Korina Lopez was preparing to get a tooth pulled when the call came from USA Today’s human relations office on Wednesday morning. She couldn’t talk, but returned the call as soon as she got home and learned her job as an entertainment writer for the media giant was over.
“They gave me all of five minutes and dismantled 11 years of work,” she said. “I had 15 minutes before they locked me out of my computer. I was trying like crazy to copy all of my contacts before I got locked out. “
Lopez was one of 60 to 70 employees laid off this week at USA Today in a move the company attributed to a need to cut costs in the face of declining print advertising revenue.
Gannett Co. recently announced it was spinning off its flagship national paper and 81 other newspapers into a company separate from its broadcast properties. The company said about half of those laid off worked in the newsroom, amounting to 8 percent of the total editorial staff.
Lopez and several others whose positions were slashed said they weren’t totally surprised that the company was downsizing, but were shocked at how it took place.
Scott Bowles, 49, a film reporter and critic for USA Today’s Los Angeles bureau and 20-year-veteran of Gannett Co., got the layoff call at 8:20 that morning.
“They told me, we are letting you go. You are out and your email is down,” he recalled. “It was cold, it was quick and it was final. Perhaps that is fitting for what is happening in the news era.”
Others in the newsroom were escorted out by security after losing their jobs, Bowles said. “It was so disrespectful. These people were treated like shoplifters.”
Bowles said veteran newsroom employees who had worked there for decades almost immediately lost access to their business email accounts.
“It was a total bloodbath,” Lopez said.
One of the more senior journalists laid off was Bob Minzesheimer, 64, a book critic who has spent 40 years working for Gannett. In an interview yesterday, he said it’s still unclear how the newspaper chose which reporters and editors to keep and which to let go.
Jeremy Gaines, a spokesman for Gannett, declined to answer questions about factors that influenced who was laid off and why, how much experience those staffers had and how much the savings would be.
Total revenue for Gannett, led by earnings from broadcast and digital branches of the company, rose in the most recent quarter of 2014 compared to last year, according to data filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
But publishing advertising revenue in USA Today and other Gannett papers fell about 5.7 percent, more than $30 million. Revenue from publishing circulation slumped as well, dropping half of a percent compared to last year.
Despite these numbers, staff members said they saw bright spots in USA Today’s revenue picture, such as its perceived success in attracting book advertising from publishers.
“Maybe I was naive,” Minzesheimer said. “I thought I would be OK as long as we were bringing in book advertising. ”
Gannett does not report USA Today’s revenue individually.
A Wide Range of Jobs
Gannett did not identify the positions eliminated, but through interviews and a review of their social media accounts, American Journalism Review identified 26 USA Today staffers who apparently lost their jobs.
Their positions ranged from assistant managing editor, nation editor, page designer, film critics, health and wellness reporter, special products copy chief, copy editors, sports journalists, and arts and entertainment writers. While many seemed to be print-centric posts, a web editor and an online producer were also among those who lost their jobs.
USA Today staffers, like most modern journalists, have been under pressure to engage readers in social media, requiring many veterans to learn new digital skills. Gaines declined to answer questions about Gannett’s social media policies for its staffers, but Minzesheimer said he received a monthly list of other employees’ Twitter followers. There were also designated days where everyone was expected to “tweet a lot,” he said. USA Today publisher Larry Kramer told The New York Times in July that “Social Media Tuesdays” were a part of the paper’s “big digital push.”
“Every one of my stories, I would tweet a link to it,” Minzesheimer said. “We were all doing digital stuff.”
AJR reviewed the Twitter activity of 26 staffers who were apparently laid off. Eight did not appear to have active accounts. Of those 18 who were active on Twitter, there was a wide range of engagement. Two had more than 25,000 followers; and the average number of followers was 580. The average number of tweets was 2,617.
Dennis Kelly, a 41-year Gannett veteran who was the editor for health, science and the environment, was one of many who took to Twitter to announce his abrupt departure.
After 41 years, my time with Gannett ended today. Got laid off from USA Today along with other terrific journalists. I'll miss them all.
— Dennis Kelly (@dennisvkelly) September 3, 2014
Pop music critic Edna Gundersen, who has covered pop music since 1987, also announced she was leaving via social media.
Today is my last day at USA TODAY, after 30 years. I was laid off this morning, along with several great colleagues. Onward.
— Edna Gundersen (@EdnaGundersen) September 3, 2014
AJR was unable to contact Gundersen or Kelly for comment, but their colleagues praised their work and said other long-time, senior staffers also were sent packing.
“These were our most established writers,” Bowles said. “They were our experts in the field.”
Minzesheimer said he understands the reasoning behind the layoffs. That still doesn’t make it easy.
“The bottom line is if they’re not making enough money, they’re going to cut expenses,” Minzesheimer said. “I recognize that. I would like to think I’m more than just an expense, that I added a real value to the paper.”