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Friday, July 6, 2018

Post-Dispatch Buyouts Avert Layoffs as a Shrunken Staff Confronts Its Future

Posted By on Fri, Jul 6, 2018 at 7:01 AM

click to enlarge A newspaper vendor hawks his wares on North Grand. - FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN
  • A newspaper vendor hawks his wares on North Grand.
Two weeks after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch let five journalists know they were being laid off, most of those journalists are back in the newsroom: Four colleagues volunteering for buyouts, coupled with one already announced departure, mean that everyone who wants to stay can.

But while staffers are pleased that their colleagues will be keeping their jobs after all, some also seem a bit shell-shocked by the departures. Some big names, they note, are now on their way out the door.

Post-Dispatch reporter Doug Moore is the secretary of the executive board of the United Media Guild, which represents most newsroom employees. "We're happy that those who were laid off are getting their jobs back, but the reality is that our work force is reduced," he says. "It's going to make it that much more challenging to cover this city."

The recent departures include longtime editorial page staffers Kevin Horrigan and Deb Peterson. Horrigan was not union, and his departure was unrelated to the layoffs, but with Peterson accepting a buyout, the editorial pages are left with just one designated employee, editorial page editor Tod Robberson. [Editor's note: This paragraph has changed; see our correction below.]

Meanwhile, longtime theater critic Judith Newmark has also accepted a buyout. Thanks to TV critic Gail Pennington leaving last year, the features desk has lost decades of institutional knowledge in less than one year.

And that's not all. Veteran photographer Chris Lee, acclaimed for his coverage of the St. Louis Cardinals, signed up to take a buyout. So did Kristen Taketa, a young education reporter who recently announced she's taken a job with the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Lee, Peterson, Newmark and Taketa were all union members, and that means four of those targeted for layoffs will be able to return to the paper. And the fifth, of course, doesn't want to — Mike Faulk had already put in his resignation when the paper put him on the layoff list.

Tracy Rouch, a spokeswoman for the paper, wouldn't comment on whether more layoffs could be upcoming, or the bigger strategy, saying only, "At this time, three newsroom employees from the June 18 layoff have returned."

Those who are back on the job? Business reporter Bryce Gray, healthcare reporter Samantha Liss, and — for now — sports columnist Jose de Jesus Ortiz. Ortiz had previously said he was taking a job in Houston, and has been upfront about the fact that he recently bought a house there and that his family has relocated. But while Ortiz is currently on vacation, he has apparently accepted the buyout-facilitated offer to return. He's apparently going to remain on staff as a general assignment reporter during the process of transitioning to his new job in August.

The only staffer whose status remains up in the air, according to newsroom sources, is Hillary Levin, a longtime photo editor who was put on the June 18 layoff list. Lee's decision to give his notice saves her job, but Levin has a full week to decide if she wants it back. At this point, the resolution is not clear.

The Post-Dispatch newsroom has suffered serious cuts since the paper was purchased by Iowa-based Lee Enterprises in 2005 — mainly because the new owners are still paying off the debt they took on to finance the $1.5 billion acquisition. Moore estimates that the newsroom is down to about one-third of its total size at the time of acquisition, and increasingly, staffers with decades of experience are being replaced with much younger workers who are paid far less.

For now, writers and editors are being close-lipped about what restructuring, if any, will follow the latest departures. An internal email said that staffers may apply for the open positions on the paper's editorial pages. Robberson, its one remaining staffer, declined an offer to talk about what changes, if any, he foresees for his section, stating only by email, "We will regroup, rebuild and continue delivering the same quality product."

Editor's note: A previous version of this story referred incorrectly to the Post-Dispatch's editorial board. While the editorial department is down to just one staffer, it is not correct that the editorial board is in the same boat. Both publisher Ray Farris and editor in chief Gilbert Bailon both serve on the editorial board in addition to editorial page editor Tod Robberson. We regret the error.

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