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Beacon Massacre

A new owner, another punishing round of layoffs.

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On an August day, Dave Wilson was standing in his kitchen, preparing himself for the end, when his wife nodded to his Knight Ridder coffee mug. "You don't want to drink from that," she said.

I sure as hell don't, Wilson thought.

He'd given 18 years to that damn company, a decade of which he'd spent as a reporter and editor for the Akron Beacon Journal. He snatched up the mug and headed to a co-worker's house, where Beacon employees were mourning the end of an era. Knight Ridder, once one of America's largest newspaper chains, with papers from Philadelphia to San Jose, was officially dead.

"Anyone got a golf club?" Wilson asked when he arrived. Someone slipped him a monster-sized driver. He placed the mug on a tee, then hammered it into a cloud of ceramic shards. "It was like saying adios to that whole scenario," he says.

Once upon a time that stupid little cup had meant something special -- something that fought to better people's lives, earned Pulitzers for doing so, and allowed Wilson to be a proud provider. Now, on this crappy August day, it stood for something ugly -- something full of defeat, anxiety, and loss.

Knight Ridder had spent the past four years trying to appease the bottom line with layoffs and cutbacks that shrank the Beacon to Nicole Richie proportions. Then it sold the paper off like a barren mare. But not even the new owner, McClatchy, wanted anything to do with it. The company spit it back onto the auction block just days after the purchase.

Tony Ridder, the company's CEO and chairman, walked away with $45 million and promptly closed shop. The words of the man to whom he owed his great fortune had apparently eluded him long ago. "We believe in profitability but do not sacrifice either principle or quality on the altar of the counting house," said John S. Knight, the former owner of the Beacon.

That mission officially flatlined when Wilson's co-workers watched him shatter his favorite mug. But as the cup exploded, they knew that the worst was far from over.

That same month, McClatchy quickly pawned the Beacon off on Black Press for $165 million. The Canadian company's owner, David Black, assured staffers that he cared about journalism, wouldn't mess with their union, and wasn't going to lay anyone off. Some breathed a sigh of relief. Others knew better. "We knew more layoffs were coming," Wilson says.

A few weeks later, Black finally must have taken a good look at the books "and said, 'Oh, shit!,'" Wilson believes.

On August 22, Black laid off 40 staffers -- almost a quarter of the newsroom.

Along with Wilson went eight copy editors, four photographers, the Browns beat writer, and a state-politics reporter. Today, there is no music writer. No movie critic. And forget about looking forward to Tom Reed's sports column, unless someone takes a voluntary buyout and saves his job. They're all gone to save $2.3 million.

More pink slips are coming, as if the paper still has casualties to spare. "We're all wondering, "Who in the hell is gonna cover sports? We hardly have anyone left," says a reporter whose job was spared.

As the layoffs were announced, people ran to bathrooms, crying. Others fled to a downtown bar to numb the news. Ridder's reign of terror hadn't really ended, it seemed. "I was a little bit taken by surprise," Wilson says. "I thought there were others who were more expensive. I pretty much spent the whole next day seething with anger."

Over rounds of MGD and whiskey, staffers pondered what led to the latest bloodletting. Just as Black bought the paper, it was losing its biggest advertiser, Kaufmann's. The department store was being purchased by Macy's, notorious for not advertising in local newspapers.

It was a financial blow the Beacon did little to prepare for. It simply raised ad rates and ignored the rest. "People were just hoping it was gonna fix itself," Wilson says. "Newspapers have often succeeded in spite of themselves. That's no longer the case."

Adds columnist David Giffels, who is now dealing with survivor guilt, having withstood the purge: "Daily newspapers are big old traditional companies that are slow to adapt . . . There hasn't been that sort of fire to adapt in an aggressive way. And until they start, those numbers are never going to turn around."

But Knight Ridder was the epitome of an old, lethargic company. "It became so bureaucratic," Wilson says. "There were too many committees, and committees always make bad choices."

One committee decided to put all the websites entirely under corporate control. Until recently, the Beacon newsroom had no input into what landed on Ohio.com.

"Reporters could never have pitched some creative project for Ohio.com without it going through all sorts of bureaucracy and killing some spontaneity," Giffels says.

Wilson agrees. "They homogenized [all the sites], not thinking that Akron isn't San Jose or Philly. We're a sports-crazy town. No one even looked at the site until the Indians' 1995 playoff run got it started. Now it's all crap up there."

Employees also point to capitalism's favorite mantra: You gotta spend money to make money, and spend it smart.

The paper did expand sports and youth-culture coverage, and boosted reporting in Stark County. "The problem was that if they didn't get visible results in two months, they'd just kill it," Wilson says. "After two months, they'd always say, 'Oh! It's not working! We quit!' It was suicidal."

Nothing seemed to please the bottom line, ever.

So the Beacon opted for that most medieval of remedies. It bled itself.

Giffels points to the first round of newsroom layoffs in 2001. Since the paper's union has a policy of last hired, first fired, the paper purged itself of the kind of spark it needs to compete, he says.

"When we had cuts five years ago, I watched the next generation of exciting reporters depart before they got a chance to blossom here," he says. "We don't have any young reporters, not anyone left in their 20s, and not very many left in their 30s. We can't reinvent ourselves unless we have fresh young people who think about journalism in a more modern way."

Despite the loss of its cash cow, Rita Kelly Madick, the paper's spokeswoman, admits that the Beacon is still profitable. As Knight Ridder was closing, the paper was still boasting profit margins exceeding 20 percent, among the best performances in the chain.

"You almost forget that we're actually profitable," says a reporter who was laid off. "David Black makes it sound like all we're doing is losing money."

But Madick says that mere profitability isn't enough. "In the competitive marketplace, in our industry, you gotta be strong to compete," she says. "It isn't enough to say that you're just profitable. So, now we have to align our spending with our revenue. No one likes layoffs, but it's a much-needed adjustment."

The newsroom is being massively restructured. The paper will give up coverage of every county but Summit and cut down on arts and sports. In the meantime, people will be moved to jobs they don't want and forced to give up those they love. Some senior staffers will accept voluntary buyouts to spare others or simply because they're fed up. "I just hope we make the right decisions about what to do with what we have left," Giffels says.

And those who've survived seem to feel just as bad as those now unemployed. "It just doesn't sound like it's gonna be a fun place to work," says one reporter. "People already complain that the paper's too thin. I just wonder if it's just gonna get worse."

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