Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Tribune D.C. Staffers Bracing For Cuts, Consolidation

By Joe Strupp

NEW YORK With word spreading that the Tribune Washington, D.C., bureau is headed for some major cutbacks and consolidation, staffers there are concerned but not surprised that such changes are in the works.

Although Tribune offered no official word about the pending cutbacks, which are expected to hit the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times D.C. outlets the hardest, those in the bureau are bracing for the worst.

"I am concerned about the big picture and, close to home, what is happening to the Washington bureau," said Frank James, who has been in the Chicago Tribune D.C. office since 1995 and at the Tribune since 1989. "It is something we feared could happen and it is coming to pass in the place we work. Some of us will be out of a job and some of us will be losing colleagues."

James, one of the leaders of the popular Tribune D.C. blog, "The Swamp," commented after a memo from a Times staffer detailing discussions with Times D.C. Bureau Chief Doyle McManus spread across the Web. It predicted layoffs and consolidation. McManus responded online, acknowledging changes were likely, but claiming it was not as dire as some believe.

"I don’t know who is staying; who is going," added James. "I understand what is happening, I don't think it is a surprise."

McManus has been unreachable for comment Monday.

Word of the cuts first surfaced in February when Sam Zell, Tribune Co. chief, visited the bureau and made clear he thought it was too large. Reports of pending cuts have come out in the past week, but no confirmed specifics.

"People understand that the bureau is facing a lot of challenges and this is a response to that," said Naftali Bendavid, an 11-year bureau veteran who has served as acting bureau chief since Michael Tackett left in August to join Bloomberg. "I think this will remain a very strong bureau with a lot of good people."

But Bendavid will not be one of them, having taken a post covering congress for The Wall Street Journal. He leaves Friday and does not know who will take his place or how many of the Chicago Tribune's 15 D.C. staffers will remain.

"It is a change," Bendavid admitted. "It has been changing for some time now. We have been coordinating with the Times for some time. There is no denying there will be a change."

Clarence Page, a syndicated Tribune columnist who works out of the D.C. bureau, lamented the pending cuts, noting "…this place is like the Titanic."

At the bureau since 1991 and a Tribune staffer since 1969, Page said his colleagues are only working harder in the face of such cuts. "None of us feels good," he says. "People are just trying to do their jobs."

Asked how a smaller bureau would affect overall coverage, Page said, "the fewer people you have reporting and digging, the less you are going to learn. You know the folks on Capitol Hill and in the corridors of power are jumping for joy when another bureau is closed or cut back."

Staffers indicate the Times and the Tribune will suffer the worst cuts, with most other Tribune papers in the bureau remaining with the one or two people they now have. "It is an extremely difficult time for all of us," said Maura Reynolds, a six-year Times bureau veteran. "We are all nervous and worried about the state of the industry. It is not easy."

A Times D.C. staffer who requested anonymity added: "the bottom line is that the L.A. Times is going to cease to exist in Washington."

While the D.C. correspondents from the Hartford Courant, Orlando Sentinel and other Tribune papers will likely be less-affected, some of them are concerned about the overall impact on Washington reporting.

"It is tragic and it is terrible to see what's happening here," said Mark Matthews, the lone D.C. reporter for the Sentinel. "We have one of the most momentous elections we have seen and we will have coverage, but then it will change. They are wringing all of the work out of these reporters, then letting them go."

Jesse Hamilton, the only Courant reporter in D.C., is not worried about his position being cut. He adds that it is not a surprise these reductions would occur. "There is nothing sudden about this. We have seen it coming down the line for months."

Joe Strupp (jstrupp@editorandpublisher.com) is a senior editor at E&P.

No comments: