How mass layoffs in 2013 changed the lives of former Plain Dealer staffers
On July 31, 2013, after the layoff calls came, some of the current and now-former staff of The Plain Dealer got together for drinks at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland. Newsrooms around the country called in and bought drinks for those gathered -- $4,933 worth of drinks, Eric Sandy reported the next day for Cleveland Scene.
That day, more than 50 people had been laid off from The Plain Dealer.
"We drank for free all night," John Horton remembered.
"It was bittersweet because we were together, we were supporting each other but we knew that so many of us, myself included, were not going to be going back to the building ever again," Ellen Kleinerman said.
Kleinerman and Horton were there. So were Donald Rosenberg and John Mangels. One guy, Harlan Spector remembers, drove up from Pittsburgh just to lend a shoulder if needed. "It’s so touching that somebody would feel compelled to do that," he said.
“It was strange, I guess it was sort of like a wake in a way, but everybody was very compassionate about everyone else’s situation," Rosenberg, who covered arts and wine for the paper, said. “The people that survived were very empathetic of the people who were leaving. The people who were leaving were very concerned about what was going to happen next.”
"Our emotions were pretty raw, as you can imagine," Mangels said. Although he said the night was "a bit of a blur, unfortunately," he, too, remembers that it "felt like a wake," but also a graduation. And more notable: "We didn't talk shop, which was the normal topic when journalists gather. We talked about ourselves and our families, our fears and hopes for the future. I remember talking to one of the graphic artists, a talented guy who was hoping to reinvent himself as a long-haul trucker."
"I think everyone realized that things were changing," Horton said. "In a way you're saying goodbye to a lot of people and the way things were and going into an unknown territory."
"I think we all were aware that it was the last time we'd be together as newspaper journalists, but that we'd always share that bond," Mangels said.
One year later, we've caught up with some of those journalists who were laid off from The Plain Dealer. We couldn't get every story, and we'd like to hear more: Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have one to share.
John Horton: 'I was making a long-term decision'
Being a reporter was John Horton's dream job. In elementary school, he delivered the paper for three years, lugging the heavy bag with newspapers up and down Cleveland streets. He worked at The Plain Dealer for 14 years. During the last five years, Horton wrote a column called "Road Rant," writing about people's complaints about issues including bad roads and potholes. One year ago, Horton took a voluntary buyout.
"I was making a long term decision," he said.
"I was going to bet on what they were doing, or I was going to bet on my ability to transition into another career."
A few weeks later, Horton started his current job in media relations at Cuyahoga Community College. Now, he still works with journalists and looks for good stories. Horton didn't leave with hard feelings, he said.
"I loved every day that I was there."
After the layoffs, Horton started running with his 13-year-old son. It cleared his head. He still runs nearly every day, has lost 20 pounds in the past year and ran a half-marathon. He truly enjoys what he's doing now, he said, but "to be honest, there aren't a lot of of jobs that are cooler than being a reporter. I mean, that's what Superman was."
"I miss the daily challenge that you had, the feeling that you were doing something larger that made a big difference, fighting that fight every day," Horton said. "I think journalism is one of the few jobs that really has that aspect to it."
He doesn't miss the situation at The Plain Dealer or the stress, though. No job comes with guarantees, but for him, the day-to-day worries about what was coming next were too much.
"Leaving that was a relief."
Ellen Kleinerman: ‘It was a calling’
Ellen Kleinerman didn't realize how stressful the months leading up to the layoffs were until it was all over. Kleinerman, who worked for The Plain Dealer for 14 years, did not volunteer for the layoffs.
"I was just an emotional mess," she said. "It wasn't just a job for me. It was a career. It was a calling. It was something that I would get up every day and feel like, this is what I want to do. It just was more than a job."
Kleinerman, who covered medical issues when the layoffs happened, did a lot of networking after she recovered from the news. She freelanced. Then, in February, she drove for an hour through a snowstorm to get to calling hours for a friend's mother. The whole time she thought, “I’m really crazy to do this. I should just turn around. She’ll understand if I don’t attend. But it’s the right thing to do."
There, Kleinerman bumped into another colleague who was starting a new job at a chain of weekly newspapers. That chain was looking for a new editor.
