The atmosphere is carnival-like. There is a joviality in the room, an hysterical hilarity that has been missing from my newsroom for many months. For a few minutes, I am stunned, angry even, at this abrupt change in mood. We have just been told that the Akron Beacon Journal is looking to offer buyouts to 14 newsroom employees in an attempt to further reduce staff. And yet the atmosphere is totally different than it was at the staff meeting a few months earlier when tearful, grim-faced editors announced the first-ever layoffs in the paper’s history.
Cynically, I think, “Nothing like tossing around a few thousand bucks to make people forget that this buyout is merely a layoff with sugar coating.”
We are in the J.S.K. room, named after legendary Beacon Journal editor John S. Knight. I turn to the person sitting behind me. “Wow,” I say, with the proper degree of sarcasm. “Can’t remember the last time we had so many folks in this room without anyone luring us with free food.”
My colleague’s eyes are steady and serious. “Take a good look around,” he says. “It’s probably the last time there will be so many people gathered in this room.”
His words land like a punch to the stomach. Now when I look around the room, I see it with new eyes. I hear the bitterness behind the jokes, see that what I thought was hilarity is actually a kind of desperate fatalism. The truth is this: By the end of July, our newsroom will lose 14 more people. This, in addition to the eight laid off in April and the nine others who took voluntary resignations. Since the buyout rewards seniority, we will lose the kind of experience, wisdom and institutional memory that make newspapers great. The thought saddens and scares me.
To some degree, the buyout announcement alters the landscape of the newsroom. For the first time in months, the heavy depression that descended like a fog after the first round of cuts seems to lift. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps it is the thought that, unlike the first round of layoffs, which affected the newest and most vulnerable hires, this buyout will benefit some of our colleagues. Whatever the reason, the mood is different.
Earlier this year, coming to work daily had felt like attending a close friend’s funeral. And, indeed, something had died—that naive and idealistic belief that the folks who ran newspaper companies realized that theirs was more than a business—it was a sacred charge. A fellow reporter said it best: “How strange it is,” she mused. “This paper made it through the Depression and World War II without laying anyone off. And now we can’t survive a lousy recession.”
My colleagues spoke openly about seeing therapists and starting to take antidepressants. Editors told reporters they would help them find jobs if they wanted to leave, and reporters shared information about available jobs. The lines between “us” and “them” blurred and disappeared as senior management walked around looking as ashen and shell-shocked as the rest of us felt; like us, they admitted to anger, disillusionment and powerlessness.
There was a feeling of having been set adrift, as if some invisible hand had cut loose our belief in the invincibility of the press. Our shoulders sagged and that defiant, optimistic spirit that had always made the Beacon Journal “The Little Paper That Could” seemed to disappear. With apprehension, we watched our shrinking newshole—we had already lost our beloved Sunday magazine in January—and wondered about our new, scaled-back role. Reporters complained about how light and flimsy the Sunday paper felt compared with that of our competitor, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. The news staff was reorganized; beats such as social issues were folded in with other beats. Some reporters were suddenly told to cover ludicrously wide geographical areas. The worst part was looking in the eye the eight colleagues who were to be laid-off, knowing that the day of their departure was fast approaching.
Spurts of defiance occasionally tore through our despair. The entire newsroom wore black the day Knight Ridder executives visited the newsroom. We handed these same officials a long list of concerns and pointed questions. We sent Tony Ridder letters and a stack of clips of work done by our laid-off colleagues. When Jay Harris resigned as the publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, our newsroom sent him flowers. But once it was clear that Knight Ridder would not even extend us the courtesy of responding to our questions in a respectful way, our spirits sank again.
Some of us told ourselves that the whole process was an invaluable political education—an insider’s look at the workings of a system based on pleasing the masters of Wall Street. After all, what was happening was being replicated throughout the industry. Reading Kamala Markandaya’s “Nectar in the Sieve” I was struck at the parallel between the feudal system that allowed Indian landowners to take the same percentage of the sharecroppers’ yield, regardless of famine or flood, and the capitalist system that allows Wall Street to expect the same percentage of profits through good times and bad.
But cynicism and disillusionment is against the nature of most journalists because journalism is ultimately an idealistic profession. It is based on the hopeful belief that if readers know the truth, they will make intelligent, informed decisions that will change things for the better. The power of the pen, the freedom of the press, the First Amendment, are optimistic, even joyous, ideals.
And so it was that the winter of our discontent passed. No, that is too simplistic a reading of our current situation. Rather, our discontent has changed to a different kind of defiance, a kind of self-reliance. The Society of Professional Journalists recently named us “Best Newspaper in Ohio.” Even while we celebrate the honor, we realize that the award was based on last year’s work. But we’re going to try to bring home that prize next year, too, with or without corporate’s support. After all, it is those of us who are in Akron who have been charged to uphold John S. Knight’s proud legacy.
Yet there can be no question that our coverage has shrunk. Most of the time, reporters don’t even bother to ask if we can report on out-of-state events because the answer is inevitably no. And there is a real fear that once the 14 people leave, we are going to have to redefine who and what we are. Indeed, we are living in a state of suspension, waiting for the other shoe to drop as the deadline for the buyouts looms. But there’s an old rule in urban planning—when you can’t build out, you build up. The Beacon Journal may no longer be able to build out—the entire state may no longer be our trampling ground, as it once was. But nobody can stop us from building upward. And when you do that, the sky is the limit.
Thrity Umrigar, a 2000 Nieman Fellow, writes about medical issues for the Akron Beacon Journal. Her new novel, “Bombay Time,” was recently published by Picador USA/St. Martin’s Press.