Regeneration by amputation  

By Mark Schwanhausser, Mercury News business writer
Posted Nov. 16, 2005

Amended 11/16 at 3:43 p.m.: Pete Carey, originally named in this list, has rescinded his buyout and will remain on staff.

No one was in the mood to celebrate Friday, and there was little relief taken as Executive Editor Susan Goldberg announced to newsroom workers crammed into the shoulder-high cubicles that “there will be no layoffs.” The reality was the Mercury News had successfully lopped off 52 FTEs, reducing the newsroom to about 280 people as part of Knight Ridder cost-cutting.

It dredged up memories of a similar episode years earlier, when Executive Editor David Yarnold ceremoniously tore up papers supposedly containing the names of workers who would have faced layoffs if Publisher Jay Harris’ loud resignation hadn’t swayed corporate leaders to back down on newsroom cutbacks. And Friday’s announcement produced one of those awkward moments at the end of the meeting when staffers hushed out scattered applause with a cry of, “What is there to clap about?”

Workers lingered in clusters for some time around the newsroom, mixing and mingling, trading gallows humor to numb the pain, and chatting with friends for perhaps the last time. In the cubicle where I stood, we wondered aloud about the dress code for the “wake” scheduled Monday evening at the Tied House in downtown San Jose, whether it should feature a New Orleans-style jazz music to turn a funeral into a celebration, and whether we should light 52 floating candles in the moat.

At last, there was a reason to clap that no one could disagree with. Leigh Weimers, for many in the community the most recognizable face at the Mercury News and the first person listed on the sheet listing those granted a buyout, strode quietly toward the exit for the final time. The applause quickly grew into a salute that was sustained until he was out of sight down the hall. Unlike at a rock concert, however, no one clung to the delusion that Leigh would return if we just kept clapping long enough.

The buyout list has its winners and losers. Writer and office wit David L. Beck and many others are exiting with wide grins and big checks, perhaps the ideal resolution to this thinning of the herd. Reporter John Hubner is already off promoting his latest book. Restaurant critic Sheila Himmel sees this as an opportunity to write one of her own, about her daughter’s eating disorder. Copy-editor Jim Braly quite happily doesn’t know much more about what the future holds except that the next chapter will be written in Portland, Ore. Viet Mercury boss De Tran didn’t share many details when I caught him in the hallway earlier in the week, but his smile suggested that he’s not overly worried. Metro copy-desk editor Dave Goggins received his buyout check posthumously.

But others aren’t going on terms entirely of their choosing. Nuevo Mundo boss Marina Hinestrosa and most of the staffers at the two foreign-language publications had little choice but to take buyouts because Publisher George Riggs decided to close Nuevo Mundo and sell Viet Mercury.

About 25 other applicants were rejected, leading to emotions that include frustration, bitterness and suspicion. Most of those applicants were rejected because they are considered too valuable to let go or would have to be replaced, the fate for many on copy desks soon to be reorganized into a universal desk. The most amusing story of rejection came from the long-retired Lou Calvert, who was looking at $689.69 accrued over the course of a handful of casual copy-desk shifts stretched over many months. Representing just a fraction of an FTE, he simply wouldn’t have helped make the number. One staffer told me, however, that he had applied as insurance because his reading of his evaluations and bosses’ comments left him feeling vulnerable to a layoff. The rejection of his application meant he wasn’t being rejected as a worker, but he had mentally prepared himself to leave. I overheard another staffer grumbling that he was “pissed” that his buyout application had been denied. Perhaps he’d fork over cash for a T-shirt proposed by one top editor: “I applied for the buyout and all I got was this stupid T-shirt.”

Some did what the paper hoped and looked for new jobs, only to be denied the buyout cash. National/Foreign desk editor (and Biz alum) Guy Lasnier was one of them, taking a job as a speech-writer for the chancellor of UC-Santa Cruz. He stands in contrast to Mark Gladstone, who left the Sacramento Bureau with a buyout check and a new job with the legislative sausage-makers in the Capitol. Reports circulated that the paper had offered raises to keep some workers from bolting. Former assistant Business Editor Mary Rajkumar left empty-handed because she took at job within KR, at the Miami Herald. There were the inevitable, ugly and unsubstantiated rumors that some had been denied buyouts as punishment for accepting job offers or for being out of management’s favor. In short, there was no way for management to rejoice on this Friday. Perhaps it was only fitting that I returned to my desk to learn of the death of management visionary Peter Drucker, who believed that, according to the AP, “dedicated employees were key to the success of any corporation and that marketing and innovation should come before worries about finances.”

