‘Oh, here we go again’: An investigative reporter in Kansas is laid off for the third time

When Karen Dillon found out on Monday afternoon that her job at the Lawrence Journal-World was being eliminated, it was not a shock—it was déjà vu.

“It was like, oh, here we go again,” she says.

Dillon is a celebrated, veteran investigative journalist whose career highlights range from breaking the Pee-Wee Herman porn-theater bust in Florida to winning a Goldsmith Prize and helping reform transparency laws in Kansas. Yet she has now been laid off three times within the last three years—by the Kansas City Star in 2013, by Kansas City’s KSHB-TV in 2014, and now by the Journal-World, which serves a city of about 90,000 people in northeastern Kansas.

Dillon was one of some 30 staffers who received their two-weeks notice Monday, just a month after West Virginia-based Ogden Newspapers purchased the World Company from the Simons family, which had run the Journal-World for 125 years. An unbylined article published by the Journal-World the following day stated that most of the cuts were not to the news staff. But along with Dillon, who was the paper’s investigative reporter, longtime staffers such as opinion-page editor Ann Gardner, sports reporter Gary Bedore, and photographers Richard Gwin and Mike Yoder were laid off (or, in the company’s preferred formulation, “not hired” by new ownership). Also gone are several copy editors, among other changes.

Such moves have become commonplace at local news outlets, as Dillon can attest. But the departures represent a blow to a paper that has long enjoyed a relatively robust staff.

They also come as a source of concern for observers watching the course charted by the paper’s new owners. “It certainly begs some questions about their commitment to the community,” says Scott Reinardy, associate dean of journalism at the University of Kansas, which is based in Lawrence.

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A little over a decade ago, the Journal-World was hailed by The New York Times as the “newspaper of the future” for its embrace of digital innovation. Still, the World Company could not overcome the industry-wide challenges of diminishing advertising and shifting audiences. Editor and chairman Dolph Simons Jr. announced last month that the family was selling to Ogden, with the acknowledgment that “it is becoming increasingly difficult for a stand-alone, family-owned daily newspaper to compete and provide the product owners desire.” (Disclosure: My wife and I in the past have both worked for the World Company, including for the Journal-World and other subsidiaries.)

At that time, Dillon says, she and her colleagues had reason to hope the Journal-World might avoid major job losses. In announcing the sale, the Simonses said that they chose to sell to Ogden because it was a long-standing, family-owned operation that shared their commitment to journalism. At the same time, Ogden, which owns 40 dailies nationwide, had deeper pockets than the Simons operation.

But not long after the purchase announcement, Dillon says, employees were told that Ogden was evaluating staff roles and a representative from the company would hold meetings with staff. By this time, she expected the worst. She knew if layoffs were coming, she would be a likely casualty—given that, as an experienced investigative reporter, “I was making too much money.”

On Monday, Dillon says, “Every five minutes they met with somebody. My time was 1:15. They said, ‘Good work, but we can’t afford your position anymore.’”

Dillon’s salary at the Journal-World was about $56,000 a year, she says.

These were not layoffs, according to the Journal-World’s story, but instead an instance of 61 staffers being “hired” by Ogden and around 30 not being hired—the latter group not mentioned until nine grafs in.

“I’m thrilled that we have the opportunity to keep intact most of our talented newsroom staff,” Scott Stanford, the paper’s new publisher, was quoted as saying. “We’re going to have even more local news, find more stories to be told here in Lawrence. You’re going to see more community photos and more community contributions from our readers.”

Reached Wednesday, Stanford declined to comment on the job cuts other than to emphasize that most of them were not newsroom staff.

Dillon says she had it good for most of her nearly two years at the Journal-World, where she was, for a while, given the freedom to do a single investigative piece per month. It’s unusual for a paper this size—the print circulation is listed in various places as under 20,000—to have a dedicated investigative reporter, says KU’s Reinardy, who has studied the effects of staff cuts at newspapers.

“Investigative teams are seen as additional aspects of a newspaper that aren’t always necessary, he says. “It was a real luxury for readers to have that. I’m sure Ogden saw it as a luxury too.”

Readers will miss Dillon’s “outstanding work,” Reinardy says. That includes exposés on Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach violating county building codes, University of Kansas officials splurging on private-jet trips, and poor government oversight of construction sites at local schools.

The other journalists let go will be missed too. The cut that has drawn the most attention so far is Bedore, who has covered KU sports for decades. National sports commentators and even former KU basketball players have flooded Twitter with criticism of the decision and accolades for Bedore. “I could get used to this hobby,” Bedore tweeted early Wednesday. “One Bucket List item accomplished: Read nonstop nice tweets for two full days. Insane.”

Another significant loss, says Reinardy, is the departure of Gardner, who was the paper’s only editorial writer. “When you lose that local editorial page, it really disconnects you from the community,” Reinardy says. “I don’t know how you fill that gap.”

In comments about the paper’s remaining resources, Stanford said that the Journal-World will still have local editorial writing and an editorial board, although it’s not clear how those roles will be filled. The publisher also noted that the Journal-World is retaining statehouse correspondent Peter Hancock, and that it will still have a photo department—though it’s now a one-man operation following the departures of veteran photographers Gwin and Yoder.

Gwin, Dillon said, “knows everybody in this town. That institutional memory is just gone.”

As for Dillon herself, she says her days as a newspaper staffer are likely over. After losing her jobs at the Star—where she had worked for 22 years—and then KSHB, she says, “I got a taste of it again” in Lawrence, and “it was wonderful.”

But now, “I just don’t want to be in this position of working for a newspaper again.” Instead, she’s embarking on a freelance career, and is confident in her prospects. She believes local news outlets still want to publish good investigative work—even if they can’t afford full-timers in that role.

“I think investigative reporters are resilient,” she says. “You have to be to do what we do.”

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Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.