As December arrived, The Plain Dealer failed to live up to its name. For employees who got the axe, their final day was a scene straight out of the movie Office Space, a biting satire that chronicles workplace indignities. After 27 newsroom workers accepted an offer to walk away quietly, another two dozen were not only laid off -- they had to come in on Saturday to sign papers and clean out their desks, entering and leaving through the back entrance. At least the PD provided clean white cardboard boxes for their personal items. Merry Christmas.
Church bells sounded like a death knell at 9 a.m. Saturday, December 6, a cold gray morning. PD staff flashed badges to a security guard at the rear gate before shuffling into the building one last time, heads down, braced against the stinging wind. For some, decades of service ended like a protected, shameful secret.
In October, PD management announced plans to reduce the size of the newsroom. The stated target was 38 positions. Twenty-seven rank-and-file Newspaper Guild members accepted the offer: two weeks of salary for every year on the job, with no extension of health benefits. Then management cut 23 more, who got the same deal. As of December 2, the newsroom is 20 percent smaller than it was a month ago, with 50 fewer editorial employees. No management personnel was cut.
The Newspaper Guild says the choice wasn't a choice. "I don't call [the offers] buyouts," says PD Guild chairman Harlan Spector. "We consider them voluntary layoffs."
For those holding out, the dismissals were handled indelicately. On December 1, editorial employees received a memo from Editor Susan Goldberg, instructing them to stay home Tuesday and await a call. If management called you between 7 and 9:30 that morning, it would be to say you were no longer an employee of the paper. If you didn't receive a call by 9:30, you were to report to work. And work was, as one staffer said, "a bad scene." Presumably, the paper's brain trust conceived the impersonal approach to avoid awkward encounters. Making the cuts a month before Christmas was a tender mercy: The timing was bad, but maybe you got the news before dropping $1,500 on a surround-sound, wall-mount plasma TV at a Wal-Mart holiday sale.
The unceremonious remote dismissals deprived veterans of the chance to have some final words with the editorial staff. (Columnist-reporter Sam Fulwood has long been a Scene punching bag, but if he were on our team, we would have given him the chance to say goodbye and good luck.) On Tuesday, remaining employees dressed in black, as if attending a funeral for colleagues who had been lost at sea.
Four days after Black Tuesday, even the survivors were understandably paranoid and bitchy. Saturday morning in the Plain Dealer parking lot, only one writer (who hadn't lost her job) was willing to talk to Scene.
Temporarily forgetting the rigors of reporting, she yelled about "trying to make us [writers] look stupid." And, perhaps inadvertently, she gave an idea of the kind of armchair journalism you can expect from a staff that's stretched to the breaking point: Instead of catching people at a vulnerable moment, she suggested, we should "call the field office." And that's the best professional advice from one of the writers management valued enough to keep. Still, it makes sense that a gasket was ready to blow.
"The whole experience has been harsh for our members," says Spector. "It's devastating to these people. They're taking it hard. They're people, in many cases, with 20, 30 years experience."
The cuts came from across the paper, from Metro to Features. They included religion writers David Briggs and Janet Filmore, and lifers like 35-year sportswriter Carl Matzelle.
Spector declined even to guess how the cuts could affect the paper. "We don't know yet," he said. "We'll see. The workers here are mourning the loss of their colleagues."
Cuts at Akron's once-proud Beacon Journal weren't so messy, but it was still a bloodletting. The ABJ offered buyouts to its entire newsroom in October. ABJ employees weren't offered health benefits either, though 19 employees accepted an offer more generous financially than the PD's. The response prevented involuntary layoffs. ABJ union chair Bob DeMay said the paper lost four managers and 15 rank-and-file newsroom employees, including reporters, editors and photographers. The remaining staff is spread thin. Just before the PD cuts were announced, sports writer Brian Windhorst jumped ship to the PD, where he'll continue covering the Cavaliers. The ABJ's unkillable George Thomas will now cover the Cavs, but he'll no longer write the paper's media column. Also gone are city hall reporter Carl Chancellor and arts writer Elaine Guregian. The paper now has no classical music critic. Coverage of city hall will continue but won't be as extensive. Suffering from online competition, newspapers are responding by doing less.
"Certain areas right now aren't getting covered," says DeMay. "Other remaining people are taking on other work. A little of each beat will be lost. And as a columnist, there's nobody here that can replace the voice of David Giffels."
For former ABJ columnist David Giffels - one of the paper's marquee names, a Rubber City native with three books under his belt - the timing couldn't have been better. When the University of Akron offered him a full-time gig as a tenure-track professor, he got out while the getting was good. "It's not an exaggeration to say I'm about to begin my dream job," says Giffels. "That said, I loved being a columnist, especially at my hometown paper, and I wouldn't have left for anything less than what UA offered. I wasn't looking to get out, but I also would be lying if I said I didn't take action because of concerns for my, and everyone's, long-term security in print journalism."
Back in Cleveland, the future wasn't as bright. The first Sunday after the cuts, PD reader representative Ted Diadiun used his column to cover the ongoing controversy of whether a newspaper should report good news or bad news. Then he tackled one reader's harsh assessment of how the paper covered the Black Friday shopping bonanza.
Reached for comment, news columnist Michael McIntyre offered the same clichéd - but heartfelt and true - response you hear from all writers who are lucky enough to be making a dollar at their chosen trade: "All we can do - and we're doing that now - is roll up our sleeves and commit to doing good journalism, hopefully until retirement."
Plain Dealer Editor Goldberg didn't return our calls.
On that bleak Saturday morning, the only PD employee willing to discuss the situation civilly was the security guard watching the newspaper's rear gate. He told us to move off the premises and politely asked that we leave the castoffs alone, with a reasonable explanation: "Times is hard." And the cold wind kept blowing. Employees - some alone, some with a spouse in tow - left The Plain Dealer offices a final time, rushing through the chilly air. One couple parked a car by the rotating rear door, hit the blinkers, and hustled back and forth, loading boxes. Then they drove off to an uncertain future, hazard lights still flashing.