A standing-room-only crowd attended the meeting where Rochelle Gilken decided to end her newspaper career. Behind the gleaming glass windows of the Palm Beach Post's headquarters in West Palm Beach on a June 2008 afternoon, hundreds of people held their breath.
Rumors of job cuts had been whispered around the newsroom for months. That morning, Gilken received an email on her BlackBerry from the Post's top editors. It explained that staffers with five or more years at the paper — Gilken barely made the cut — were eligible for a "voluntary separation package." Details were to be revealed at the meeting.
Editor John Bartosek didn't disguise the dread in his voice as he explained that 300 jobs would be lost, including roughly 130 from the newsroom — nearly half the current staff of writers and editors. Gilken, four-foot-11 and built like a fierce pixie, looked around at her colleagues and realized, with a sinking in her gut, how many of them would soon be gone.
"The way he said it made me feel like, 'This is going to be a bloodbath,' " Gilken says.
Manila envelopes were handed out, detailing how much money each employee would receive in his or her proposed buyout package. Staffers were offered two weeks' pay for every year they'd spent at the Post. Employees could decline the buyout, but then they ran the risk of getting laid off at a later date with severance packages not nearly as sweet.
Gilken was shocked. At age 28, she never imagined that the company's cost-cutting measures would impact someone at her relatively low end of the pay scale or in a job as essential as hers. As a crime reporter, she had covered some of the most exciting stories in the region. Her articles regularly landed on the front page, and she churned out copy for the paper's website. She'd trekked across the state to report on the destruction left by Hurricane Charley in Punta Gorda, wrote some of the first grueling stories about the gang rape at the Dunbar Village housing project, and covered a hanging in Belle Glade that made national headlines when some suspected it was a lynching.
In fact, she had moved to West Palm Beach five years earlier specifically so she could be part of the fast-paced, infamously weird, and hugely competitive news scene in South Florida, a scene that launched the careers of famous scribes such as Dave Barry, Leonard Pitts Jr., and Carl Hiaasen.
But by the end of the day of the fateful meeting, Gilken knew this particular dream was over. "I was like, 'Oh my God, I have to leave,' " she says. "If I stayed at the Post, the only direction my career could go was down."
Gilken and about 300 others who accepted buyouts from the Post last year were part of the first round of recent job cuts at the paper and a massive hemorrhaging of employees at all three major South Florida dailies. Among the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, and Miami Herald, about 1,000 jobs have been shed in the past couple of years (according to estimates by New Times media critic Bob Norman), and more layoffs seem to be announced every few months. With ad revenue plummeting and some newsroom staffs chopped roughly in half, the once-venerable dailies are shrinking so fast that, in the words of one Herald staffer, "our paper looks like a paper towel."
Their plight is hardly unique. The internet, the real estate crash, the recession, and declining quality have combined to decimate newspapers across the country. According to the American Society of News Editors, daily newspapers lost 5,900 newsroom jobs in 2008, reducing their staffs by 11.3 percent, to levels not seen since the early '80s. There are now 46,700 journalists employed at dailies, down from a high of 56,900 in 1990.
To many people, printed daily news has become as obsolete as a Discman. But the human cost of that evolution has rarely been chronicled. In South Florida, where corrupt politicians make headlines daily, scores of former reporters are now silenced, collecting unemployment checks instead of storming City Hall. It's the one story their former bosses refuse to tell.
The first time he walked into the Post newsroom, Tom Dubocq smelled the fuel on which newspapers run: coffee and ink.
Static buzzed from the police scanner; sound blasted from a cacophony of television screens and radios; phones rang wildly. He looked out on rows of gray cubicles, where someone was always complaining, someone else cajoling a photographer into taking a picture he didn't want to take.
"Ah, this is home," he thought.
Dubocq began his career in a cramped, closet-sized press room at the Broward County Courthouse. As a cub reporter for the Miami News in the '80s, he duked it out with competitors from rags that no longer exist — the Fort Lauderdale News, the Sun-Tattler. He would steal tips and news releases from a competitor's mailbox and stuff them in the trash. One reporter accepted cases of booze every Christmas from the county commissioners. "He was a little weasel of a man," Dubocq says. "Totally corrupt, right out of central casting."