Hard to Say Good-bye

Economic woes hit the Chronicle, and job cuts are coming

The Axman cometh to the Chron.

For months, employees of the Houston Chronicle had watched anxiously as newspapers across the country announced cutbacks, layoffs and downsizing. The paper introduced some drastic slashes in things like travel expenses, but personnel cuts remained off limits.

Until now.

On August 22 employees got a letter from Jack Sweeney, publisher and president of the Chron. The memo, which was the subject of a brief news item in the next day's business section, said all of the paper's division heads "are currently looking at significant expense savings initiatives, including reductions in weekly payroll, as we anticipate very soft advertising revenues through the rest of this year and 2002."

Any longtime employees hoping to be rewarded for years of dedication to Houston's Leading Information Source were dismayed by the rest of the memo: "In response to some employees' questions, there will not be an enhanced early retirement program. However, we may consider voluntary employee buyouts on a case-by-case basis."

In other words, apparently, show up at human resources, declare yourself as being eager to quit, try to negotiate from a position of no strength at all, and wait for the results. You might want to bring some K-Y with you.

Sweeney's memo had an extremely calming effect on the folks at 801 Texas. So much so that within two days a follow-up note, from human resources vice president Ann Turnbach, was quickly distributed.

"We're receiving a number of questions related to the letter you received earlier this week," she wrote cheerfully. "As stated in that letter, we are not offering an enhanced early retirement program."

The paper gave its employees the weekend of August 25-26 to think about whether they wanted to find out about their non-enhanced early retirement possibilities. "Any inquiries received after that time may not be considered," Turnbach wrote.

But fear not -- the benign rulers of the Chron had only the best interest of their employees at heart.

"If you come forward to ask questions about this voluntary buyout, you will be given information about the compensation package that you would be provided…Just because you come forward does not mean that you must accept the offer," Turnbach wrote. "There may be some individuals in some positions that volunteer for this buyout but are not eligible. If you choose not to accept the offer, you may continue in your present position without fear of retribution for having inquired about or considered a buyout."

We're sure.

Apparently different folks are getting different offers -- some being offered six months' salary, others two weeks' pay for every year at the Chron. Several people have indeed gone in and been told, Go back to your desk, you're not getting an offer (among them, according to the rumor mill, such higher-ups as assistant managing editor Walter Johns).

Not surprising, things have been very gloomy over at the Chron, according to newsroom staff. The reasons for gloominess differ.

For some, it's the potential of the imminent demise of a sweet gig. It's all but impossible to get yourself fired from the Chronicle, and the building is filled with a lot of folks who have been there for decades and have been coasting for half that time.

For others, it's the horrible thought that the question of who gets laid off or forced out will come down to politics and clout. Just as the paper has a lot of sacred cows in the city who receive nothing but glowing coverage, the newsroom too has its own share of seemingly untouchable institutions who may remain even if their time has passed.

"There's a pretty widespread feeling that a lot of people who should be gone are going to still be here when this all shakes out," one staffer says.

The shaking-out should come relatively quickly, although it will occur after our deadline. Once the paper sorts out how many early retirement packages have been accepted, a decision will come on layoffs. No exact figures on job cuts have been given out, but it's rumored that 18 or so editorial jobs will be eliminated.

"I really appreciate your support and cooperation as we work through these difficult economic times," Sweeney wrote the troops. And we're sure he'll get both, from those who remain.

Like Moths to a Flame

A much better week was had by the marketing geniuses behind the Houston Texans. Thanks to a not exactly inspired idea, they got oodles and oodles of press coverage -- print, radio and TV -- over yet another nonevent in the short life of the new NFL franchise.

The team won't start play until the 2002 season, but apparently some months had gone by without sufficient publicity for the team that is still trying to sell season tickets.

So they decided to hold "cheerleader tryouts." And as judges they got sportscasters from the electronic media and two columnists from the Chronicle.

You'd be surprised -- not to mention bored to tears -- at just how many ways and times someone can trot out the "It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it" line. Much mirth was had explaining how difficult it was to tell the ol' ball-and-chain about this particular assignment.

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