One month after applying, Kleinerman went in for an interview.
"So now I'm in newspapers again," she said. "It's different, but it's exciting."
Kleinerman is the editor of the Chagrin Valley Times, the Solon Times and the Geauga Courier.
Kleinerman has seen a lot of change in 30 years as a reporter and editor. She still reads The Plain Dealer, and she misses it. But she doesn't miss the stress.
"I guess there's life after The Plain Dealer," she said. "And it can be an OK life."
Bob Fortuna: ‘I don’t miss it. How sad is that?’
About five months after high school sports reporter Bob Fortuna left The Plain Dealer, he was selected for the Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame alongside his former colleague, Tim Rogers.
A story about the honor ran at Cleveland.com, but no reporter at the newspaper reached out to him for it. Still, said Fortuna, who covered high schools for 36 years and worked at The Plain Dealer since 1990, "It was a nice way to finish.”
Now, Fortuna's a one-man interior painting and landscaping business. A realtor friend has set him up with clients, and he's getting work from former Plain Dealer colleagues, too.
“Since I was at The Plain Dealer, I haven’t seen the chiropractor once," he said. "I used to go once a month.” His headaches are gone, and he dropped 25 pounds. "Mentally and physically, this is the best I’ve felt in 15 years.”
Since volunteering to leave, Fortuna has turned 60 and celebrated 30 years of marriage with his wife. “There is life after The Plain Dealer, believe it or not," he said. "And that life ain’t too bad, either.”
Fortuna misses the athletes and the coaches from his beat, but says he doesn't miss dealing with parents and the media frenzy around National Signing Day.
And when it comes to painting, Fortuna immediately knew that was the path forward after ending his career at a job that was increasingly demanding. He always enjoyed painting — “I just never had the time to do it," he said. "With the social media thing, they want you 24/7. You don’t have a life.” His wife “saw what it was doing to me. She said, ‘you gotta get outta there.’” So he volunteered to go.
“People ask me if I miss it, and I don’t miss it," he said. "How sad is that?”
John Mangels: 'I think we had some success'
"I’m still kind of coming to terms with the fact that I’m not and probably never will be again a newspaper journalist," John Mangels said. Mangels found a job as a communications manager for the Cleveland Clinic after a couple months of looking.
"I was fairly fortunate," Mangels said. The time off "was tough psychologically, but I was fortunate to go back," he said. At the new gig, he oversees production of more than 10 print products.
"I use a lot of the same muscles that I did as a newspaper journalist," Mangels said.
Mangels volunteered for the layoffs list but said he found the job market to be "grim."
"For someone who has skills that I thought would be translatable ... people weren't beating a path to my door, let’s just say it that way." He said he was "really lucky to thread the needle. I found a job in Cleveland," one he not only likes but that lets him continue to write.
Mangels was a science writer for the newspaper and helped organize a campaign called Save The Plain Dealer, a preemptive strike against any plans to cut staff at The Plain Dealer. The paper's owner, Advance, had made wrenching changes at many of its other properties as it prepared to become a digitally focused organization.
"We'd known, deep down, from the beginning of the campaign that the odds of preserving the paper as it existed were long, probably impossible," Mangels said. "But it was important to us to try -- to alert the community to what was happening, and to try to mitigate some of the more drastic things Advance was planning. I think we had some success."
John Luttermoser: Working on projects with meaning
John Luttermoser worked at The Plain Dealer for 21 years as a copy editor. Before that he worked at the St. Petersburg Times. Now he's "working part-time as business administrator for the Presbytery of the Western Reserve, a regional group of Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations in the Cleveland area," he writes in an email. "I'm also doing some free-lance editing and I've continued my volunteer work as secretary of the board for the Dougbe River Presbyterian School, which opened in 2012 in a remote region of eastern Liberia that didn't previously have a school."
Peggy Turbett: ‘Photography has never been more important’
Peggy Turbett worked for 13 years as a staff photographer at The Plain Dealer. Her first plan, after learning she'd been laid off, was to work as a reading tutor at an elementary school once a week, "to decompress, I guess, and then figure out the rest as it came along," she said in an email.
