Waiting For Sam: Zell Hovering as Newsday Shakes

It’s been a jittery two weeks in Melville.

Over the next week, Newsday reporters and editors are expecting an announcement about job cuts. Even veterans of the Vlad the Impaler year of 1995, in which Times Mirror ordered the elimination of 800 jobs from a payroll of 3,200, contemplate the coming week with dread.

“To be honest with you, it’s really grim here,” said James Bernstein, a business reporter and 30-year-veteran.

“It’s very bleak, and everyone is totally absorbed in it,” said another reporter.

“It really wears you down,” said William Murphy, a reporter on the Long Island desk.

On Feb. 13 Sam Zell—who bought Newsday’s parent company for $8.2 billion in December—wrote in an e-mail that there would be job cuts at every Tribune paper. The L.A. Times made its announcement the next day—100 to 150 jobs would be lost—and the Baltimore Sun and Hartford Courant put their estimates at about 45 jobs. Newsday has yet to make its decisions on job cuts.

“First you’ll hear the rumor that it’s seven positions, then 40, then 10, then you hear the newsroom will be spared, then it won’t, and there’s just all these e-mails back and forth and no one knows what’s happening,” said Mr. Murphy.

“It’s difficult to work ’cause one second you’re on the phone and then somebody comes in and screams, ‘I heard the latest!’ And then you tell the guy on the phone, ‘Wait, I’ll be right back with you,’” said Mr. Bernstein.

And the latest is still little more than: The decision is coming.

“We’ve gotten the sense that it will be this week,” said Zachary Dowdy, a reporter and editorial vice president of the Local 406 that represents Newsday employees.

It’s an exacting time at papers nationally—The New York Times announced earlier this month that it was cutting about 100 newsroom jobs this year.

But at Newsday, there is no jobectomy left that won’t take out some bone.

Since the 1995 purge that eliminated the paper’s New York edition, the paper has steadily cut positions, generally in increments of 50.

Thirteen positions in the newsroom have been vacated in the last year, and have not been refilled; it’s not clear whether those will even count toward whatever cuts Newsday will have to make. (L.A. Times publisher David Hiller announced in his job-cuts e-mail that all open positions would be eliminated.)

In one demoralizing memo back in December, editor John Mancini announced that four star reporters were leaving: Matthew McAllester to Details; Katie Thomas to The Times; Tom McGinty to The Wall Street Journal; and James Rupert to Bloomberg News.

Mr. Murphy, the Long Island reporter, felt that Newsday got beat badly on a story in its own backyard—the story of the three children found dead in their Garden City apartment on Feb. 24—because the paper hasn’t replaced its social services reporter after Lauren Terrazzano died last year.

But what gets really depressing are the small-ticket items that are being slashed: Can the scale of Newsday’s current expenses really make the cancellation of staff subscriptions to the New York Post, the Daily News and USA Today seem worth the candle? Who’s going to bust ass on a story after they’ve initialed the pass-around chit on the single copy of The Times and two copies of The Wall Street Journal that wend their way among the desks of 26 reporters and editors?

“You get accustomed to opening newspapers at Newsday, it’s been like that for 30 years,” said Mr. Bernstein. “Now it’s like working blind!”

The environment like this one leads to all sorts of speculation: One reporter grumbled about the cafeteria shortening its hours after the paper replaced contractors late last year; another said that reporters are being discouraged to taking sources out to lunch.

The paper’s summer internship program, one of the most popular nationally with college seniors and J-school grad students since it offered up to 25 internships, a cushy $523 weekly salary and a job offer for two interns, will be cut this year. Two reporters said that word around the newsroom is that it will save the paper a little more than $100,000.

The paper’s spokeswoman, Deidra Parrish Williams, described the cut this way: “What I can tell you is that the summer internship is on a hiatus, but we will still have academic interns. With regards to your question about whether those interns will be offered jobs, that is still taking shape.”

Waiting For Sam: Zell Hovering as Newsday Shakes