Former employees see end of an era
Heavy rain fell onto to the iconic Times-Picayune building at 3800 Howard Ave. throughout the day Friday as a majority of the 200 laid-off employees cleaned out desks buried in decades of notebooks, yellowing newspapers and varying keepsakes. A flier on the wall indicated there were free storage boxes available for packing.
Today, The Times-Picayune, as a company is officially dissolved. Two new companies have been created in its place — NOLA Media Group and Advance Central Services Louisiana. The paper’s readers, too, enter a new era today — the first day in the newspaper’s 175 history that it will cease to be a daily.
Editor Jim Amoss appeared last week in multiple television interviews to say that the news-gathering team has been reduced only from about 184 people to 156. But many veterans have been replaced with new hires. In addition to those reporters laid off, a number of high-profile writers declined offers to move forward with the new companies. Layoffs also extended to the transportation, production, human resources, circulation and advertising departments.
On Saturday, online copy editor Cathy Hughes loaded the last of her belongings into her car.
Hughes, who worked for the paper for 12 years, said the “quietest goodbyes were the ones that touched me the most because they were directed toward me as an individual. I suppose anyone who is part of a large layoff reaches for feelings of being appreciated as an individual.”
But the final days as a daily also brought happier moments, as Times-Picayune alumni from across the country flew in to celebrate the legacy of what has been and to show support for their former colleagues, who spent the past four months awaiting the end.
The weekend provided a chance to heal wounds, gain closure and move forward.
On Friday, there was a gathering of about 200 current and former employees at Rock ’N’ Bowl — described by many as being like “the best high school reunion ever.”
“I absolutely could not miss the opportunity to have a reunion with so many people I love,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Walt Handelsman. “I have friends I deeply care about — this has been a challenging time.”
Handelsman described his time at The Times-Picayune, from 1989 to 2001, as a “phenomenal” experience, a place where he raised his two sons while working in an environment where “politics are made for cartooning.”
While the staff and alumni gathered in person this weekend, they have been reaching out to one another for months on a Facebook page created for employees and supporters of the Times-Picayune. One staff described the page as a “communal watering hole — a digital Molly’s.”
The most powerful day on the page, said alum Bridget O’Brian, was June 12. From New York City, O’Brian watched online as employees, one by one, learned their fates. Those severed, she recalled, posted heart-wrenching good byes. Since then, the page has been used to vent, console, reminisce, share ideas, gather facts and to connect with old friends. It’s also where the final weekend evolved.
Former Times-Picayune reporter and Las Vegas resident Rebecca Theim played the head role in organizing the weekend’s events and fundraising effort, all of which will go into the DashThirtyDash nonprofit, created by Theim to provide financial assistance to severed employees. Having been laid off three times, Theim said that she knows all too well how difficult it can be — both financially and emotionally. Especially, she said, for “people who never imagined working anywhere else or doing anything else,” and those like her, at 50, who are too young to retire or receive benefits but are in the later stages of their career.
Saturday night’s event, attended by about 300 people, included food, music and an auction of donated goods: Coffee with Soledad O’Brien, lunch with Walter Isaacson and VIP tickets to Meet the Press, second line hankies, newsprint-themed hats and dresses and Krewe of Muses’ shoes. One of the most sought-after items was food editor Judy Walker’s quilt made of Times-Picayune T-shirts collected throughout decades. When Theim and a small army of dedicated assistants asked for donations, she said she barely could get the request out before it was met with a resounding yes.
In addition to fundraising, Theim said, the event was about “commemorating a great American newspaper in a great American city.” It was a celebration, Theim said, “even though the daily part is passing.”
“We went out with flags flying,” said River Parishes reporter Matt Scallan, proud of the coverage the River Parishes bureau handled in the weeks before his job ended, including severe flooding from Hurricane Isaac and the shooting deaths of two police officers.
“I’m not grieving anymore. I’m looking forward to the future,” Scallan said, acknowledging layoffs at newspapers nationwide. “I grew up reading The Times-Picayune. To have worked here has been a privilege.”
Theim said she was never in the camp that demanded seven days of print. Her passion for the cause, rather, came from the formative years she spent at the paper, her love for the city and her empathy for what people were going through.
“My quarrel was with how it was handled,” Theim said. “And allowing people who spent decades at the paper reading about their own demise in another newspaper.”
Above all else, Theim said, “It’s the people. It’s a sad tragic thing that The Times-Picayune is losing so many wonderful, talented, committed, funny and knowledgeable people.”
On Friday, veteran reporter Bruce Nolan posted a goodbye on the Facebook page that spread quickly.
“It’s true that after 41 years the end at the Times-Picayune is ragged and traumatic,’’ he wrote. “Half the newsroom has been laid off in service to a head-long publishing experiment that feels poorly thought out and risky in the extreme. People are badly hurt and anxious. A few are hopeful. Each receives a constant stream of encouragement from friends, as I have, that there is not only life after the Times-Picayune, but actual happiness as well.”
In his post, Nolan also listed a handful of events — from covering a sniper in downtown New Orleans in 1973, to catching the eye of the Pope in 1987, to interviewing volunteers after Katrina in 2005. Each memory ended with the words, “I had a license to be there.”
Getting on stage at Saturday night’s event to address the crowd and acknowledge Theim, Nolan called the outpouring of local and national support, “The most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s time to say thank you,” Nolan said.