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Wednesday, December 10,2008

More with less

by Neal McNamara
One of casualities of the Lansing State Journal layoffs last week was 34-year veteran reporter and TV critic, Mike Hughes.
Not knowing what else to do after he was laid off last Wednesday, Mike Hughes, the 34-year veteran entertainment reporter for the Lansing State Journal, went back to his desk and did an interview he had scheduled with Jack Epps, the Michigan-born screenwriter of “Top Gun” and other blockbusters.

And then, he went home, making sure he was out of the LSJ's office building on Lenawee Street by 5 p.m. Hughes had to leave his desk, outgoing voicemail message and blog as if he had just up and disappeared.

“It’s sad — the abruptness of it,” Hughes said in an interview last week at his home in Haslett. “It’s strange and confusing and upsetting. Much more because of the abruptness than anything else.”

It is upsetting — that McLean, Va.,-based Gannett, the company that owns the Lansing State Journal, last Wednesday would lay off Hughes and 30 other emlpoyees, including almost the entire staff of Noise, the paper’s weekly “young reader publication.”

Many Gannett staff expected the cuts across the company’s chain. All told, over 1,400 were laid off last Wednesday across the country.

Gannett, a publicly traded company, is cutting staff to keep profits up to appease shareholders accustomed to large profit margins. Newspapers like the LSJ are still speculated to be very profitable — and last year, at least, it was: According to a 2007 report of individual Gannett paper profit margins released on the blog, www.gannettblog.blogspot.com, the LSJ had a profit margin of nearly 23 percent and $26 million in ad sales through the first nine months of the year.

Most publicly held newspaper chains, like Tribune Co. (which filed for bankruptcy protection this week) or the Journal Register Co., have turned to layoffs as a way to fix sliding ad revenues and circulation numbers, while trying to find a home for the print product on the Internet. The chains are, essentially, trying to cut their way into the future.

More profitable papers, like the Journal, are considered the “cash cows” that make up for papers that show smaller profits or for Gannett’s one known money loser, the Detroit Free Press.

Lansing State Journal publisher Brian Priester could not be reached for comment, despite repeated efforts. Unlike publishers of other Gannett papers, Priester has thus far published no letter to readers explaining the LSJ layoffs. As for Hughes, readers of his daily TV column learned Monday that it was “no longer available,” with no further explanation.

This is the second round of layoffs this year. Other former LSJ employees report that the paper has been cutting staff in various departments every month since August as part of the previous round of layoffs, which cut a total of 13. In that round, the paper lost Derek Wallbank, the education reporter, whose position was cut after he left for Baltimore.

The Journal had 380 employees before the layoffs, according to Gannett’s Web site. The Battle Creek Enquirer, another Gannett paper, faired much worse, with 50 of its 105 staff laid off last Wednesday. The Journal announced that it will print the Battle Creek paper at its Delta Township plant, resulting in new jobs in Lansing but larger layoffs in Battle Creek.

As for the Journal layoffs, “They’ve been steadily doing bit by little bit since the end of summer,” said one former employee who worked on the business side of the LSJ.

The staff cut from Noise includes former editor Brian Fisher, photographer Jeremy Herliczek, and staff writers Christian Czerwnksi and Emily Caswell. Also let go was Samantha Meinke, the staff writer for Greater Lansing Woman, an LSJ niche publication and a page designer for that publication. It was also reported that Lynn Reik, a 34-year employee, and head of the credit department, was let go as part of the first round of layoffs. Reik declined to comment on his layoff.

The exact names and positions of all 44 laid off starting in August are not known. Another three vacant positions were done away with. An anonymous user posted on the Gannett blog last Wednesday that eight advertising salespeople, the online news director and a copy editor were among those laid off.

Some of the Noise employees who were let go were at first shocked, but have since come to terms — as best they can —with the loss of their jobs. The understanding is that Noise will still continue to be printed, but will be written mostly by freelance writers.

Czerwinski said that the layoffs came one at a time, with Fisher being the first to be called down to the human resources department. Czerwinski said he saw his now former boss in the hallway coming back from being laid off.

“I saw him in the hallway, he patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘Good luck, buddy.’” Czerwinski said. “I had the greatest boss in the world, and to see him shaken … .”

Czerwinski said that after the layoff, panic set in. He went home, but not before stopping at a Tim Horton’s to get a donut.
“I didn’t feel like seeing people too much,” he said.

For now, Czerwinski is pondering a move back to his native New York. He wants to get into public relations — this is not the first time he’s been laid off from a newspaper — and would like to stay in the Lansing area, if he can find a job. But he doesn’t blame Gannett for the cuts.

“When I got laid off I said, ‘this is bullshit,’” Czerwinski said. “But do I have any animosity? No. It’s the newspaper business; it’s struggling.”

Caswell, nee Smith, another former Noise staffer, has decided to move with her husband back to her hometown, Lapeer.

After she got laid off, she sent text messages to a few people, packed up some of her desk and left.

“The editor (Mickey Hirten) and the human resources director complimented us on our work and said, ‘You did nothing wrong, but we’ve got to cut,’” Caswell said of the layoff. “I don’t take it personally. I’m not, like, real bitter.”

Caswell immediately started a blog about the transition from staff writer to unemployment, to who knows — www.Iusedtogetpaidforthis.blogspot.com. Her dream is to work at the Detroit Free Press, another Gannett paper, and has nothing bad to say about the company.

“A lot of talented people lost their jobs — I was one of 1,400,” she said. “I haven’t been unemployed since I was 16, so it’s a little weird. But I have no animosity.”

Hughes, 64, who began his career at the LSJ in 1974 covering the city of East Lansing, said that he’s been given a six-month severance package. He’s eligible for retirement in August 2009. Although Hughes may be in financial limbo in six months, he’s far more worried about who’s going to cover the entertainment beat in Lansing — especially the work he did for the LSJ, and the Gannett chain, covering television.

In addition to his Epps interview, Hughes was in the middle of working on several stories, including a review of Riverwalk Theater’s rendition of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and an interview he had done with violinist Joshua Bell on Tuesday.

“I realized there wasn’t anything I was going to be able to do,” Hughes said. “I’m sad because I’m so eager to write, but I don’t have any place to do that now.”

Last Friday, Hughes, a native of Wisconsin, was working on a list of his favorite shows of 2008 (“Big Bang Theory” tops his list, as does “House”). He said he lost sleep Wednesday night after the layoff, but soon realized that he has free time and he’s lucky to still have income.

“I love to swim and play basketball,” he said. “Now I’ll do it five days a week.”


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