The bought-out

What journalists sell when they take an exit package

Peter Corbett loved journalism. After working at weeklies around Arizona for seven years, he worked 23 more at The Arizona Republic. “There are so many different things you get to do,” he says. “You get in everybody’s business, learn a hell of a lot. It’s like constant graduate school. You meet great people, have an impact on your community, and work with really fun people.” The Republic was, and still is, a dominant regional paper, and Corbett had planned to end his career there. With two grown kids in the area, he didn’t want to move, and there were no other comparable outlets nearby. 

He admits to being naive about the state of the industry for a long time. When he covered real estate for the paper in 2011 and 2012, he thought, “I’m glad I’m not in real estate.” Even as the newsroom began shedding staff through what seemed like yearly buyouts and layoffs, he thought he would make it until 2020, when he’d be ready to retire. “I can ride this out,” he told himself. Then, the company that owned his paper, Gannett, began targeting certain positions, including his as a reporter in a suburban bureau, for buyout offers. He passed these up a few times, but his confidence in his job security waned. “I felt, constantly, one of these days my number is going to come up,” he says.

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He was 60, covering City Hall in Glendale, Arizona. And the 2015 buyout offer was more generous than previous ones. The deadline to accept was in October, and with Corbett’s years of service, he calculated the money would last him through mid-June 2016: about six months. “I figured, I can find something after that much time,” he says. Corbett was one of about 40 employees invited to take a buyout in that round; around half took it. “There was no guarantee that I wasn’t going to get cut loose a year or two later,” he says. He had turned a corner and decided his time had come.

Teresa Mears made a similar calculation when she decided to leave The Miami Herald in 2008. Her job was editing the home section, but she didn’t see how it would survive as cost-cutting hit the paper. It seemed like the local, inside sections would be the first to go, and indeed, the section no longer exists. Even if she stayed and moved to another section, she thought, the job would become something different, with less of the kind of autonomy she’d enjoyed. “That was part of the reason I decided to take the buyout,” she says. “I don’t think we had a sense how bad it was going to get, [and] how quickly.”

Mears doesn’t remember the exact buyout figure, but she says it was between $20,000 and $25,000, which she thought would cover her expenses for about six months. She knew she would be taking a financial hit—and when the housing crisis reached Florida soon afterward, she lost her home—but she decided to take a step back and stop worrying about her finances. Her partner had died the previous year, and the time leading to her death had been difficult. “At this point in my life, maximizing my income is not a priority,” she says. Mears had previously freelanced, making a living writing about Miami for the national sections of other big dailies, such as The Boston Globe. She thought those sources of income would dry up, too. She did some freelance editing for academic websites and journals, until she discovered a network of websites that gave tips about exploring cities on the cheap. She now runs the site about Miami, paid for by advertising. She makes less money today than she did at the paper.

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In the 1990s, newspapers around the country were consolidating and expanding. Big city newspapers swallowed the smaller competitors, becoming regional behemoths with profit margins at an average of 15 percent, a rate unheard of in other industries. When the early ’90s recession hurt local advertising sales, most observers viewed the dip as a small blip in the newspaper industry’s otherwise inexorable growth.

To deal with bloated staffs created by the mergers, and to recover from the recession, newspapers around the country began offering buyouts. At the time, it seemed like a good way for workaday journalists to share in the wealth. At best, buyout money could be the seed funding for a writer’s quaint bakery and café, or money to live off of while they worked out the novel kicking around in their head. At the very least, buyouts were a way to coax those ready to retire to do so earlier, saving money while keeping employees who wanted to stay on the job, rather than forcing people to leave through layoffs. Big buyouts were offered to the entire staffs of the Los Angeles Times and The Baltimore Sun, two papers then owned by the Times Mirror Company. David Simon took one and wrote his second book, The Corner, which, along with his first book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, formed the basis of one of the most celebrated HBO series of all time, The Wire. The buyout money helped transform him from a talented newspaper reporter into a television star. “Because of buyout offers,” Elizabeth Chang wrote in 1993 for the American Journalism Review, “newspapers have lost top talent to competitors, lifestyle changes and fondly held, long-suppressed dreams.” 

That’s still how I thought of buyouts in the mid-2000s, when, as a news assistant at The New York Times, I watched as the paper began to offer them. Not everyone who applied to take one would be approved: In the early days, there was competition for buyouts. A few superstars left in these first few rounds. Linda Greenhouse, a longtime Supreme Court reporter, left in 2008 and landed a lecturing gig at Yale Law School, as well as other writing opportunities. Another to leave that year was David Cay Johnston, who’d won a Pulitzer a few years earlier for his reporting on the IRS.

