‘It Was a Total Bloodbath:’ USA Today Journalists Recount Layoffs
USA Today photo by Vincent Desjardins via the Creative Commons license on Flickr.
Credit:
September 5, 2014


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.

Pop music critic Edna Gundersen, who has covered pop music since 1987, also announced she was leaving via social media.

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.”

 

Comments
  • Jim Hopkins

    Publisher Larry Kramer and the top editor he recruited, David Callaway, have been in their jobs for more than two years now — a relative lifetime in Internet years. While it’s certainly true that USA Today’s print advertising continues to fall, the flip side is that digital revenue has failed to balance that out, despite Kramer-Callaway’s appropriately relentless focus on weaning the paper off print. Meanwhile, a redesign of USA Today’s print and digital editions was launched two years ago this month in conjunction with changes in content meant to attract more readers. Despite that, the paper still hasn’t erected a paywall, apparently because of fears readers won’t pay in sufficient numbers. Kramer and Callaway were hired because of their extensive experience in digital media where they worked before, MarketWatch, the financial news site Kramer helped launch. But now they are tasked with turning around a mature company with significant legacy costs; USA Today turns 32 this month. Kramer is 64, and it would not be surprising if he signed a three-year contract when he was hired as publisher in May 2012. That would be up in eight months. It will be interesting to see whether he and Callaway stick around next spring, especially after USA Today is spun off along with Gannett’s other, flagging newspapers.

  • Dan Friedell

    Anyone tempted to apply for one of these jobs, or similar positions when they are posted, would be smart to treat them as short-term contracts. The folks who were long-time employees are the last of a breed. Keep your networks open and jump if a better opportunity arises regardless of what you may say during your interview.

  • primafacie

    Escorted out by security? They might have looted the place for notebooks and pens. The bottom line is a harsh mistress.

  • Prickly Pear

    Certainly your shop stewards intervened … oh right, USAT is not a Guild shop…. Lo siento mucho.

    • A.J. Perez

      Show me a newsroom (outside maybe the NYT) where a union is even remotely effective in 2014.

      • Joseph N. DiStefano

        Philadelphia Inquirer TNG #10

  • George Scione

    In this biz you should always be updating and saving your professional contacts to a personal email account or flash drive. Also, if you’re not constantly updating your resume and keeping your head on a swivel for your next stop – you’re only hurting yourself.

    • Barbara Delollis

      George’s advice above is hugely helpful for people still on the traditional side of things. I’d also add that LinkedIn, Twitter and perhaps Facebook are also – if not more – helpful, depending on the person’s social media savvy. If you’re not currently building a network on LinkedIn at this time, remember it’s never too late. Just look at a friend or colleague’s profile if you’re truly unfamiliar, crank out your own in about an hour, and start linking in with people you know. It could make job hunting down the road a lot easier!

  • navymikeussn

    My heart goes out to all the employees affected by this sad event, I pray that God in Heaven protect s and leads all these people who lost their jobs to bigger and better things.

  • ljr331

    The [family owned] newspaper I worked for (and the husband still works for) did 3 rounds of lay-offs by dividing all the employees into 3 conference rooms. One of the 3 rooms was laid off. So, each time they called us into separate rooms… you found yourself looking at everyone in ‘your’ room, to see if they were the expendable ones.
    And yes, always escorted out.
    I survived the lay-offs – but quit after the 6 other jobs in my dept., that now had no one doing them, landed in my lap.
    Um, no thanks!

    • George Scione

      Sounds to me like somebody in management is a fan of American Idol. What a joke.

      When you walk in the room and see a rep from the state’s unemployment office, you might be a used-to-be newspaper employee.

  • pjbnyc

    It so happens I picked up last Wednesday’s USA Today, the first time I had a physical edition in months, and I was struck by how few ads there were. There were no full page ads. Probably the most expensive ones were ads on the front page of section pages. In the first section there were two ads; two in Business plus some classified/legal notice ads that probably added up to a page; four ads in the Life section adding up to about one full page, and four fractional ads in sports. It’s lousy the way USA Today whacked these reporters, but those folks can’t be totally surprised, especially the older ones. Employers would be in trouble if they laid off all their female workers, or black or Hispanic ones. But older employees are fair game.

  • Guy Priel

    Such a sad tale to read of the plight of staff members at this once grand dame of journalism. To lose your job after years is one thing, but to deal with the indignity of being escorted out of the building and only being given a few minutes to clean out a desk is something else entirely. My heart goes out to all those affected.

  • Dinah Rogers

    I was let go from my 13-year management job in the architecture/construction/design field a month ago. The event was “cold, quick, and final” as for Gannett. I’m surprised these senior people did not know that’s how it’s done in Corporate America, regardless of your tenure, contribution, or self-perceived value…or age. I am 62. My email was shut down before I got to the parking lot. And I was escorted there immediately following the 5-minute meeting telling me my position was eliminated. I was asked for my building key. Shoplifter is a great description of how it made me feel.

  • Lance Ashdown

    To me, it is sociopathic to let go of employees in that way. If you ask for respectful behavior from employees, then you ought to treat them with equal respect.

    • tentantoes

      Making it sociopathy on steroids when Gannett destroyed newspapers and LIVES as they did in Louisville KY. A few thought the BINGHAMS Commies until Gannett far outdid them. And our gvt is so paranoid of monopolies.

      Gannet has been made more obsolete each day…and how great Karma is!

  • Dillard Jenkins

    With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms. – Hunter S. Thompson

    Yes, Mr Thompson, objectivity in Journalism died under a large pile of money.

  • tentantoes

    Gannett stinks. The employees are biting into what was forced upon those whose jobs they took at EVERY SINGLE PAPER GANNETT HAS BOUGHT OUT. And that is because Gannett is being made OBSOLETE.