A wake for half the Daily News

Staffers gather to mourn layoffs at the Daily News. Photo: Amanda Darrach.

Early Monday morning, Todd Maisel, a photojournalist, stood out in the rain on South Street, near the Battery Tunnel. Watching the passersby, he spotted a woman walking her dog, her umbrella braced against the wind. Maisel lifted his camera. Just as a gust turned the umbrella inside out, the woman’s dog grabbed his leash in his mouth and yanked it—snap! The diagonal opposition was perfect, framed against the wet, grey concrete.

Maisel filed the photo right away to his editor at the New York Daily News. “It was a wonderful moment,” he said. “But there was no answer.” A few days before, rumors had been reported that Tronc, the Chicago-based publisher that bought the Daily News last September for a dollar, was planning mass layoffs. When Maisel, a senior staff photographer who had been at the paper for 18 years, arrived in the newsroom for a mandatory 9 a.m. meeting, staffers were told to wait for email alerts. After about a half hour of angsty standing around, the emails started to come in, scheduling meetings with human resources; half the masthead lost their jobs, including Jim Rich, the editor-in-chief, and Kristen Lee, the managing editor.

For the rest of the day, Bavaria Bier Haus, a beer hall on South William Street in the Financial District, was Daily News headquarters. A veteran breaking news reporter, who had been on staff for almost two decades, poured himself a glass from a pitcher of Kolsch. That morning, he told CJR, he had been planning on “chasing homicides.” Beside him, an editor described a story that one of her best writers, also laid off, had been working on, about a woman who had been brutally beaten by a mugger; the attacker, sent to Rikers, was beaten by a prison guard. The attacker sued and won $3.8 million in damages, while the woman has permanent injuries, and has remained poor. Who will report these stories now? they wondered. Some 45 journalists remained on staff, but not everyone had been notified yet. Seeking to shield young innocents from the harsh reality of the day, interns had been sent off to a mid-morning screening of Jurassic Park.

RELATED: Cuts at the Daily News highlight a local news crisis

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Staffers passed around a send-off email from the publisher. “This is the Daily News’s fault—it should have been done long ago,” an editor explained of Tronc’s reasoning. The rest of the note, he said, details a plan to focus more closely on breaking news. With a shrug, he pointed out several staffers on the breaking news team who had just lost their jobs. Many of them, promised severance packages that will kick in next month, asked to remain anonymous.

“They told us numbers were showing that local readers want and are paying for digital,” a former photo editor said. “They had done the research.” Now 10 members of the photo team have been laid off. “New York’s Picture Newspaper has no more pictures of our own,” he added, referring to the Daily News’s slogan for its first 71 years of operation. “It’s pretty embarrassing.”

Another editor chimed in. “They want digital first, but our entire social media team was laid off today,” she said. “Tronc must have just looked at a spread sheet of who was making how much money.” Two months ago, she pointed out, many in the newsroom were awarded raises.

 

Seeking to shield young innocents from the harsh reality of the day, interns had been sent off to a mid-morning screening of “Jurassic Park.”

 

Zach Haberman, until yesterday the head of breaking news, drank Bushmills whiskey on the rocks. “I think all news is local,” he said. “There’s not a single story where there isn’t a local effect. Not having the people to log those effects or dig deeper into the effects—that is a loss.” Nearby, an editor described a recent example: a story helped a woman in Washington Heights find her mentally ill son, who had been missing for three months since his release from Rikers. The reporter got a tip that led them to Elmhurst Psychiatric Hospital, in Queens. No one had shared his hospitalization with his mother until the Daily News tracked him down. “Every day that I’ve worked here I’ve taken pride knowing that the New York Daily News is a voice for the working class,” a former photo editor said. “I don’t know what this change means for the working class.”

“The last photo I picked was one by Andrew Savulich of a woman in her NYCHA apartment bathroom,” another former photo editor said; it depicts a scene from the city’s low-income housing. “It’s dilapidated and it’s falling apart, and she’s like, ‘Why is this happening to me?’” The photo accompanies an opinion piece by Harry Siegel: “Why we need local journalism: Look around at how vulnerable we are right now.” The editor added, “I think it really spoke to what the Daily News is about.”

Others reeled over the lack of planning for such a major transition. “There was an LIRR train derailment,” another booted editor said, of the Long Island Rail Road. “There were no breaking news updates being posted on the home page, on our Twitter account, our Facebook account. But this is where New Yorkers come to get the breaking news that they seek.”

A young breaking news reporter had another job lined up. She’s relieved that her notice went through in time to spare a colleague’s job, she said. “I saved that one person—that means the world to me.”

Soon, some rescue supplies arrived at the bar: Newsweek, Vanity Fair, and the New York Post sent money via Venmo to help cover the tab. A Post staffer joined her Daily News friends at a table outside. “This is a bad day for the New York Post as well,” she says, “because New York is one of the few cities in the country where there are competing newspapers. The competition drives each of us to be better, and when one is diminished, we both are diminished.”

As the sky began to dim, an editor said that she wasn’t surprised by the layoffs, but she was disappointed. “Working in journalism kind of feels like building a house on a foundation that never seems to dry.”

ICYMI: Who suffers when local news disappears

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of people given raises two months ago.

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Amanda Darrach is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @akdarrach.