 

Journalists are no longer taking buyouts to thrive, but to survive. Rather than seed funding for new opportunities, they’re a last resort for people who want to leave on their own terms.

 

Johnston remembers Jill Abramson, then the paper’s managing editor, telling him she assumed he would have all sorts of job offers. He recalls replying, “I’m sure I will.” But he didn’t want another job. Instead, he concentrated on his books and took a part-time gig as a columnist. “I very quickly increased my income by a third, while reducing my workload to 60 days a year,” he says. His latest book, It’s Even Worse Than You Think, released in January, was a bestseller.

A decade ago, buyouts still seemed rare and relatively novel. Everyone knew the internet—specifically, the rise of blogs and the low price of online advertising—was challenging the industry, but it still seemed like most media outlets would adapt, especially nationally recognized papers like the Times, or big regional papers that whole chunks of the country relied on, like The Arizona Republic. 

Nicole Collins-Bronzan, a friend of mine at the Times who had been promoted to assistant metro editor, says it still seemed that way in 2009, when she applied to take a buyout during the paper’s second big round of offers in two years. Her decision was mostly for personal reasons: She was ready to start a family, and the long hours spent working at the paper were increasingly out of step with what she wanted for her future. “It felt like a monumental thing,” she says. “It was not the thing they were planning for me, and they were surprised when I took it. It meant so much more then. It was such a big deal. People took it very seriously.”

That was when buyouts still looked like a choice, an offer workers could accept and use as a cushion to do something new and different. In the years since, buyouts have come to seem more like layoffs disguised by a kinder name, with workers accepting them primarily because they know a harsher elimination is likely in their future if they don’t. Journalists are no longer taking buyouts to thrive, but to survive. Rather than offering real opportunity, they’re a last resort for people who want to leave on their own terms, with as much advance notice as possible. Newspapers almost always seem to be announcing “another” round of buyouts, and each serves to remind those of us who care about the industry that it’s still shrinking, leaving us to wonder what remains.

 

For newspapers, what began in 2008, the first full year of the Great Recession, exposed some fundamental weaknesses in what had once been considered a thriving industry: Readers were moving online, where content was mostly free; and advertisers would always pay less to reach those readers online than they had for the ads they’d paid for in physical newspapers. Whole categories of advertising, such as classifieds, would permanently disappear because of the rise of sites like Craigslist. Total newspaper advertising revenue was a little more than $48 billion in 2004. In 2008, it had fallen to just under $38 billion. By 2016, the total estimated revenue hovered around $18 billion.

The numerical decline of the industry’s workforce has been just as devastating. In 2008, during that first big round of buyouts at the Times, newspapers employed 65,720, according to the Pew Research Center, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2015, the most recent year available, the total employment in the industry was down by more than a third, to 41,400. In the years between, large-scale layoffs and buyouts at big papers became annual events, and few saw much of a bright side. When Bill Keller, then executive editor at the Times, announced the possibility of layoffs at a staff meeting in late 2009, following a round of furloughs and budget cuts, he said: “The idea that you can do ‘more with less’ is, in my view, one of the four great lies . . . . What you can do with less, is less. But if you are smart and careful, you can limit the harm.”

One way the Times and other papers have tried to limit the harm is to nudge workers who are at the end of their careers—close to retirement age and likely to stay only a few more years anyway—out a little sooner with targeted buyout offers. Discrimination of workers over the age of 40 is against federal law, but when the offer is voluntary, some jump at the chance for an early retirement. Mark Hertzberg, a former director of photography at The Journal Times in Racine, Wisconsin, tells me he was offered a buyout in 2012 when his editor asked him to stay behind after a news meeting. The editor told him the photo department was going to be scaled back. “If I stayed, one of the other two photographers would be laid off. They had young children,” he says. “Without hesitation, I said, ‘I’ll take a buyout.’” He was 61 then, and had worked on books of photography. He’d had a heart attack about five months earlier. It seemed like a good time to scale back.

After Corbett took a gamble on the buyout at The Arizona Republic, he wasn’t ready to retire, so he started a travel blog called On the Road Arizona, for which he takes his own pictures and champions the state’s byways. He also got a job at the Arizona Department of Transportation, where he works with other former journalists to publish information about the state of the roads, traffic accidents, and other such information online. “My boss is a former [Associated Press] reporter in New York, so we’re simpatico,” he says. “He obviously likes hiring newspaper people for these jobs, because he knows they can do the work under pressure.”

