Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tribune's Botched Job in Handling The Baltimore Sun Layoffs

The Tribune Co., owners of The Baltimore Sun, gave everyone a primer yesterday in how not to handle a layoff by limiting information and treating its staffers in an unprofessional manner.

Information about the layoff came out through a slow drip, and no official announcement. Even this morning, a day after the deed was done, there is no press release detailing the cutbacks on the corporate website. This not only causes confusion both inside the newsroom and out, but it fertilizes the rumor weeds that spread.

The only corporate comment has come from Renee Mutchnik, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, who said: "We're going to become a 24-hour, local news-gathering media company so we can more effectively gather content and distribute it among our different platforms -- print, online and mobile.

"As everyone knows, more and more readers are moving online, and advertisers are following them.

"This is our plan for success, not just survival."

But there are no details on that plan. Are they going to shut down the print product? If not, how do they expect to produce a quality print product with so few people? Will you continue to be a news organization, or will you shift to an information service? Are there plans to beef up the website? There are also rumors of Tribune shifting personnel to Chicago, any truth to that?

By the way, there was no definitive answer to the number of people laid off. At various times throughout the day media reports had it at 15, then 58, later 60, and finally 61. This is roughly 29 percent of the 205 editorial staff. Some were notified on Tuesday, others Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild memo states that in addition to the editorial layoffs, The Sun has laid off seven employees in other departments including advertising and customer service.

For the record then, 61 people from editorial and seven from the business unit have been dismissed, as best as anyone can tell.

"It's stunning, just the breadth of them across the board," The Sun quoted Angie Kuhl, the paper's unit chairwoman for the Guild, which represents 148 newsroom workers, including 40 who were laid off Wednesday. "They are clearly trying to move to be an information producer, not a newspaper publisher. It is a flattening of the newsroom," Kuhl told Editor & Publisher's Joe Strupp.

The notifications to staffers were a joke. Some got word on Tuesday, others on Wednesday. Four journalists covering the O's-Angels baseball game were notified by phone, as documented by Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register.

(Tough times in the newspaper biz. Two writers for the Baltimore Sun in the press box here got the news — by phone during the game — that they had been laid off in the latest round of cost-cutting. Stay classy, Baltimore Sun management.)

(UPDATE: Make that three reporters and a photographer axed by the Sun during the game.)

It wouldn't be so bad if the O's were away, but they were playing in downtown Baltimore. Notifying the employees before going to the ballpark wouldn't have been too much to ask, would it? I certainly hope they did not file a story.

David Ettlin, writing on his blog "The Real Muck," gives a graphic minute-by-minute account of the Tuesday-Wednesday Massacre, including this tidbit of one staffer getting the news. Go to his piece, it's a great read:
Ellie Baublitz, who put in 22 years and four months as a Sun editorial assistant after a few years as a community news freelancer, wore a spritely yellow outfit to work Wednesday, to “cheer people up” -- but having heard from a newsroom confidant of the Tuesday Night Massacre, she came prepared.

“I stuffed two shopping bags into my briefcase, just in case I needed them.”

About 2 p.m., as the newsroom awaited an expected announcement, Ellie and fellow editorial assistant Fay Lande were summoned by a top editor into a glass-windowed conference room overlooking the newsroom and told of their layoffs.

Ellie came out in tears and, by one reporter’s account, “That really broke the newsroom up, when Ellie broke up.”

In a telephone chat Wednesday night, Ellie acknowledged the account as “pretty accurate,” and recounted how colleagues cheered and applauded staffers leaving the building after getting the same fate.

“It was pretty ugly down there,” Ellie said. “They probably did me a favor. The last couple of years have been really bad.”

There are so many better ways to handle such an awful situation. I know from my own experience that managers take no joy or glee going through this process. But there are steps they can take to make sure people are treated with respect, and that information is properly and clearly communicated. (Communication at a newspaper, who would have thought of that?)

1. Notify those affected in person on the same day. Notify them in private, not in glass window offices so everyone can watch (as described by Ettlin above). Give them the dignity of saying good-bye to their co-workers if they so choose.

2. Gather the remaining staff so the chief executive officer can tell them face-to-face. Thank the leaving staff publicly for their fine service; emphasis that this was a business decision and does not reflect their integrity or hard work. Describe the vision for the organization's future and what the company's goals are as it moves forward. Invite questions and answer them honestly.

3. Issue a press release detailing how many people were laid off, what departments they came from, and how many are left. Thank the departing employees, and include language about the future of the organization. This eliminates the rumors and water-cooler chatter.

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