Scenes From a Slaughter

For the last decade of the 116-year life of the Phoenix Gazette, staff--and, perhaps, readers--devoted far more time to conjecture on the newspaper's impending death than to discussion of its contents.

On Monday, January 13, around 9 a.m., Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., CEO and Publisher John Oppedahl announced the mercy killing: The final issue of the afternoon Gazette would be published the following Saturday, and 55 newsroom employees would be laid off by the end of the week.

This is the first time Oppedahl--who ascended to the publisher's throne last year--has stuck around to the bitter end. He worked at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Dallas Times-Herald before those dailies left the land of the living.

Because the news was released to wire services, radio and television stations Monday morning, some work-bound PNI employees learned of their potential fate on the radio, or from a TV reporter skulking outside PNI headquarters, looking for reaction.

From there, management's handling of a sensitive situation--the firing of employees who, in some cases, had decades of service to PNI--grew more callous, not less.

Once PNI's upper managers realized it would be difficult to hold off the announcement of who exactly would be laid off for four full days (news gathering had screeched to a virtual stop as reporters and editors contemplated their futures), an electronic message went out to all newsroom employees, ordering them to be at their desks from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. last Wednesday.

Beginning that Wednesday morning--and continuing throughout the day--selected newsroom staffers at PNI headquarters in downtown Phoenix and its Valley bureaus received phone calls at their desks, asking them to report to an area designated by Human Resources.

One PNI employee--who happened to work the night shift--was called at home Wednesday morning and asked to come in early. She was told: Human Resources needs to talk to you, and Human Resources leaves at 5.

Whether the Human Resources pitch was delivered by Executive Editor Pam Johnson or a PNI management minion, the script was the same:

"As you know, we're going through a staff reduction in the newsroom. Your position has been eliminated."

From the Human Resources area, each fired employee was sent to an "outplacement counselor" to discuss the employee's emotional state (and, one would suspect, to ensure that said employee was not visibly suicidal and, thus, lawsuit material).

The employee was handed a pile of official-looking documents, which had to be signed to receive the PNI severance package. That relatively generous package consisted of $1,000 per year of service, two weeks salary per year of service, health-insurance coverage for a year, outplacement services and a $1,500 retraining stipend.

To gain the severance package, the fired employee had to agree not to sue PNI on age-discrimination or other civil-liberties grounds. The worker also had to acknowledge that he or she would never, ever work for PNI again.

Back at his or her desk, the fired employee learned that during his or her short meeting, the staffer's computer access code had been changed. The streamlined employee then had 10 minutes to gather personal effects and get out of the office, under the watchful eye of managers secretly dispatched to "monitor" activity in the newsroom. (The departed were to be allowed back in the building during the weekend, when each had two hours to finish packing up.)

Before a downsized employee drove from the Republic parking garage, a guard would appear to scrape the company parking sticker from the inside windshield of the employee's car.

The cars of CEO Oppedahl, Executive Editor Johnson, Managing Editor Don Henninger and Chip Weil, chairman of PNI's parent company, were moved from their assigned parking spaces to an undisclosed haven, apparently to avoid any spontaneous keying or egging by fired employees.

The manner in which PNI made its layoffs would make any public relations executive proud: The community was led to believe that the layoffs were linked to the closing of the Gazette. That's not true. Only one of 12 remaining Gazette employees was fired; the others will be absorbed by the Republic.

At press time, the final body count stood at 60.
Make that 61--almost. Reporter Laura Plachecki was nine months pregnant when she received word that her job had been eliminated.

Burning Questions, Part 1
On January 13, PNI issued a special edition of its in-house newsletter--creatively titled Inside--announcing the discontinuation of the Gazette and, practically as an aside, the elimination of some newsroom positions.

In keeping with long-standing PNI tradition, the newsletter included a list of questions and answers, designed to inform employees just what was coming--and why.

In keeping with this tradition, the dialogue in the newsletter was cloying, arrogant, uninformative and oxymoronic:

Q. How was the number of people determined?
A. The staffing demands of our new design and of our newsroom initiatives determined the number of people we needed in the newsroom.

Q. Will other departments be impacted?
A. Yes, both Circulation and Production will make some changes now that we will not be publishing an afternoon paper.

Q. Is the company doing this to save money?
A. No. The decision to discontinue publishing the Gazette and to redesign the newsroom just make [sic] good sense. Obviously, there are cost savings involved that will benefit the company, shareholders, customers and employees, but that was not the company's first priority.

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