Some Thoughts On The Chronicle Cuts: So Long, Suburbs

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(Note: For a while, this item was posted with the wrong byline -- it's by Steve Olafson, not Richard Connelly, and always has been. Thanks, and sorry.)

The layoffs at the Houston Chronicle cut much deeper into the editorial side of the newspaper than the announced company-wide 12 percent reduction that was announced by publisher Jack Sweeney.

By the count of newsroom workers who survived, 27 percent of the paper's editorial staffers were let go yesterday.

That amounts to 90 employees, they said.

"Unbelievable," said one writer who managed to stay employed.

Chronicle management has not released any raw numbers regarding newsroom employees who were laid off, an omission that was noted by several readers who reacted to the online offering of reader representative Jim Newkirk, who posted a two-sentence "column" asking for reaction to the newspaper's "reorganization" -- without giving any details of the changes.

Several readers obliged.

"It is impossible to comment when almost no information is provided. I find it humorous, actually. If another major business in Houston announced a 12% staff reduction with as little information as this, the Chronicle would be all over it like white on rice," said one.

Wrote another: "Funny that you have to read the Houston Press blog to find out the details of what's going on. The Chron is acting just like the TV stations do...they invite you to become familiar with a personality/writer, but give you no information when they're gone."

The newspaper, naturally, soft-pedaled its layoff coverage with a three-paragraph story that was buried. The online story promised readers "more information" in Newkirk's column, which, naturally, provided none.

The good news, at least for editorial workers, is that all the newsroom layoffs were handled yesterday.Today, management will notify employees in advertising, circulation and other departments that will be laid off.

Those who survived were left to ponder how the decisions were made and what it will mean for the future of Houston's only daily newspaper.

Several points stand out, some of them not-so-shocking and a few of them weird.

-- No upper management employees were laid off. Natch.

-- Management told employees no serious consideration was given to invoking wage cuts or involuntary furloughs, two strategies other newspapers are trying in dealing with the newspaper industry's decline.

-- The only two women on the editorial board -- Claudia Kolker and Veronica Bucio -- were laid off, leaving the board composed entirely of five white males. "They're talking about moving somebody up there that doesn't have a penis," snarked one miffed employee.

-- Houston is home to NASA, right? And they lay off the guy (Mark Carreau) who's covered NASA since the Challenger blew up in 1986?

-- The Chron, just a few months ago, brought in Tracy Barnett, the travel editor for its sister paper in San Antonio, to handle the travelogue beat for both papers from her new home in Houston -- then canned her yesterday.

-- The religion writer's gone. The book editor's gone. The transportation reporter's gone. Details to be worked out later, evidently.

-- With this layoff and previous ones, the newspaper has effectively abandoned the suburbs outside Beltway 8, where in past years the Chronicle was finding circulation gains. If you don't count the so-called Neighborhood staff, which puts out the weekly zoned editions (Zzzzzzz) and offers a handful of blogs (but which also suffered at least two layoffs we know of) there aren't any Chron newshounds in Sugarland, Katy, Conroe, Brazosport/Angleton or Beaumont. Ah, they're all hayseeds anyway, right? Good news for the local rags, we guess.

-- Four Chron newsroom couples were effectively "split up," with one getting the ax and the other remaining employed. Lawyers call that splittin' the baby.

-- Medical coverage to those laid off during this reduction will be given only 5 weeks medical coverage; the last layoff extended medical coverage for 3 months and the layoff previous to that payroll reduction provided for 6 months coverage. It has something to do with federal stimulus money now available to laid-off workers that's too complicated for us to fully explain, but it's a money-saver for the Hearst Corp. in New York.

-- Chronicle Vice-President and Editor Jeff Cohen never came out of his office to address the staff during the day-long process of buttonholing employees to deliver the bad news. Instead, he issued a memo. What a leader.

So what kind of newspaper will the Chronicle be with so many employees gone? "Less a paper of record and more of the quote/unquote Big Picture," opined one.

We'll see. Good luck to those who lost their jobs.

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