"Forget That Murder — Get In Here and Bring Your BlackBerry"

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Stewart Warren might have felt queasier if she’d given the letter her full attention. But it was late last Saturday afternoon, she’d been running errands all day, had two parties to get ready for in the evening, and she was exhausted. Thursday night she’d worked her second job, tending bar. Friday night for whatever reason she couldn’t get to sleep.

So the form letter from Blue Cross Blue Shield puzzled her when it should have frightened her. A lot of it was boilerplate:

1. Date of this certificate: 10/19/2010
2. Name of Health Plan: Sun-Times Media Productions Inc.
3. Name of any participant to whom this certificate applies: Stewart Warren

Her eye ran down the page.

10. Date coverage began: 07/01/2005
11. Date coverage ended: 11/01/2010

The 2005 date was when Blue Cross took over her health insurance. But what was that second date about? Why would her coverage end? She reminded herself that a month or two ago there’d been some sort of change in the health plan at the Herald-News in Joliet, where she was a reporter. She supposed the letter had something to do with that. She’d call someone Monday and find out.

“I wrote it off to my old Blue Cross Blue Shield becoming the new Blue Cross Blue Shield,” she told me Wednesday. “That’s what I thought it was. I was obviously wrong.”

Warren began working for the Herald-News as a police reporter in 1993, back when the paper was owned by the Copley chain. In 2001 Conrad Black’s Hollinger International purchased all of Copley’s daily and weekly papers in the greater Chicago area, the Herald-News among them, and when Hollinger collapsed a few years later the paper became part of the Sun-Times Media Group. Financier James Tyree bought the bankrupt company last October and renamed it Sun-Times Media, and in the teeth of a relentlessly hostile economy CEO Jeremy Halbreich has been attempting to put the company back on its feet.

No job is safe at Sun-Times Media and everyone who works there understands that. Even the company spokesperson, the official I’d call for comment on layoffs, was just laid off herself.

Monday morning found Warren working her beat, the Will County government and courthouse. She decided to check on a murder case in courtroom 405, and she would remember later that at exactly the same time as she was opening the courtroom door she glanced at her company-issued BlackBerry. There was a message from David Monaghan, the managing editor, summoning her to a mandatory meeting back at the paper in Plainfield.

“I was hoping it wasn’t what I thought it was,” Warren told me. “I immediately called Bob Okon, he’s a reporter and our union [Chicago Newspaper Guild] rep. I said, ‘Is there a mandatory meeting for everybody? And he said, ‘I don’t know anything about it.’ And I said, ‘They’re going to lay me off. Would you check?’”

A moment later, says Warren, Monaghan called. “Did you get my message? Don’t be late,” he said. "Are you going to lay me off?" Warren asked him, and he replied, "Well, there are personnel issues."

Then Okon called back and said she was out.

Warren says, "I kind of knew it was coming. Things have been going badly at the paper — at all papers — and there were two people laid off earlier this year. And I’m a worrier. I just worry about things. Not enough, though, to have backed up the numbers on my BlackBerry, and I knew I’d have to turn it in.”

She’d stored a couple of hundreds of phone numbers on her BlackBerry, many of them belonging to current judges and former judges. One was the cell number of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride, currently the target of a vicious and highly newsworthy campaign to deny him reelection next Tuesday. I wrote a long story about him,” Warren explains. “He was a very nice person and I kept his number.”

She didn’t want to lose all those numbers. “At the stoplights I copied as many of the numbers as I could. I felt like an idiot. I got about ten of them written down.”

When Warren reached the office she saw Monaghan, went through the formalities, and turned over her BlackBerry. She hated to give it up without copying all the numbers in it, but she didn’t want to make trouble for herself; she’d heard what a hard time Monaghan gave Herald-News photographer Liz Wilkinson Allen when she was laid off in June but didn’t immediately turn in her laptop because it was at home.

Allen tells me that the next day Monaghan called her at home and told her to bring it in, which she didn't want to do because she didn't want to show up back at the paper. Then Monaghan informed the paper's I.T. guy by email that he’d cracked the whip. Allen read me the email, which guild rep Bob Okon forwarded to her: "Liz is a real pain. She has the laptop but refuses to come to the paper so she wants someone to meet her to get it from her. I told her. . . my next call will be to the police." (Allen says she was dumbfounded when she read the email because Monaghan had told her no such thing. She says she had no intention of keeping the laptop, a Sun-Times hand-me-down that barely worked, and a colleague picked it up and delivered it the next morning.)

“I’m stupid, I should have gotten out sooner but it’s definitely a lifestyle,” says Warren. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just think the Herald-News will turn into the Sun-Times Southwest, and most of our copy will be Sun-Times and they’ll have a bunch of stringers out here and, if they’re lucky, one or two reporters.”

Late Monday afternoon, after she’d cleared out of the Herald-News, she remembered the letter from Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“And I called Blue Cross Blue Shield and said, ‘Hey, what does this letter mean?’ The very nice man told me ‘It means you’re not going to have any insurance after the First.’ Of course I knew that. I said, ‘This letter is dated the 19th of October.’ And I asked this nice young man at Blue Cross, could he tell me the date he received the go-ahead from the company to cut off my insurance on November 1. At first he told me he couldn’t find it out, but then he said, ‘Oh, wait, I do have the date.” And he told me October 2. “

There is no good way to be laid off. Some layoffs are more bittersweet than others — Liz Allen, for instance, was laid off two years to the day after her husband, David Allen, who'd been a sportswriter for Sun-Times Media's Sun papers and is now teaching first grade in a public school (and covering some prep sports as a Tribune stringer). And some are simply maladroit. As layoffs have been quietly made across Sun-Times Media over the past several weeks — one here, a couple there, occasionally three or four — it's probably inevitable that a few would get seriously screwed up. Having just been cashiered herself, Sun-Times Media spokesperson Tammy Chase at least didn't have to explain a process in which the company waited so long to inform a veteran reporter after deciding to get rid of her that the first notice she got came from her health insurer when it canceled her policy.

I called Monaghan and asked him about Warren and Allen. He said Warren's Blue Cross letter was news to him, and he didn’t remember a problem with Allen’s laptop — though “If she wasn’t going to return property we’d have to report it to the police for the insurance.”

During our brief conversation I wondered why I was sounding so confrontational. I said I was sorry about the call, and these must be terrible times for him too. “Yeah,” Monaghan said bleakly, “it’s tough when the business is struggling.”

UPDATE: Thursday, 10/28, photographer John Patsch laid off from the Herald-News.

UPDATE: Sun-Times Media group publisher John Barron tells me that he, CEO Jeremy Halbreich, and general counsel James McDonough all will be filling in for Tammy Chase. As to the matter at hand, Barron says Stewart Warren's badly executed dismissal was "obviously a very unfortunate mistake we’re not going to make again."

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