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Many of those who have taken buyouts point out that when newspapers lose their more experienced workers, they also lose institutional memory. It is a vague, somewhat sentimental idea, but people with years of experience just hold a lot of knowledge that less-experienced people haven’t yet acquired. Journalists are romantics, and this idea can disturb them every time a round of buyouts comes up: How will the young reporters learn without a grizzled, grumpy editor to teach them?

But newspapers are losing people at earlier stages of their careers, too. The Orange County Register is a local paper based in Anaheim, California, which competes with the Los Angeles Times in local coverage and has a history that spans more than a century and includes three Pulitzer Prizes. Jill Reed found herself at the Register after taking an irregular route to journalism. She had been an accountant in her early 20s but decided she wanted a more exciting job, so she enrolled in college again to study photography and photojournalism. She started an internship before she graduated at the Daily Breeze, a small local paper in Torrance, California, where she lived, and during the eight years she worked there, she was a photo editor, food columnist, and copy editor. Whenever she went on vacation, she took her camera along to work on something for the travel section. “I loved the look and feel of the paper,” she says. She also loved the energy. “In journalism, you never know what you’re going to get on a daily basis,” she says. “Sometimes you get that little adrenaline rush when something happens, and you completely have to do a 180 and change plans.” She thought journalism would be her life’s career.

Reed was part of an ecosystem that existed then, of working at a small newspaper and getting a lot of experience, then moving to bigger and bigger papers. In 2006, after an old boss from the Breeze moved to the Register, she hired Reed for a job on the spot during an interview. The end goal for a lot of journalists in that region then was the LA Times, but the Register promised its own glories. “I was told of bonuses and pay raises and opportunities,” she says. “None of that panned out. Instead we got buyouts and layoffs.”

The Register didn’t have union representation, and so, when it began offering buyouts and layoffs on a regular basis in 2008, it was never entirely clear who was being targeted and why. Early on, folks left because they wanted a career change, or no longer liked the decisions the paper was making—focusing on slideshows and graphics instead of local government coverage, chasing eyeballs for meager advertising dollars. 

Reed remembers surviving three major rounds of layoffs and two or three smaller ones. The boss who had hired her was laid off. Another coworker from the Breeze who’d also come to the Register was as well. By 2014, Reed was working as a weekend photo editor and had seen the photo desk shrink. She was saying goodbye to colleagues on a regular basis. She no longer had the staff or freelancing budget to cover all she would have in the past. “There were a lot of times I had to say no to people. We didn’t have the resources and staff to cover this, this, and this,” she says. The severance package offered that year, based on length of tenure, would provide her with about five months of pay for her eight years of work. “It seemed like, this was the point where it’s not going to get any better. They were never going to offer this package again.”

Reed, who is now 46, knew she was leaving journalism. Her son was starting school, and she thought she’d look for work in communications, closer to Torrance, where she still lived. Her husband was supportive. Within a few months, before her severance pay had run out, she landed a job in the communications department for the City of Torrance—at first temping for someone who was on maternity leave. They made her position permanent to keep her. “It’s not as exciting as being day-to-day on the news desk,” she says. “I’m at a point where I don’t need that so much any more.”

 

Journalism isn’t just exciting for the people who practice it. It’s also a civic mission—those who enter the profession take their role as public servants and government watchdogs seriously. For people who’ve left journalism, the message the continued buyouts and layoffs send is that the businesses that run the papers and the readers who rely on them don’t realize how important those functions are—and won’t until they’re gone.

The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer in 2011 for uncovering corruption in the small, working-class city of Bell, California, where a city manager was paid as much as $800,000, and the entire city council was paying itself double and triple what counterparts in other cities made. Under the radar, and away from press attention, the officials were raiding the city treasury. It’s hard to imagine that happening in a previous era, when one or two journalists would have attended nearly every city council meeting. “The problem in American journalism is not investigative reporting,” says Johnston, who worked at the LA Times before going to New York. “It’s beat reporting. There are city councils and school boards and county legislatures or boards of supervisors that rarely see a journalist.” Covering city hall in a suburban bureau is exactly the kind of job Corbett used to do, and loved. Now, fewer and fewer people do it, and even the most generous buyouts can’t mask what’s been lost.

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Monica Potts is a journalist whose work has previously appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, and Washington Monthly, and is currently working on a book about women in rural Arkansas. Previously, she was a senior writer for The American Prospect, covering poverty and economic opportunity.

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