On Tuesday, the numbers on Facebook’s Friends of the Times-Picayune Editorial page continued to mount, hour by hour.
After 27, it’s a -30-
And thus legacy journalists signaled, succinctly and poignantly, the end of their careers, in a way that only their peers could appreciate and understand.
“Thirty” is the traditional notation that a reporter writes after an article, telling editors that the story has come to an end. And so it has for 201 Times-Picayune employees, who were told in one-on-one meetings Tuesday that they will not be among the hires when NOLA Media Group starts up in the fall.
Ironically, perhaps, departing reporters’ “30” will arrive on Sept. 30, their final day of work. At that time a more “robust” digital product will appear on Nola.com, and the paper will be published only on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
The mood Tuesday started out at melancholy and quickly plunged from there. The decline was chronicled in adjectives: Depressing. Heartbreaking. Devastated. Appalling.
And, finally: “a bloodbath all around – there’s no other word for it.”
I knew most of the people on the receiving end of both good and bad news. Their dignity in the face of disaster was impressive. Those who will go posted positive reflections, while those who will stay took no joy in their journalistic reprieves.
Bittersweet, said one who got an offer. Touched by all the surprise that I’m being let go, said another who did not.
Perhaps most eloquent of all was religion writer Bruce Nolan, a veteran reporter who has emerged as something of a spokesman for the TP disenfranchised. He wrote:
“I’ve been oddly privileged today to live through an out-of-body experience, hovering above my own casket, as it were, to hear the most humbling appreciations directed at the corpse. May you all be so blessed.
“This afternoon in the newsroom was uniquely wrenching and brutal. The spread of the damage was transparent, trackable. People stood in knots; women hugged themselves defensively; men threw arms over others’ shoulders. There was gallows humor – lots of it – bewilderment, more humor, more bewilderment. People emerged from meetings and drew their fingers across their throats. It was shocking: Him! Her!! What can they be thinking?…
“The layoff was a scheduled plague loosed on a confined population; it erupted about 9 a.m. and took 50 percent casualties, incrementally and in public, then burned itself out by lunch. Shocked people left to nurse their wounds alone, with family or co-workers.
“We drank our lunch, went home to examine our severance or new job-offer packets.
Mine is severance.”
There’s no good way to tell 49 percent of your editorial staff they will be looking for new jobs soon. But the way events unfolded yesterday made one wonder who exactly had put any thought into this process.
First, of course, there was the public scrutiny of walking into a closed-door session – and then having to come out and face the crowd. Everyone, I’m told, was standing around and talking about the lay-offs. Many of them were sobbing.
There was the ignobility of being snagged by a TV reporter for a quote upon leaving the TP building in tears. The trepidation of learning which of your colleagues had been laid off – with another three hours to go until your own personal sentencing.
But the day got weirder.
The severance packets contained a list of the jobs, departments and ages of everyone who was being let go. Perhaps it was some corporate lawyer’s tactic to prove that the lay-offs hit all ages and backgrounds. But what it did was clue in employees as to whom in their departments would be getting the ax. And at least one got the word from friends before that one-on-one meeting.
Employees laid off were allowed to take the rest of the day off. But word was that they if they didn’t show up and do “an acceptable job” until Sept. 30 they will forfeit severance pay – 1 ½ weeks for each year served, capped at a year’s salary.
Survivor guilt blossomed, too, as “lucky” ones lamented the losses of their friends. More than one left for a stiff drink in the middle of the day, while another ruminated on the feeling that Tuesday was “the ugly inverse of the day we won the Pulitzers in 2006.”
Bewilderment was expressed as well over who stays, and who goes. The May 24 announcement of the three-day-a-week paper promised continuation of “a full week’s worth of features such as society coverage, puzzles and comics.”
Yet Nell Nolan will not be covering society news for Nola.com. Readers will reportedly be allowed to send in society photos for posting online.
Nor will Brett Anderson be reviewing restaurants, although he could have stayed had he been willing to give up his recently announced Neiman Fellowship. Pete Finney will no longer cover sports (news prematurely revealed online, before his meeting), although he will be asked to write a column on a freelance basis. Most of the photography department will be hanging up their cameras.
Many devoted and beloved reporters won’t be putting bylines on Nola.com stories, from Nolan to Frank Donze to Danny Monteverde.
In the end, it all seemed so un-new Orleans. We pride ourselves on standing together to face the outside world. But yesterday, the outside world took over.
This column is dedicated to all The Times-Picayune employees who will be leaving Sept. 30. But in particular, my heart and gratitude for wonderful writing, photography and editing goes out to Jerry McLeod, Stephanie Stroud, John McCusker, Eliot Kamenitz, Barri Bronston, Victor Andrews, Danny Gamble, Maryann Cook and so many, many more.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.