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The Short Good-Bye

Sun-Times Media Group vets, laid off without severance, recount their last day at work.

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Dorothy Andries described her final day at Pioneer Press:

"I saw several people being escorted out of the building in Glenview," she said, "and we were kind of joking—we didn't want to ever take a call from human resources. And my phone rang. I looked. It was from human resources. I said 'Oh my!' and went upstairs. I said 'Is this it?' and they said yes."

This was last Thursday, April 16. Andries had worked at Pioneer Press since 1982.

Did they escort you out too? I asked.

"They did walk me out the door. They have to walk me out the door."

Why? I asked.

"Yes, why?" said Andries, as if wondering for the first time. "Yes, why? And the other people too. They're lovely people. Everybody's lovely people. They're grown-ups. We're not going to mess up the ws on the typewriters. We've worked there a long time. We're proud of our work. But it's required. That's what they told us."

And here's how Dennis Robaugh recalls Friday, April 17, his last day as managing editor of the Southtown Star, where he'd worked for nine years:

"I kind of hoped it wouldn't happen, but I was prepared. Actually, the editor had sort of distanced herself from the newsroom the past two months and spent most of her time in her office. And me particularly, she didn't engage herself with me other than pleasantries. That's how she behaved the last time there were layoffs.

"On Friday the list of people leaked out and Friday morning there were people all over the newsroom crying and the layoffs hadn't even begun yet. Someone said, 'You're on the list.' I said, 'It'll be OK. It'll be OK.' I went to the human resources department and said 'I know I'm on the list—let's get this done.' It was a nice day Friday so I wanted to spend some time outside."

Dozens of employees, some in editorial and many who weren't, were fired last week from the 100 or so titles of the Sun-Times Media Group, which is in bankruptcy and last year lost more than $350 million. The news is terrible everywhere—a Tribune reporter talking to Robaugh said to him, next week it's our turn. But at the STMG, the vestiges of the once-grandiose Hollinger International, there is conduct that was literally criminal to point to—the former CEO, Conrad Black, is in prison, and his number two, who ran the Chicago operation, David Radler, is now out of prison only because he testified against Black. As I recently wrote on my blog, the measures the group is taking now bring to mind a desperate animal chewing off its paw to escape a trap.

Dorothy Andries made a point of telling me how kind her boss, Jeff Wisser, had always been to her, including in the conversation in which he let her go. She spent a few minutes with Wisser, a longer time with human resources, and then she asked to go back to her desk. There was someone to meet—Andries had scheduled a long weekend, and a sub was coming in to discuss the work she'd do filling in for Andries on Friday and Monday.

The Pioneer Press's classical music critic, Andries also edited two weekly sections, Trend and Diversions. Trend covers the society/charity scene on the North Shore. It's put together on Friday. Diversions is an entertainment guide. It's put together Monday.

Waiting for the sub to arrive, Andries said nothing. "I gave them my best Academy Award-winning performance," she said. "I just came back and started working." And then she said nothing to the sub, Sara Burrows, though Burrows had been a Pioneer Press features editor herself until she was laid off in January. Once Burrows had left, Andries put her books into boxes. Wisser, escorting her out, helped her carry them to the car.

Robaugh went back to his office for a few personal items and wound up spending about an hour there. People kept coming in to cry a little and hug him. "I left on my own," he said. "There was a security guard wandering the newsroom watching people, but he was a kid kind of built like a licorice stick so if anything were to happen I don't think he could have done anything about it. I'm a pretty big guy. I think I messed up their timetable because in the afternoon they had a 350-pound Chicago cop. He was there for me—that's what the joking was. I don't know why you'd have a very large, armed Chicago cop in the building for something like that. Admittedly, there are a lot of emotions, people who are sad, people who are angry. But..."

Andries created Trend for Pioneer Press in 1986. "It grew, grew, grew with advertising, so at its peak, at Christmastime, it would sometimes be 24 pages just for social charitable news. Just that. Recently it's gotten really really really small. I wonder, what will they do with Trend? That beat is all the major challenges and woes of the earth. It's Alzheimer's and AIDS and arthritis. It's cancer and battered women. And it's all the things that make life worthwhile. It's the symphony and opera and education. And I think it's a really wonderful thing—to get their message out. I was proud of that work."

Robaugh told me, "I said to one of my colleagues several months ago, when it became clear people in the company were talking about the situation here as a crisis, there will be some people here, their character will come out, they'll start manufacturing controversies and disputes to try to save themselves. I chose to try to be a person of ideas, ideas I thought would help the paper and help the business."

One was a White Sox newsletter handed out to fans waiting at the Sox shuttle stop in the parking lot of the newspaper's offices, in Tinley Park. "For the first edition we put up a tent and gave away T-shirts. People were like 'Cool! Hey, great. Here's something to read on the trip to the ball park.'" Thanks to its ads and coupons, Robaugh said, the Southtown Star expects the newsletter to earn a couple of thousand dollars over the season.

Neither Andries nor Robaugh nor anyone else laid off last week by the Sun-Times Media Group will collect a penny of severance. That went out the window last month when the company, owing the IRS $608 million in back taxes and penalties dating back to the Black/Radler era, filed for bankruptcy.

"That's really painful, really painful," Andries told me. "Even if they only gave one week a year, I'd get 27 weeks. That would give me some breathing room. Very few people work if they don't have to. People work because they have to work financially, even if they enjoy it."

Wynne Delacoma, Andries's sister, was once the classical music critic at the Sun-Times, and after she left the staff she continued to write for it as a freelancer. Andries is prepared to do the same for Pioneer Press. "I'm in southern California visiting our son and 16-month-old grandson," she told me by phone over the weekend. "Reality will hit Monday evening when I land at O'Hare. I have to see to my livelihood, you know. I'll get busy."

Andries is "over 65," on "extra time," as she puts it. Robaugh is 40. "I've thought for the last two years about what else I might do," he said. "I'm open to all possibilities. Whether it's journalism and freelance work or whatever. I think everybody in the business has thought about this. We've had people in the newsroom leave and go to work for politicians, people who left and went into business, people going to school to learn an entirely different trade. They're not giving up on journalism, but they're following their own path. I'm sure I can find my path too. I know there are people in this economy in far, far worse shape than me. One of the people laid off Friday has enough money to get through two or three more mortgage payments. She knows she'll have to sell her house."

He went on, "Journalism is going to survive. It's a strong thing. It's like a river. It may change directions, it may get dirty, but water gets to wherever it needs to go. What journalism needs is an entrepreneurial mind-set. I think these people will emerge. It may get pretty dark today, but I think these people will emerge."

If Robaugh saw the layoffs coming, his business editor, Bob Bong, did not. "It came out of left field," he said. He was eating lunch at his desk when he was summoned by the editor, Michelle Holmes. "I was told because of Chapter 11 my position was terminated," Bong said. "Thirty seconds with the editor and two minutes with human resources. This is your thanks for 22 years of dedicated service."

Sara Burrows told me that four years ago, when she joined Pioneer Press, it had four features editors. Now there's one. Bong said that over the past few years he's seen business coverage diminish from a separate section to a single page. But he also wrote a couple of columns that he thought were popular, one of them on what local businesses are up to and another on video rentals. He felt he'd earned his keep.

"It's death of a thousand cuts," Bong said. "It used to be a really good regional newspaper. I guess you've got to blame Conrad Black, but at least while Conrad Black was robbing the place it was making money."

Bong said a "tiny" security guard saw him out the door as if he were worried Bong would steal something. "There's nothing left to steal," Bong said.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.

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