If only that were possible. If only anyone believed that now we can start rebuilding with confidence that the lopping is over. To be sure, the restructuring of the newsroom is under way. The reorganization plan supposedly will recognize that we must scale back our aspirations but will maintain our focus on local news, technology news, and the valley’s diverse cultures. We’ll do that by implementing structural changes that remain only in blueprints, like the adoption of a universal copy desk, a universal design desk, and a multi-departmental team of seven people on a one-year mission to chart our course on the Web. But audible in the background is the ominous, throaty roar of chain saws as Knight Ridder’s biggest shareholders press for action, contending that the chain is worth far more if sold, in whole or in pieces. Friday, rumors surfaced that Knight Ridder had decided to sell the Mercury News, something KR spokesman Polk Laffoon labeled “nuts.” And though the newsroom amputations were designed to set the baseline for headcount going forward – allowing for hiring to keep pace with attrition – Goldberg acknowledged Friday that hiring is unlikely through at least year’s end as KR continues to clamp down on spending in the face of the Wall Street challenge.

The irony is that while Wall Street is gleefully saying, “Let them eat cake – 52 of them,” I find myself once again in the business of advising co-workers about whether it’s time to exercise their 100 stock options or sell their KR stock accumulated through the employee stock purchase plan. And though I want to stay upbeat and help in the rebuilding, on this Friday, there was something different about the routine salutation, “See you Monday.”

The buyout list

Staffers with centuries of combined experience and institutional knowledge are walking out the door because of buyouts and attrition. No matter how long ago you left the paper, there are names here that you will recognize, from virtually every department of the paper.

Here are the names on the list handed out Friday, with misspellings like “Zielenzinger” corrected where I spotted them. I’ve done my best to organize the names by department, because I know today’s Internet readers prefer chunky bits. Because Alumni News has focused on Biz alums from the get-go, I’ve highlighted the names of those who either were working in Biz at the time of the buyout or who have passed through the department or Bizcopy at some point.

As you’ll no doubt notice, this list contains 50 names, not 52, and it adds up to just 47 FTEs. I don’t know how to account for the other five FTEs, but I believe they comprise non-buyout departures for Mary Rajkumar,Guy Lasnier and others.

Metro reporters

  1. Leigh Weimers
  2. John Hubner
  3. David Beck
  4. Putsata Reang
  5. Dan Stober
  6. Betty Barnacle
  7. Larry Slonaker
  8. Nora Villagran
  9. Michael Cronk
  10. Pat Lopes Harris
  11. Maya Suryaraman
  12. Jessica Portner
  13. Thaai Walker

Perspective

  1. Evelyn Richards

Business

  1. Margaret Steen
  2. Michael Zielenziger
  3. Glenda Queensbury

Copy desks

  1. Ken Stutz
  2. Anne Dujmovic
  3. Jim Braly
  4. David Sylvester
  5. Lynne Dennis
  6. Bill Shilstone
  7. James Murray
  8. Ken Long
  9. Elise Banducci
  10. Seth Hemmelgarn

Viet Mercury and Nuevo Mundo

  1. De Tran
  2. Hoang Xuan Nguyen
  3. Trac Ba Nguyen
  4. Duc Ha
  5. Marina Hinestrosa
  6. Reynaldo Barrioz
  7. Maria Consuelo Alba-Speyer
  8. Guadalupe Gervas

Photo

  1. Judy Calson
  2. Eugene Louie
  3. Caroline Couig

Design desk

  1. David Frazier
  2. Dave Goggins

Features

  1. Sheila Himmel
  2. Charles Matthews

Library

  1. Marcia Gordon
  2. Kathleen Jarvis

National/Foreign

  1. Michael Winter

Sacramento bureau

  1. Mark Gladstone

Support staff

  1. Gina Slade
  2. Chris Piscitelli
  3. Kristina Nicholas

Mark Schwanhausser did not supply this note to Grade the News, but confirmed its authenticity. It was intended as an informal newsletter sent only to former Mercury News business writers, editors and friends.