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Vernon Clark, a city writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, will now pen obituaries. Meanwhile, obituary writer Walter Naedele is shipping out to report on Chester Country, Pa. Projects editor Kathy Hacker will, well, write obituaries.
Endings seem to be the order of the day at the newspaper, under new ownership since April. Management's dizzying reassignment of a dozen-odd mostly older and thus more expensive newsroom staffers is, according to sources inside the company, a transparent effort to encourage them to quit.
"The company does have a right to reassign reporters or editors to work in different areas or cover different things," says Daily News gossip columnist and Greater Philadelphia Newspaper Guild President Dan Gross. Interstate General Media owns The Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. "But the sudden reassignment of this group of people, all of whom are of a certain age and have a certain length of service with the company, raises an eyebrow. And we will monitor the new assignments and the situations, and the demands that are placed on these employees.”
In recent days, management has continued to confirm suspicions.
On Oct. 8, owners introduced the latest round of buyouts — meaning, offering employees severance packages to retire — just a little over a week after ordering the reassignments. And earlier this week, the Inquirer announced the hiring of three young reporters — Jessica S. Parks, Aubrey Whelan, and Jonathan Lai — two of whom are just out of college.
Morale is taking another hit in newsrooms that have already suffered major cuts. Some reporters are considering filing an age discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to two knowledgeable Interstate employees who requested anonymity.
Theater critic Howie Shapiro, initially reassigned to South Jersey, has taken the buyout and says that he understands the paper's need to focus shrinking resources where readers demand.
"I've taken all of this at absolute face value, without reading it in any other way than it was put to me — which is that the owners of the paper convened a focus group or focus groups, and learned from them that the newspaper needs to bolster its reportage in New Jersey and in the Pennsylvania suburbs."
Shapiro, who says that he was enticed by the buyout rather than scared off by the reassignment, doesn't think he was targeted because of his 64 years. Indeed, the theater critic position will be eliminated entirely. And science writer Faye Flam, who was ordered to Montgomery County and also took the buyout, isn't that old.
"I'm not over 50. I'm the oddball in this group. I don't know what it is," says Flam. "They told me that it was because I was such a great writer, that I would do a great job on this important suburban beat."
What's particularly confusing, says Flam, is that she had offered to participate in a previous buyout — and was encouraged to stay. Flam had been eager to work on a new science reporting project called Lightning Rod at WHYY with former Inquirer cartoonist Tony Auth. The Inquirer, she says, invited her to do the project for the paper.
"They told me that they wanted to keep me and would never reassign me — and wanted the Lightning Rod project for Philly.com. And it just never really happened."
Interstate executives declined to comment, as did Inquirer editor Bill Marimow. In April, the paper's new owners brought Marimow back just two years after previous owners had demoted him.
If management had responded to interview requests, they might have pointed out that because of seniority provisions in the union contract, passive aggression is really the only way to get rid of reporters they might consider to be underperforming reporters. But if the reorganization is part of a broader strategy to revamp the papers, reporters haven't heard about it.
"No one's explained the larger strategic objective to the staff," says one company source. "That's not really how you run a company when you want to create enthusiasm for an approach."
The overall redeployment, says Inquirer business writer Joe DiStefano, could make good business sense. Smaller papers that cover the suburbs are in trouble. In Pennsylvania, the Yardley-based Journal Register Co., which publishes papers in suburban Philadelphia (such as the Delaware County Daily Times) and nationwide, filed for bankruptcy for second time in September. In South Jersey, Newhouse publishing, which has already converted the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Harrisburg Patriot-News to three-times-a-week publications, is combining the Gloucester County Times, Today's Sunbeam (Salem), and the News (Cumberland County) into a single paper. Gannett has also been cutting staff and imposing furlows at the Cherry Hill-based Courier Post in recent years.
That presents an opportunity.
"This is a great time for the Inquirer to be building up in South Jersey," DiStefano tells City Paper. "I can see why the management wants to do that. As to the particular reassignments that they're making, you'll really have to speak to them."
