Ellen Futterman, Editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Late last week, a number of friends and former colleagues at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch learned that they no longer had jobs. Several of them had been called at home Thursday night, after they had worked their shifts during the day, to be told the news.

By the end of Friday, a total of 13 newsroom employees, and roughly 10 more from other departments throughout the paper, had been laid off. Several of the newsroom folks were top and middle level editors — Steve Parker, assistant managing editor; Larry Coyne, photography director; Judy Evans, food and travel editor; Tim Bross, assistant metro editor and David Sheets, sports content editor. Together, their service at the P-D totaled more than 110 years.

Another person who was laid off was award-winning editorial cartoonist R.J. Matson. As noted Sunday by William H. Freivogel in the online version of the Gateway Journalism Review, which Freivogel oversees, “99 years after Daniel R. Fitzpatrick became the editorial cartoonist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that proud history… appears to be coming to an end.” Freivogel, who also once served as deputy editorial page editor of the Post, points out, too, that Fitzpatrick won the paper two Pulitzer Prizes for his cartoons, in 1926 and 1954, and his successor, Bill Maudlin, won one for the paper in 1959.

The Sunday’s Post, which lacked a signature cartoon by Matson, carried a story by columnist Bill McClellan questioning the timing of bonuses for Mary Junck, CEO of Lee Enterprises, which owns the Post-Dispatch. McClellan recalled how Junck received a $500,000 bonus in March, on the very day a Lee-owned paper in Montana laid off a number of its employees. The bonus was for getting Lee out of bankruptcy.

McClellan also pointed out that last Wednesday, right before the most recent layoffs at the Post, Lee disclosed in an SEC filing that it has awarded Junck 500,000 shares of company stock, valued at $655,000. “The company’s executive compensation committee said stockholders would benefit from linking her compensation to the value of the company’s stock,” writes McClellan, adding, “As a stockholder, I hope so. When Lee bought (the Post-Dispatch) in 2005, Lee stock was at $44.55. It closed Friday at $1.26. Junck has been CEO for all that time.”

Sunday afternoon I got together with two friends who are former colleagues at the Post and still have jobs there. Both are extremely talented journalists — as is the case with many, past and present, at the Post — but my friends wanted to commiserate because they, understandably, are upset by the layoffs. They also voiced frustration about having to do more as (human) resources at the paper continue to shrink.

“You are so lucky you left when you did,” said one of my friends.

Lucky? I remember feeling anything but five years ago this month when the Post announced a buyout offer to 60 of its employees who had been there at least 10 years and were at least 50 years old. My tenure was 25 years and I had just turned 50.

The thing was, I loved my job as Everyday daily features editor and didn’t want to leave. But I saw what was happening to newspapers around the country and specifically to the Post where the features section — and other sections as well — were slowly but surely being decimated. Today, the Everyday section that had once been the paper’s flagship is now little more than home to the funnies.

It was a hard decision but I decided to take the buyout. I was No. 58 of 60 to sign up.

As my two friends and former colleagues and I talked more about the situation Sunday, I agreed, I was lucky. At least I left the paper on my own terms, with a little something in my pocket. I also was lucky because I found a new job right away. It wasn’t perfect, but I liked it well enough and learned new skills. After a year, I left that job to become editor at the Jewish Light

I tell people that this job has been a gift not only because I love what I do but also because I never thought I would work in local journalism again after leaving the Post. I just didn’t think there were any opportunities for me. 

Now I have learned never to say never. There are opportunities out there even if they might not seem so at first. 

I told a former colleague just that after he emailed me Friday, looking for some freelance work. He, too, had been laid off last week. I was happy to be able to give him an assignment.

Of course the money the Light pays him isn’t going to make up for the loss of his job. But at least he knows he would be able to write for a newspaper. It’s hard to explain but many of us who have spent our entire adult lives as journalists have a lot of trouble imagining doing anything else. It’s in our blood and we love it, even if the business all around us is changing and NOT for the better.

As my two friends and I sat talking, the conversation moved from the here and now to the then and when. We laughed about some hilarious newsroom incidents from days gone by and talked about some of the assignments each of us was working on.

Toward the end of our time together, I looked at my two friends with concern and asked, “What about you guys? I know your jobs are probably safe but are you quietly looking around for something else?”

They considered the question before one of them said, “Despite what’s going on, despite the fact the newsroom is about as jolly as a morgue, I still love what I do.”

We all nodded.