After college and a stint at The Washington Post, Parks followed his future wife to New Jersey and found a “dream job” in 1998 at the Ledger, where he joined the sports enterprise desk. But after his marriage in 2004, he realized that spending 100 nights a year in a hotel room probably wasn’t compatible with having a family.

In November 2004, he switched to investigative news, a move that eventually would change his life. His first story involved a Thanksgiving weekend quadruple homicide in Newark. In a bloodstained vacant lot was a scene that would stay with him. While his wife labored at her graduate work, Parks started work on a novel that began with a quadruple homicide investigated by Carter Ross, an intrepid young reporter for the Newark Eagle-Examiner, a paper that bears a strong resemblance to The Star-Ledger. The WASP-y Ross also bears a resemblance to the thirty-five-year-old Parks. “He’s some idealized version of me. In essence, he has become the vessel for my unrequited journalistic desires,” Parks says. “I don’t get to do the stuff Carter does anymore and, frankly, I miss it.”

Even before the buyout, Parks says, he had realized he would have to leave the Ledger. The epiphany came in late 2007, after he had turned in an award-winning series on the fortieth anniversary of the Newark race riots, an event that vastly altered the city. Parks asked for a raise, though there had been a pay freeze on for two years. When he was denied, he says, “that was the beginning of the end.”

Slowly, he realized that “the things I loved about my job weren’t going to be possible anymore.” Parks and his wife Melissa decided to go for what they had always considered “the nuclear option” if things got really bad. A guidance counselor, Melissa began looking for a position at a boarding school, with the idea that they could live rent-free and Parks could write.

By the spring of 2008, she found one, at a school in Virginia’s Tidewater region. By July, Parks had a two-book deal from the Minotaur imprint of St. Martin’s Publishing Group. By the end of the year, he had left The Star-Ledger.

These days, he is the stay-at-home father of two young children and writes his Carter Ross mysteries in a 1,200-square-foot cottage on a bucolic campus. “That’s really how we’re able to survive. We couldn’t do this if we were still living in New Jersey, with an expensive mortgage and all of that stuff,” Parks says on a recent spring morning. He was on his way from Virginia to a book convention in Ohio.

Faces of the Gone, his debut novel, came out in December 2009. Eyes of the Innocent is due out in February 2011. He’s completed and sold a third yet-untitled book in the series.

Parks deeply misses the camaraderie of the newsroom but is sanguine. “The elevator that had taken our careers steadily upward had stopped,” he says, “but it let me out on a pretty wonderful floor.” 

Matt Rainey and Michelle Segall-Rainey
Getting Diversified

Neither Matt Rainey, a photographer, nor his wife, Michelle Segall-Rainey, a former photo assignment editor, ever wanted to leave The Star-Ledger. But with three children to support, by the time the 2008 buyout came around they felt they needed safer ground.

Michelle, who spent nine years at the Ledger, left in December and soon began a one-year college program to become a paralegal. Matt’s feature photography had won the Star-Ledger’s first Pulitzer Prize, in 2001, for an emotional series on the recovery of burn victims from a dorm fire at Seton Hall. He stayed on at the paper, which he had joined in 1995.

But he also founded his own photography/videography business. After the buyout announcement, the couple also worked hard to make themselves more financially secure in case the situation at The Star-Ledger worsened—cutting expenses, paying off their car, and even putting their spacious suburban house on the market before they concluded they could still afford it. Matt also continued to teach photojournalism at Kean University. “We came to the conclusion that being diversified was the best thing to do,” he says.

Michelle, who is forty-seven, had always been interested in the law, and she knew that paralegals were in demand. She enrolled in the training program at a local community college, juggling school, a part-time job, and childcare (she and Matt, forty-three, have a young son together, and Matt has two children by a prior marriage). She graduated, winning an award for academic excellence along the way, and landed a job as a contract analyst with publisher Rodale Inc. in March 2010. “They’re another family-owned company,” she says, sitting at her dining-room table. “Rodale will be the happy ending to my one-and-a-half years of tumult.”

For Matt, who grew up delivering The Star-Ledger, leaving the paper is something he doesn’t even want to consider. “I’m Matt Rainey, staff photographer at The Star-Ledger,” he says, laughing. “It’s just that I’m also Matt Rainey, wedding photojournalist. Matt Rainey, corporate editorial photographer. Matt Rainey, freelance photographer. And Matt Rainey, juggler of chain saws.”

The freelance work and teaching are crucial, he says, to make up for the pay cuts both he and Michelle have taken in their jobs, as well as the ten-day annual furloughs imposed by the paper.

Still, The Star-Ledger and New Jersey continue to constitute his identity. “One of the things that I pride myself on, and certainly one of the things that I hold most dear about the Pulitzer, is that I did it in New Jersey. I didn’t travel to Africa or Iraq or some foreign country and shoot some extravagant foreign story. I’ve done a lot of that and it’s wonderful and incredibly exciting.

“But I’m a community journalist,” he says. “That’s how I grew up, that’s how I was trained. My first job was working for a small weekly newspaper. What I love the most about it is that I’m telling the stories of the people in my community and the stories that affect their lives.”

And is that possible in the future? “I’m in the I don’t-know-part,” he says. “I hope so.”

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Lisa Anderson is a 2009-2010 Encore Fellow at CJR. She was the the New York bureau chief and a national correspondent for the Chicago Tribune until December 2008.