But the the financial crisis buffeting newspapers nationwide has already left the Inquirer and Daily News spread thin. In 2007, the Newspaper Guild had a membership of 1,100 at the papers, according to union executive director Bill Ross. Today, there are just 500. About half the cuts have been to the newsroom. The Guild's contract is up in 2013, and the reassignments could be a warning shot from management. Meanwhile, on Sunday, members of Teamsters Local 628 voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if necessary. The union, which represents the company's blue collar workers, is currently negotiating a new contract.
"These people have gone many years without raises, and want to work with the owners," says Local 628 president John P. Laigaie. "But at some point it's too much. It's like voting yourself into the poor house."
Other reassigned reporters include features writer Carolyn Davis, headed to Montgomery County to cover courts and cops. Rita Giordano, who covered South Jersey schools, is off to Delaware County. She might pass Dan Hardy, the suburban Pennsylvania schools reporter who also covered the twists-and-turns of state education policy, on the highway. He's headed to South Jersey. Main Line reporter Kathy Boccella is moving from Conshohocken to Cherry Hill cops and courts, while columnist Dan Rubin is decamping to Conshohocken. Main Line reporter Bonnie Cook will encounter a change of scenery in Camden County, where she will also report on cops and courts.
Amy Rosenberg, a long-time South Jersey features and arts reporter who lives on the Shore, must now report to the city desk in Center City. Rosenberg tells City Paper that though her commute will pose logistical difficulties, her "reassignment is to a good job. It's a job that at various times I've talked to them about." But she's worried about the paper's arts coverage. "I've been covering gaps that have been created by people taking buyouts or leaving. … So when people are talking about the theater critic Howie Shapiro being pushed out, what does that do for our arts coverage?"
Religion writer David O'Reilly will be transferred to South Jersey at a time when sex-abuse scandals, closing schools, a fiscal crisis and a new hard-charging conservative leader have made the Philadelphia Catholic Archdiocese national news.
"Archbishop [Charles] Chaput is not only one of the most important and dynamic leaders of the Catholic Church in the U.S., but he's turning the Philadelphia archdiocese on its head," he wrote in an e-mail to CP. "And with nearly 2 million Catholics in our circulation area, I imagine there are a lot of folks interested in what he's doing." But O'Reilly says that the paper must change to survive. "To my considerable surprise, I am very much open to my new assignment, which involves covering four large and affluent towns in Burlington County where we have enjoyed high readership for a long time. The paper wants to hold on to and grow that readership, so I take my reassignment as a measure of editors' regard for my abilities."
"I am concerned that some of my similarly reassigned colleagues — many of whom appear to be older and at the top of our pay scale — might have been given onerous jobs calculated to hasten their reassignments. I hope that is not the case. Many if them are fine reporters with years of good work ahead of them."
This isn't the first time the Inquirer had been accused of making life difficult for reporters they would like to see retire. Earlier this year, both dailies created an overnight breaking news desk. Sources say it was staffed with older reporters who would hate the task.
The papers' new ownership team, including parking magnate Lewis Katz and South Jersey Democratic political boss George Norcross, took control this spring amidst concerns over political independence (the management had garnered national headlines when they censored the papers' reporting on the company's sale and financial condition) and job security. The previous owners had, according to a document obtained by the Daily News, proposed cutting 35 additional jobs ahead of the sale. Those cuts never took place, and the two new owners told Poynter.org that there were no immediate plans for layoffs. They also said they were investing $10 million — possibly to hire more reporters.
Norcross called layoff rumors "one of the things that was written about in blogs and picked up by the mainstream media that frankly was not accurate.” The availability of "patient capital," said Katz, would make sure that "banks don’t get in the way."
Change is the only constant at the city's two ailing dailies. Philly.com, the frequently maligned website that both dailies share (and that, full disclosure, has a content-sharing agreement with City Paper), will soon unveil a site "relaunch." Separate sites for the Inquirer and Daily News will, sources say, go online at some point thereafter. Lexie Norcross, George Norcross' daughter, is now involved in managing the website remake. NJ.com, which reported that Lexie Norcross also coordinated the papers' move to their new Market Street offices, says that she holds an unpaid position. Lexie Norcross referred questions to the Inquirer's Vice-President of External Relations, Mark Block. Katz's partner Nancy Phillips, formerly an Inquirer investigative reporter, is now a special assistant to the publisher. Block, who in May told Philadelphia Magazine that Phillips would be "conducting research and important analysis of the company," declined to comment.
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