That tutoring gig turned into an after-school camera club that met twice a week for four months. During the time, she said, she got a call asking if she'd teach photojournalism at John Carroll University. A colleague from The Plain Dealer who also taught there suggested Turbett.
"That kind of networking has been crucial," she said. "If someone asked me to lunch or dinner, I went. Invited to join a local professional women’s group – I did. I also filled out my camera gear with an additional camera body and long lens to handle professional freelance assignments. In the past year I’ve photographed weddings, anniversaries, holiday portraits, high school sports programs, and magazine stories."
Now, she has several photo projects and continues teaching as an adjunct. Turbett misses the salary and benefits, but not the schedule.
"The interesting dichotomy is that photography has never been more important – visuals are needed in every industry and social media outlet," Turbett said. "But the prospect for veteran photojournalists to find jobs at daily newspapers is grim to none, from what I’ve seen. The New York Daily News just laid off David Handschuh, with three decades of experience, a former president of NPPA, and who was gravely injured while covering the 9/11 World Trade Center attack for the paper. I mean, really, how can any staff photojournalist feel safe?"
Scott Shaw: Business is booming
Scott Shaw worked at The Plain Dealer for 23 years. He writes in an email: "I've been very busy working on my wedding and portrait photography business. I started about five years ago on the side in anticipation of the industry issues. I volunteered to be laid off and it has been a fun challenge! I plan on doing more commercial and photojournalism work in the future but right now I don't have spare time for that."
Margaret Bernstein: Making a living 'while doing good'
Margaret Bernstein was a few weeks away from her 24th anniversary with the Plain Dealer when she took the voluntary buyout. Bernstein wrote a column twice a week that was "solution-oriented," she said in an email, informing people how they could make a difference in the city, "particularly with helping people get out of poverty."
Her job led to research on issues such as literacy and parent mentoring, and Bernstein thought with all she knew, she could make a living while "doing good."
"I am now a self-employed consultant, and my 'call to action' style has become my brand," Bernstein said. "I helped design and am currently promoting a 'Top 10 Ways You Can Improve Literacy In Greater Cleveland' campaign for a local organization, The Literacy Cooperative. I’m also facilitating the spread of the Little Free Library 'movement' in Cleveland." She's also working to finish a book she has spent 12 years working on about Cleveland activist Yvonne Pointer.
Bernstein misses her co-workers. She doesn't miss deadlines.
"I’ve still got them," she said, "but they’re nowhere as pressure-filled these days."
Harlan Spector: 'My heart's still in journalism'
Harlan Spector became the chairman of The Plain Dealer's Guild in 2008. "That was a difficult year, and it didn’t get any easier after that," he said.
He worked at the paper for 23 years, as a medical writer and later a higher education reporter. There were a lot of good years, too, back in the '90s when "the money was flowing, the contracts were good, we got raises every year, the health coverage was superb."
Volunteering for the buyout was "one of the more difficult decisions I had to make because I do love journalism and always will," Spector said. "I thought about it in terms of what was happening, and there was some money on the table, and if I was ever going to make a move it seemed like the time to do it."
He used to think "I'm going to be a journalist forever," Spector said. "At 54” -- his age last July -- “I didn't see myself lasting that long."
Now he does freelance writing and contract writing, including some work for local medical systems. He's got a number of gigs, including stringing for Bloomberg News and doing research for an out-of-state company.
"I’m independent and I like that," he said. He doesn't mind the record-keeping and planning one has to do as a freelancer: "To me it’s no different from the kind of multitasking I did in the newsroom," he said.
And there are other benefits: "This summer is the first summer in my adult life I was actually home. I could also go up to the ball field and throw pitches to my son."
Asked whether he'd consider another journalism job, he said, "Yeah. My heart's still in journalism." But he probably wouldn't go back to a newspaper.
"I don't know that I'd want to walk back into something like that. Because, I think, in a matter of time they're just going to be gone."
Mike O'Malley: 'I couldn’t just be a shill for the corporate world'
Mike O'Malley may yet consider a non-staff job. "Harlan's pushing me pretty hard to do freelancing," he said of his friend Harlan Spector. After getting laid off last July, O'Malley has looked for a traditional newsroom gig, but "It's hard to find work when you're 63," he said. "At least work that you enjoy."
