Tribune Publishing told its employees a month ago that business was bad and it needed to cut costs so it was offering hundreds of buyouts. On Thursday it announced that it had approved buyouts for about 7 percent of its roughly 7,000 eligible employees. The journalists who will soon exit the Chicago Tribune include a number of distinguished veterans. The loss will be brutal.
Dawn Turner, for instance, returned to the Tribune in August after a year away as a Nieman fellow. She sounded completely refreshed then. “I learned so much about my profession, my place in it and myself,” she wrote, reconnecting with her audience. “I wrote like crazy. I finished a book proposal. . . I completed two short stories. And a Hollywood producer is waiting to take a look at a screenplay I’m close to wrapping up. . . . I learned that I love cycling, kayaking, dancing. . .
“So this and so much more was my year. It helped me rediscover my voice and footing, and why I do what I do and want to continue doing it.”
For the next three months Turner wrote at the highest level I could remember. But she took a buyout. She’ll soon be gone.
When the Tribune laid off photographer Chuck Berman in June, he was OK with it and so was his wife, columnist Barbara Brotman. “We’re going to have a party at the Billy Goat,” she told me at the time. “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.”
But now Brotman is also leaving the work she loves. “It seemed a perfect time and way to pursue a second act,” says Brotman, who’d been at the Trib 37 years. “There’s a kind of exhilaration in stepping into the unknown.”
Jon Hilkevitch, the Tribune’s transportation writer, seemed to recognize that a lot of people—me included—are suckers for anything that runs on tracks and anything that operates as a network. I read every word Hilkevitch wrote but he leaves in December and the Tribune will be less of a paper without him in it.
I called feature writer Colleen Mastony and asked why she decided to leave. It was hard for her to put her motives into words; I wondered if she knew herself.
A few years ago the Anne Keegan Award for Distinguished Journalism was created by Len Aronson, the husband of the late Tribune columnist, to honor journalism “reflecting the dignity and spirit of the common man.” I became one of the judges, and we were quite the apprehensive little group. As I wrote at the time: “In newspapering’s modern era of shrunken staffs, diminished news holes, and compulsory self-promotion through blogging, Facebooking, and tweeting, we weren’t certain that her kind of journalism clung to any foothold at all. It would be an odd way to honor Anne Keegan if we created an award we believed no one deserved to win.”
The stories Mastony entered put these worries to rest, especially the one about a high school wrestling coach who stayed at his post despite a devastating disease. In 2012 we gave Mastony the first Keegan Award. Since then she’s been one of the judges.
“You know what,” Mastony told me Friday, “the Tribune is still doing great work and I’m still so proud to say I work there. Multiple times a day I have panic attacks thinking ‘What am I doing!’ And I just finished a story I loved, loved, LOVED!—and feel so honored to have written.” It’ll be in the Sunday paper; it’s the story of a girl of 13 from Honduras who left home and risked everything to find her mother, who was now a janitor in Waukegan. The mother had come north when the girl was only eight months old.
“Here’s the thing,” Mastony went on. “I always thought journalism is like such a great cure for self-pity. All you need to do is go out and follow a refugee for a couple of weeks—people who risk everything to come here. We’re so lucky! This ‘struggle’ leaving journalism because of the industry and layoffs—they’re such first-world problems. I’m going to find engaging work. And I’ll always read newspapers, and hopefully there will always be somebody writing stories like this.”
Though perhaps not. Two of Mastony’s Tribune colleagues I know simply through their entries to past Keegan competitions—Bonnie Miller Rubin and Lisa Black. They’re both taking buyouts. So is Maggie Gentilcore, an editorial coordinator who was one of Keegan’s closest friends and is now another of the Keegan Award judges.
“It’s a weird, strange time,” said Mastony, “but I think this will be good. I hope it will be good. The buyout gives me an opportunity to leave with some money in my pocket and on my own terms while I feel I’m still doing good work.” But as she doesn’t think she’s slipping, and as her current editor, Steve Mills, is “an amazing journalist and a great man” and she believes she could do “the best work of my career for him,” and as she doesn’t seem to have any idea what she’ll do next, her decision is hard to diagram. But she’s 41, which might be the last, best time in a life to start over and expect to reach serious heights.
Is journalism over for you? I asked. “I think so,” she said. “Yeah, I think it is. I wish it wasn’t. But the opportunities are shrinking everywhere and the sacrifices that have to be made to fit yourself into the work available—it’s hard.” What sacrifices? “I think that maybe I could find something somewhere [in journalism],” Mastony explained. But it wouldn’t be Chicago, because she believes that beyond the Tribune there’s nothing here. The sacrifice would be leaving Chicago, asking her husband and daughter to uproot.
“Can you help me?” she said. “I have to cast a wide net. I have to talk to as many people as possible.” She was asked about her skill set. “I can write and edit at a very high level,” she said. “I can think strategically. My husband [Douglas Belkin] is a writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal. Between us, we have a wide circle of contacts all over the country. I don’t know—writing, talking, thinking, being resourceful. If there’s one thing working in a newsroom has taught me, it’s how to be resourceful. And that’s what I have to be now.”
Mastony and a lot of other Tribune refugees.