It's difficult to watch what's been happening at the Times-Standard over the last several months, even from my seat on the sidelines. If you're unaware, the region's only daily just weathered another round of layoffs, including three members of the newsroom.
I'm not sure how they are managing to put out a paper six days a week. But they do, and that alone is something of a tiny miracle. I hope they can continue.
When I first walked into the Times-Standard building in January of 2005, I joined a team of seven reporters in a bustling newsroom of 26, including several longtime staffers. By the time I left three years ago, we were down to a total of 13 positions. Today, there are six: one managing editor, one city editor, a lifestyle writer, a sports reporter and two news reporters. That's it.
I can't imagine what it must be like for six people trying to cover a region the size of Rhode Island with seven city councils, 30 school districts, two colleges, county government and the courts, six days a week while also being expected to post every single press release online that comes along from morning to night.
If you wonder why something wasn't covered, it's probably because there wasn't anyone who could because they were out covering something else. When staffing is this low, something has to give. But, as I know all too well, the reality is quite a few people — probably including the publisher — are going to second guess, or better yet come up with some conspiracy theory, about the hard choices the reporters and editors had to make.
It's a horrible position to be in. Even when I had double the staff the paper has now, there were still too many days when the newsroom was empty. It didn't take much. Managing every vacation, every sick day, every three-day holiday weekend became a juggling act.
While the dismantling of the Times-Standard didn't happen overnight, I can pinpoint exactly when it began: The afternoon of Nov. 5, 2008, when the announcement came that the Eureka Reporter was closing its doors and one of the nation's last old-fashioned newspaper wars was coming to an end. For most of us in the newsroom, it didn't feel like a victory.
People might be surprised to hear it but even as we strove to out-cover and scoop each other at every turn, the staffs of both papers got along pretty well for the most part.
Competing with the ER quite simply shook the T-S out of complacency. It was good for us and it was good for the community. And it was fun. Some mornings, after I stopped to grab the ER's distinctive blue bag off my driveway and quickly scanned their latest headlines, I couldn't help but smile. Other days, I wanted to hide under my desk.
Then suddenly, the broadsheet battle between millionaires Rob Arkley (The Eureka Reporter) and Dean Singleton (Times-Standard) was over and the protective bubble that had surrounded the Times-Standard burst.
The unraveling began slowly at first. Extra positions we'd been allowed to hire during the newspaper war were chipped away one after another. The part-time sports desk position was eliminated along with those of the news intern, the business reporter and an additional features writer. Raises were frozen. If someone left, their position might be cut for good.
At first, we tried to assure ourselves that we simply needed to adjust. Or maybe that's just what I tried to tell myself. The newsroom divided up the reporters' beats in new creative ways. Shifts were moved around. Everyone took a bit more onto their plates. For a time, we managed. But the cuts kept coming. Every time we came up with a system that seemed to be working, another shoe would drop. It never got easier, just harder.
As the whittling of the newsroom sped up, veteran staff members began to leave only to be replaced by younger, greener reporters who not only lacked experience but the institutional knowledge that is so vital to covering a community with a long memory. And there were fewer and fewer experienced ones around to show them the ropes like in the old days. While we did as much coaching as possible, there just wasn't time. Everyone was pressed and pressing.
Don't get me wrong, there were many talented reporters in the bunch who made their way through the doors of the Times-Standard's Sixth Street building. But they weren't setting down roots in Humboldt. They were just passing through. Sometimes it felt like just when everyone was firmly established in their beats and the newsroom was back on track, another person would leave. I couldn't blame them. Raises were hard to come by and another round of cuts always loomed.
Still, up until a few years before I left, I really enjoyed working at the Times-Standard. There was a real sense of purpose in what we were doing, even on the hardest days. But after a while, even that was overshadowed as it became more and more clear that the region's only daily was being pushed to the tipping point.
To the very end, I appreciated the people I worked with — from the reporters to the front desk to the folks running the press. But it was evident things were not going to get better. No matter how many times we rearranged shifts, no matter how we changed up reporting beats, no matter what we did, there just was no way to cover everything we once did when there were 26 people.
By the end, I felt like I was drowning. I worked holidays and while on vacation. I was required to be on call always, regardless of my geographical location. Even working six to seven days a week — often pulling 10-, 12- and even 14-hour shifts — wasn't enough to keep up.
A previous Times-Standard publisher told me readers didn't care if the newsroom was short staffed, they wanted the same level of coverage we were able to provide 10 positions ago. I never really believed that was completely true. Of course readers wanted to see more stories and more features and more in-depth reporting, but I like to think they also cared about the constant cuts.
In fact, even today, I'll bet if anyone asked them, their response would be simple: Why don't you just hire more reporters? It's not a bad question.