In South Carolina, buyouts take a big bite out of The State’s newsroom

On April 20, about two hours after news broke that The Post and Courier of Charleston, SC, had taken the Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism, a meeting was convened in the newsroom of The State in Columbia, the state capital.

The pow-wow wasn’t about how the McClatchy-owned paper might step up its reporting game in the wake of the honors for its in-state rival. Instead, managers said virtually everyone in the newsroom would be offered a buyout package. The assembled journalists were handed sheets of paper with a proposal and told they could begin talks with HR.

“Wasn’t that a heartbreak?” The State’s publisher, Sara Borton, said about the timing in a phone conversation Thursday night. “And that was all me. The timing was bad and I’m responsible for that … The timing was tough. It stunk.”

At the time, Borton says, she figured maybe seven or eight people might step forward to take a voluntary buyout, but it has turned out to be “more than that.” She declined to give an exact number for how many employees of the paper will be leaving, but said it is currently fewer than 20.

“It’s tough to see some of the good journalists go,” Borton said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever have a better pool of folks.”

A number of entries disappeared from the paper’s online listing of newsroom staff between Thursday and Friday, though it was not immediately clear whether all the changes were related to the buyouts. Some of the names not on the current list include features reporter Joey Holleman, education and religion reporter Carolyn Click, associate editor and editorial board member Warren Bolton, photojournalist Kim Kim Foster-Tobin, sports columnist Ron Morris, and sports writer Neil White, who had been with the paper nearly 30 years.

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Investigative reporter John Monk, who has deep sources in the legal and law enforcement worlds, is still listed, as are veteran environmental reporter Sammy Fretwell, business and military reporter Jeff Wilkinson, and longtime newsman Clif LeBlanc.

Counting the copy and design staff and news assistants, the online listing of the newsroom now has a little more than 30 names. The State plans to do some new hiring, Borton said (more on that below).

The news at The State comes on the heels of reports of staff departures at other McClatchy properties including The Miami Herald, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Kansas City Star, and a publishing center in North Carolina.

In announcing a net loss of $11.3 million from continuing operations in the first quarter of this year, McClatchy president and CEO Pat Talamantes said last month the company was “focused on reducing legacy costs, primarily in production and distribution.” Talamantes added that “in light of weaker print advertising revenues this year, individual newspapers are adopting additional cost reduction plans to achieve their budgets.” McClatchy’s corporate office did not immediately respond to an email and phone message for this story.

McClatchy has announced company-wide efforts to improve digital ad sales and bolster digital content, including video. Borton, the publisher, outlined a similar plan for The State.

“We’re just really re-setting our platforms and it’s pretty much a digital play,” she said, adding that the paper has to respond to readers’ shift to mobile platforms. “When we hire we’re going to be hiring for a very different skill set.”

“The only thing we know we can’t do is continue to do what we’ve been doing,” she said.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.