Miami Herald political writer Gary Fineout was driving to his office at the Tallahassee bureau last Monday morning when he got word: An editor was in town to meet with the staff.
It quickly dawned on Fineout what was happening: The job cuts everybody had been expecting and dreading were finally being announced.
By the time he got to the office, he'd heard the number: 250 positions were being eliminated, about 17 percent of the newspaper's staff. And the 43-year-old Fineout figured there was a good chance that one of those jobs was his.
At the office later that morning, he was given a "voluntary" buyout offer. But he knows he really has no choice; his fate at the Herald was spelled out in the finer print of an email sent to the staff from Publisher David Landsberg.
The publisher wrote that in situations where buyouts weren't taken voluntarily, least-tenured employees would be forced to take them. Fineout is one of three Herald journalists working in Tallahassee, the other two being bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas and reporter Marc Caputo. One of them will be terminated. Since Fineout has the least amount of seniority among the three (he started there in 2004), he is the one who will have to go.
"At this time, unless something drastically changes, I will lose my job," says Fineout, who is married with a 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. "I honestly don't know what I am going to do. I'll borrow a line from the politicians I've covered: 'I am weighing my options.' I have a fundamental decision to make on whether I will remain in journalism."
It's a decision being pondered by hundreds of newsroom staffers across South Florida — and the country — as an inability to cash in on internet ventures combined with the overall economic downturn continue to decimate the industry. The purge in the Herald newsroom is accompanied by cuts at the Sun-Sentinel of at least 50 jobs, according to newsroom sources (including Managing Editor Sharon Rosenhause, who recently retired and whose position won't be filled). The Palm Beach Post isn't being spared either. Promised job purges there haven't yet been specified, but sources in the newsroom say major cuts and buyout offers are coming soon.
And the drama inside those newsrooms has been as intense as just about anything they might cover. "It's hard to get things done with our shop in chaos right now," one veteran Herald writer says. "Everybody is worried about more layoffs."
For South Florida readers, it means one thing: less news. With reductions of more than 15 percent of staffs across the board, physical newspapers are rapidly shrinking, and the amount of local coverage available on the newspaper websites will decrease.
Sam Zell, the controversial owner of the Sentinel's parent Tribune Co., put the problem in simple terms in a recent memo to his newspapers (which include flagships Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune): "We are printing bigger newspapers than we can afford to print."
If this is a sea change in journalism, then the tide is only getting lower. And some Florida journalism treasures are going to be lost. One is Linda Kleindienst, the longtime Sun-Sentinel Tallahassee bureau chief. Kleindienst volunteered last week for a buyout — a move that will likely save a less-tenured colleague his or her job.
With 37 years at the newspaper, she's trained countless young reporters in the ways of the capital and covered everything from the Broward County Commission to the courthouse. "I just felt it was the right time," Kleindienst says.
I initially reported Kleindienst's impending departure on my blog, The Daily Pulp. The news prompted this comment from former Sun-Sentinel reporter, editor, and writing coach John DeGroot: "Her leaving is a metaphor of the dark days ahead for the news biz. Her talent and high standards aside, Linda's departure will have a tragic impact on the Sentinel newsroom's already dwindling institutional knowledge."
The same can be said for Phil Long of the Miami Herald, who has spent the past four decades traveling the state, covering one big story after another. Known to spend his nights on the road in Red Roof Inns to save his newspaper money, Long is an institution at the newspaper. He now works in Vero Beach, and he politely declined to discuss his situation when I contacted him on the phone.
One who has taken the buyout voluntarily is 30-year Broward bureau photo assignment editor David Blasco, who said he looked forward to the opportunity to leave the newspaper business.
"I just felt like this was the right time for me, and it was obviously the right time for the Herald," the 57-year-old Blasco said last Thursday, shortly after officially accepting the buyout. "I'm actually happy, but I'm not happy for other people here who have very difficult decisions to make."
Management hasn't gone unaffected, but some Herald writers have told me they don't believe it has been affected enough. As part of the job cuts, the newspaper eliminated the positions of its three managing editors — Dave Wilson, Rick Hirsch, and Liza Gross.
All three, however, are retaining jobs in the company in other capacities.
No such luck for Fineout. As he faces the possible end of his career in journalism, Fineout flashes back to his early days at the Tallahassee Democrat when the newspaper business first began venturing onto the internet in the early to mid-'90s. He remembers thinking that it didn't make sense to offer the newspaper's content for free, and he heard some business-side employees voicing the same opinion.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
He wonders if the early decision by the industry not to charge for stories might be costing him his job today. But he knows it's a question to which he'll never have an answer. "You can't put that genie back in the bottle," he says.
Fineout's buyout likely won't give him much comfort. For every year he has worked, he will receive two weeks' salary. With four years under his belt, he's likely looking at just eight weeks' pay. Even longtime employees like Phil Long won't get much severance, since the Herald is putting the maximum buyout amount at 32 weeks' pay.
He says he's concerned about his family's future, but he's not in dire straits. His wife is employed, and he's confident he'll find gainful employment with the skills he's honed as a reporter — a job he expected to have his entire working life.
"I'm not leaving journalism," he says. "Journalism is leaving me."