Posts Tagged ‘Monty Python’


When your newspaper folds like an accordion

It’s been half a day since red ink killed my withering newspaper in Montgomery County, Md.

Despite positive, but hedged, assessments we heard the last several months, we found out today that the whole operation had been coughing up money for years.

The CEO left seven weeks ago, and was never replaced. That was one more big clue that we were in jeopardy, which was easy to sense anyway.

In an all-hands-on-deck meeting on Friday morning, a top executive from the home office delivered the fatal swing of the hatchet.

Meetings like this, with an executive no one ever sees or hears about otherwise, are never to deliver good news, so we knew. It’s never: Congratulations, team, on this year’s editorial contest prizes. Or: Advertising revenue has gushed like an oil geyser, and we’re spreading the wealth. We’d have even settled for hearing that a hiring freeze has been lifted.

“Limped along” doesn’t describe how The Gazette survived the last few years. I think of the knight with hacked-off limbs claiming “it’s just a flesh wound” in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Reporter positions were sliced. The web desk was condensed. A cartoonist and highly read columnist — the last one left — were axed as our freelance budgets were gutted. A top editor was sent home after finding out his position was eliminated. A photographer was reassigned to practical oblivion. Coverage of an adjoining county was zapped; the office found out as the last issue was printed.

By the end, to cover a county of more than 1 million people, we were down to three regional reporters (for crime, the county, and education) and one beat reporter for each of our five editions — except for one edition with 1.5 reporters and one edition with no reporter for months, thanks to that hiring freeze.

Editors picked up tasks from another unfilled newsroom position — hours of compiling calendar listings and police logs, taking over the Scout tour. Three photographers documented dozens of graduations, but couldn’t get to them all. Some weeks, the layout/copy desk was down to two people to put out five editions one day and two the next.

The biggest shame was the death by neglect of one of Maryland’s best newspapers, a separate publication out of a portion of our newsroom.

For a while, that publication, The Gazette of Politics & Business, covered state government in Annapolis better and smarter than the higher-profile Washington Post and Baltimore Sun. News scoops and an edgy reporters’ notebook column, written by knowledgeable, hustling, plugged-in reporters, made the paper a must-read every Friday.

Then came retrenchment and retreat. Three reporter positions dropped to two, then one. The State House post was eliminated altogether.

The Friday paper stuck around in ghost form. It had no reporters left to gather original news, so stories from the Montgomery Gazette papers on Wednesday were repackaged simply as a vehicle to publish pages of legal ads each week. It was unclear if anyone noticed.

The end for the faux Friday paper — rebranded as Business Gazette — didn’t come soon enough. The sadness was entirely for what once was.

In recent days, no one was surprised if Doomsday was about to come around the corner. Still, there was hope, always hope.

We received an email directive Thursday morning to report to a meeting on Friday. A few people tried to pump employees on the business side for details, but got nowhere. Our photo editor, setting up a sound system in the conference room, noticed a banner newly hung on the wall behind the lectern. It said “Gazette Newspapers — If it’s important to you, it’s important to us.”

Aha. Maybe we’ll be OK. Who would have an upbeat slogan as a backdrop to announce deflating news? We thought we had sleuthed something comforting — until we found out that another employee had found the banner and hung it up on her own.

With the room packed Friday morning, the executive apologized for leaving our newspaper in limbo for several weeks after our CEO left for another job. During (and before) that time, he said, local and corporate officials were doing their best to figure out which pieces of our multi-part company could be successfully marketed, and to whom.

First, he announced that three papers in Southern Maryland and a set of 12 military publications had been sold to a media organization with other papers in Maryland.

A sister paper in Fairfax County, Va., was being acquired by a second media company.

And the Gazette newspapers in Montgomery County (population 1 million) and Prince George’s County (population 900,000) in Maryland…

Will be closed. This week.

Sixty-nine people will be out of a job.

A human resources official who spoke next acknowledged that many of us might be too numb to absorb his presentation on transition details. He laid out what euphemists might call “separation agreements” that, as far as these things go, sound pretty good.

A roomful of newspeople rallied to ask pretty good, pointed questions, such as: Why would Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos even buy The Gazette if he has shown no interest in community news? Stories about him pouring millions of dollars into The Washington Post’s newsroom have been constant, while The Gazette, which needed help, has been unaffected.

In that 2013 sale, the Post got “financial runway,” as Bezos likes to say. The Gazette got frustrating silence.

The numbers never worked, the executive told us newly laid-off staffers. The Gazette had been losing money for years. No matter the scenario, no one wanted to buy the papers, he said.

We were told that there was an 11:30 a.m. embargo on the news, so the executive could drive to Fairfax and give a talk there. Even though the Post and other publications already had written stories about the closure and sent links on Twitter while the meeting was underway, we were prevented from breaking our own sad news.

The Post later reported that former Gazette owner Davis Kennedy said he made an offer through a broker to buy the paper, but one of our colleagues familiar with attempts to sell The Gazette said the paper didn’t get such an offer. Staffers were left to wonder if an actual rescue attempt was ignored.

By then, our focus was on gathering our stuff and our emotions as we went through the mechanical processes of shutting down a newsroom. Reporters scrambled to gather clips ahead of a 2 p.m. lockout on their computers. A skeleton crew for the final issues did legwork for their final stories, but needed some decompression time before they felt up to writing them.

We laughed about press packets coming in from the American Accordionists’ Association on the day The Gazette folded.

I thought about how jarring it was to pull a plug on decades of being a community source of opinion and news large and small — the freshly shot graduation photos that might not get printed, letters to the editor that were close to publication after rounds of fact-checks and edits but won’t get there.

Shortly after the end was announced, I took a call from a mother who has wept each time she has called me the last few weeks, still grieving the sudden loss of her teenage son a decade ago. She wondered if the photos she submitted from a lacrosse game in his memory would get in this week’s edition. The shutdown of the paper gave her a new reason to be upset.

The community has lost a source of valuable dissemination of life’s bits and pieces — calendar listings, business briefs, people features, oodles of sports news and photos — as well as watchdog coverage of government and the school system, and an editorial voice.

Before I left the newsroom on Friday, I learned what a reporter staying on for the makeshift last edition was working on — a story about the death of 92-year-old Earle Hightower, who founded The Gazette in 1959.

Hightower died four days before his newspaper did. One of his relatives said it’s better that he’ll never know.

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