- Chandler West/Sun-Times Media
- Layoffs strike again at both the Trib and the Sun-Times.
After years of pain and misery, the dark art of telling employees to clean out their lockers may have located its wiser, kinder side at Chicago newspapers. Photographer Chuck Berman was one of ten editorial employees laid off by the Tribune last week, and instead of keying the first delivery truck he saw, he wrote a statement that wound up on Romenesko. “I had a great 37 years at the Tribune,” said Berman. “I have been blessed to work with and be friends with an amazing pack of photographers, reporters, editors and lab techs (and others I’m sure I left out). I even married one of them, for which I am eternally thankful. Now, my life will be filled with more birds, more lost golf balls, more history books and more stories to hear. Lucky me, for everything.”
The one he married, columnist Barbara Brotman, reposted Berman’s valedictory on Facebook along with a thought of her own: “I’ve always been proud to be his wife, but never more so than today.”
When I searched the Reader archives for stories I’d written on layoffs, the list was ten pages long. The stories teemed with mourning and anger.
In December 2010 I’d heard from a Pioneer Press reporter who expected to be out of a job by New Year’s. “Editors try to act as if nothing’s different,” he said. “It’s like being on the Titanic trying to ignore the water seeping up from steerage while you try to ignore the gurgles of the drowning third-class passengers and crew.”
Personal-finance blogger Louis Carlozo was banished in a massive Tribune layoff in 2009. He commented on another site, “I wanted to post a final blog Wednesday to readers explaining that I had lost my job, a victim of the very recession I covered. I posted this without management’s approval. I then informed management. Management took it down.”
In 2013 photographer Jon Sall won a Lisagor award but had to pay his way into the dinner and sit by himself because the Sun-Times had laid him off a couple months earlier. “I’m 47,” he told me. “I’ve worked for the Sun-Times half my life. I’ve been loyal through all the bullshit that’s swirled around all the journalists every day. I tried to rise above that and do my job. Why I was singled out in the midst of all that, I have no idea.”
How different from all this could Berman and Brotman possibly feel? I have never felt as hurt as I felt in 1978 when the Sun-Times laid me off as it absorbed a wave of refugees from the defunct Daily News. I’d have laid myself off if they’d asked me—after eight years at the Sun-Times I was running on fumes as a daily journalist. But they didn’t ask me. They just did it. And it felt wretched.
They didn’t ask Berman either. They didn’t say to him, “You’re close to retirement anyway, and your wife continues to work here, so much as we hate to lose you, we think you’re in a better position to take the hit than a lot of other people here.” What they said publicly was, “The newsroom continues to evolve to support our expanding content portfolio and digital efforts.” What they said to Berman was, we’re eliminating your position. That’s how lawyers tell Human Resources to do it. The more you say to an employee about your reasons for dumping him, the bigger the opening you might be giving him to challenge those reasons in a lawsuit.
But that’s not on Berman’s mind. He says Robin Daughtridge, the director of photography, called him at home Wednesday morning and asked him to come in for a meeting in the Tribune Tower. Berman didn’t work in the tower: he was photo chief of the west-suburban bureau in Northlake. “I knew what it was about,” says Berman. “We’d heard rumors the week before. My editor doesn’t really call me early in the morning for good news.”
But Daughtridge didn’t play games with him on the phone. She was straight, and when they met “she was really gracious,” Berman says. Human Resources was decent too. And when he was done there, he hung out in the newsroom for as long as he wanted to and said his good-byes. “It’s almost like going to your own wake,” says Brotman. “It might have been different years ago, when things started getting bad,” she says. “But our kids are out of college, and we’re not going to lose our house. . . . It pushed him to do something he wanted to do, and that’s what it feels like. It feels like retirement. It has a celebratory feeling to it. We’re going to have a party at the Billy Goat. I’m glad I’m still there. He’s on my insurance, and I love the work. But I don’t feel angry at anyone, and he doesn’t feel angry at anyone. It’s strangely OK.”
After so many dozens of layoffs at the Tribune (and other papers) over the past several years, everyone recognizes they’re the new normal, Berman and Brotman tell me. “It’s not embarrassing. It’s how the economy works,” he says.
Meanwhile, Michael Lansu also sounded philosophical after the Sun-Times bid him adieu. Lansu got his foot in the door at the Sun-Times covering high school sports as a freelancer a decade ago, went on staff in the newsroom, and in 2013 was assigned to run the paper’s new Homicide Watch operation. The motto of Homicide Watch, launched in Washington, D.C., in 2010, is: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.”
Thanks to the digital platform created by Homicide Watch founders Chris and Laura Amico, Laura told me in 2012, a Chicago operation could be maintained by as few as three people. Lansu says he was helped some by interns and other reporters, but basically he kept Homicide Watch going on the Sun-Times website by himself.
On Friday he was laid off.
“I sort of knew it was coming,” Lansu told me Sunday. “I’d had the feeling for a while, seeing how the Sun-Times had been cutting costs so much.” Not that Homicide Watch has been such a big expense, “but at this point they’re down to such bare bones, everything’s expensive for them.”
Lansu is far too young to retire, but like Berman he sounded at peace. He said he’d been working 60 to 70 hours a week writing, editing, posting, and handling social media. “Yesterday,” he said, “was the first day I didn’t post a story on the site since I took a week off in November.”
Editor in chief Jim Kirk says Homicide Watch will continue.