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.

Uppity Women -- Up and Out
The makeup of the management team that decided the layoffs has been kept secret from the Republic's reporting staff, but it is known that the mystery firing squad based its decision on three criteria: skills, experience and something labeled "behavioral attributes."

Indeed, three reporters with a particular behavioral attribute inimical to PNI management were shown the door last week: Kim Sue Lia Perkes, Susan Leonard and Barbara Deters. All three were full-fledged members of the dying PNI breed known as Uppity Women.

Many other Uppity Women--so named for their willingness to point out injustices in the newsroom and fight for their stories--had already quit or been pushed out by the time the layoffs were announced. Longtime court reporter J.W. Brown, for example, left late last year for a job in the Maricopa County courts.

Just about the only Uppity Woman left at the Republic is Carol Sowers, who was recently removed from the beat she loved and covered well--Native American affairs--and forced to write about health and fitness.

Burning Questions, Part 2
A four-page memo titled "Q&As"--an addendum to Inside--was distributed to PNI employees January 14. Most of the questions were mundane blather about severance packages, insurance and newsroom redesign.

But there was one great question-answer pair:
Q. If I'm not one of the approximately 55 laid-off employees, can I volunteer to be laid off?

A. No.
(Apparently, by that time it was too late to mouth off to Managing Editor Steve Knickmeyer. Many of the laid off had reportedly rubbed Knickmeyer the wrong way at some point. As one surviving reporter--who, for obvious reasons, requested anonymity--puts it: "If you have an attitude problem with Knickmeyer, you are out the fucking door.")

Some Franke Talk
For years, the Republic did not print negative stories about America West Airlines. This had nothing to do with the fact that William Franke, CEO of America West Airlines, is also a member of the board of directors of PNI.

Last fall, business reporter Ed Foster broke a story about serious maintenance violations at America West listed in a Federal Aviation Administration report.

Ed Foster was fired last week.
His departure has nothing to do with the fact that William Franke, CEO of America West Airlines and a member of the board of directors of PNI, wrote a letter to Republic management threatening to pull the airline's $900,000 of annual advertising because of Foster's story.

Burning Questions, Part 3
Three more questions from the January 14 handout:
Q. Will this change the way we use Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., and the logo?
Q. Will the name of the Lazy R&G Ranch be changed?

Q. Will employees receive a commemorative edition of the January 18 Gazette?

Diverse As They Wanna Be
The Arizona Republic prides itself on its coverage of diverse communities. From PNI's Mission Statement:

"Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., is the leading provider of compelling information to our diverse communities."

From the Arizona Republic's Vision Statement:
"Capturing the spirit and diversity of the Valley and its residents."
Norm Parish, the only black reporter on the Republic's city desk, was laid off last week.

Burning Questions, Part 4
Q. Why has management recently hired people and now it is laying people off?
A. Recent hires were acquired for their skill sets and because we needed them to complement and add skills to the newsroom.


Hire and Hire
In the past two months, as the mass layoff loomed, the Republic hired four full-time newsroom staffers from Tribune Newspapers. Most notable among the hires is Kelly Ettenborough, an alleged religion writer for the Tribune, who would have replaced Kim Sue Lia Perkes as the Republic's religion writer, except that Perkes had been stripped of that position years ago after she displayed Uppity Woman tendencies in the newsroom. (Perkes was at one time recognized as one of the best religion writers in the country.) The religion beat initially went to Ben Winton, but he was fired last week, too.

So now Ettenborough apparently stands to take over as religion writer.
Here is the lead from Ettenborough's story in the religion section of the January 18 Republic:

"Stripped to their shorts, the young warriors emerge, skin glistening with sweat, steam rushing off their bodies, problems disappearing into the night air chill."

If things don't work out for Ettenborough at the Republic, she may have a future at Penthouse.

You're Hired: Go Home
Another recent hire is former Tribune columnist David Leibowitz, whose column now will appear in the Republic's East Valley edition.

Leibowitz's first day at the Republic had been scheduled for Monday, January 13. He was sent home to avoid untimely death.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >