The rumors and omens had been around for at least a week.
According to scuttlebutt, 40 Los Angeles Times staffers were about to be canned — and, for auguries, ambulances had been spotted parked outside the newspaper’s Spring Street building on a couple of recent occasions.
In the parlance of media metaphors, the ax dropped, or the shoe fell, or the bricks were hit, on Tuesday.
Five veteran writers are leaving the paper: Tina Daunt, Diane Haithman, Peter Hong, Susan Spano and Barbara Thornburg. The separations came mostly as layoffs, although real-estate reporter Hong, who is now considering other job possibilities, accepted a buyout hoping to spare someone else from taking a bullet.
In addition, a staff photographer, librarian, web deputy and two web producers were let go. Not exactly 40, but they could be the beginning of more to come.
Daunt, who’s been at the paper 20 years, had sensed she was on the way out because editors were avoiding her. She told TheWrap that she squeezed the news out of a colleague the night before the layoffs. She didn’t linger at the Times for her pink slip.
“Why would I stick around to hear about it officially?” Daunt said. “I cleaned out my desk and called the Employee Development office about paperwork. I’m no one’s victim — I’m not going to take a seat and be humiliated while everyone stares and goes, ‘She got it.’”
One employee, who was aware of the ever-present threat of dismissal, hadn’t expected getting the news when it came:
“I got a message that said, ‘Meet me in the conference room,’ and thought, ‘Oh my god, this is actually happening.’”
Most people (some of whom, like the person quoted above, wished not to be identified) seemed stoic about their dismissals, although Daunt admitted to beginning to feel angry about hers. She had ended her run at the Times writing a column she’d been assigned to write and which she’d been continually assured was loved by her bosses.
When she asked the reason behind her layoff, she was told her bosses did not think the column was relevant.
“If they didn’t like the column, why did they say they did, and keep me doing it?” she says. “I think things are really disorganized there. We hear rumors: Revenue is down. Circulation is down. I had such faith there’d always be newspapers. I want to believe that’s true.”
The ongoing cuts at the Times, Daunt believes, have now “reached bone.” How this will play out, especially if there are further reductions, will not likely be pretty. As the paper of record, the Times puts the citizens of Los Angeles in touch with events that don’t simply entertain them, but which directly affect their lives.
In his November Harper’s piece about the San Francisco Chronicle, Richard Rodriguez may have written a eulogy for all 20th-century daily newspapers when he says that the sum of their pages, from hard news to wedding announcements, provided cities with “an implied continuity. There was a continuity in the comics and on the sports page, but nowhere more than in the columns.”
Such continuity may be coming to an end in Los Angeles and elsewhere, thanks to new technology and, perhaps, an absence of curiosity in human events that do not qualify as grotesque.
“It’s a different culture — it’s global,” Haithman says. “Because of the demands of the blogs you’re glued to the screen more than normal. It doesn’t feel right to go out to lunch with someone anymore unless its connected to a story. What do you do about those conversations that aren’t directly tied to a story but still enrich it?”
For now, all the discussions about the effects on morale of continued cuts at the Times are not Haithman’s concern.
“As of tomorrow,” she says, “I don’t care because I no longer work here.”
The mechanics of layoffs, found in the pages of instructions given to the dismissed writers, are grimly fascinating.
The severance packages are the same as those of the last round of layoffs — good news for those who’d expected a reduction of benefits. In order to keep the dismissed employees off the books as quickly as possible, they are receiving their severances in lumps, instead of being stretched out in paycheck installments.
Work that is completed after this Friday will be paid according to freelance rates. And, in one of those droll, ass-covering legal quirks, each person let go was handed a list of other staff members dismissed at the same time, stating their positions and ages – but not their names.
Hong, who recently had a front-page story published, sounds an upbeat note that is surprisingly shared by those interviewed.
“I thought it best to be leaving at the top of my game,” he says.
Daunt says she will continue with her current blog while developing a second one, and will freelance. Haithman says she will be able to freelance for the Times after Jan. 1 and, noting that more than 50 percent of her recent Times stories were online-only or “reverse-published” (written for the web and selectively used for print), says she will be happy to write for either hard copy or online.
“If it’s good, honest journalism where I can talk to sources, I don’t care,” Haithman says. “I’ll skywrite if I can.”