O'Malley joined the paper in 1990 and was most recently its religion reporter. "When we first left we all felt that we've got some good skills and it would be easy to get a job, but that's not the case, especially in journalism," he said. He tried some small newspapers around northeastern Ohio but it wasn’t enough money.
"I've been a reporter for 33 years and all of a sudden I'm not a reporter anymore," he said. "It's hard to take."
When O'Malley first came to The Plain Dealer, "there were guys that were close to 80" still working as reporters, he said. "You could stay as long as you wanted to stay. It was a big city newspaper and it was a damn good job."
O'Malley wants to stay in Cleveland, where he plays bass and guitar in an Irish band -- "We don't make much money, it's more of a hobby" -- and joined the board of a coalition for the homeless. "I’m kind of adjusting to the fact that I can be an advocate now," he said.
He said he'd applied for a couple of communication jobs, but he'd only consider something in the nonprofit arena: "I couldn't just be a shill for the corporate world."
O'Malley was on his way to Youngstown when we talked. He was planning to work on a story about a faculty member who years ago hit a winning run on an integrated youth baseball team but couldn't take part in the ensuing celebration at a segregated pool.
He's hoping to sell it to a national outlet. "This is what I do. I interview people and I write stories," he said.
Regina Brett: Book-writing career going strong
Regina Brett, a columnist for The Plain Dealer, said leaving voluntarily “gave me the chance to possibly save someone else from being laid off.” She still writes a weekly column for The Plain Dealer and writes for the Cleveland Jewish News. Since leaving, she’s been able to dedicate more time to her book-writing career: “My first book, God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life's Little Detours, was a New York Times bestseller and is in 26 countries,” she writes in an email.
“The second book, Be the Miracle: 50 Lessons for Making the Impossible Possible, came out two years ago.” Both books, she notes, are “currently bestsellers in Poland.” Brett’s third book, “a collection of inspirational essays for finding fulfillment at work,” is scheduled for release next April.
John Kroll: Still says 'we’ when he talks about the paper
"It seems like I’ve been through at least three different Cleveland Comebacks in the last 30 years," John Kroll said. He came to The Plain Dealer from Detroit, so "Cleveland never looked as bad as people said it did," he said, laughing.
Kroll was the paper's online editor, responsible for getting Plain Dealer content online when he volunteered for a layoff. Advance's umbrella site Cleveland.com already had an editor-in-chief, and while Kroll had spent years telling colleagues the business was going to move toward digital, "there was a great deal of freedom" in his position. "That freedom to be calling your own shots was going to go away," he said. He thought, "If you're going to leave, do it now, leave on a high note."
Kroll minored in computer science and has always been a tech-head. He was an early adopter of the Osborne 1, one of the first portable computers, and he started a podcast and wrote stories about the Internet when he was editor of The Plain Dealer's business wire.
"One thing to understand is I spent all those years training people to get ready for this move," he said. Many of his colleagues not only "didn't believe online was the future but actively hoped it wasn't," he said.
Kroll has used the past year to finish a master's in education at Cleveland State University. He had back surgery after that and said he's "just getting back into circulation." He still writes about news' digital future.
Kroll's wife works for The Plain Dealer's news hub as a curator -- "everything has a new name.” His severance runs out next month, so "things get serious from this point on," he said, but fortunately for me, we're in good shape financially. I was a business editor and I actually paid attention to what I was covering."
Kroll said he still finds himself saying "we" when he talks about Plain Dealer stories each day. "It's 28 years, what do you expect!"
Dave Davis: 'It’s really hard for journalists to leave journalism'
If Dave Davis had stayed at The Plain Dealer for another week, he'd have marked his 24th anniversary at the newspaper. "It was really sudden," he said.
But Davis, who volunteered to be laid off, had figured for some time that he wasn't long for the paper. "For the last few years everybody thought they’d been under such a cloud." Required to change his login password on a work computer monthly, he'd begun using new passwords to count months when he still had a job: "01," "02" and so on. He was at "33" last July.
Youngstown State University had offered him a job in May, the same month Davis was anticipating The Plain Dealer would begin its layoffs, which had been anticipated for months. "I'm not walking away from that, a year's health-care and severance," he said. But as the months passed, Davis and the university stayed in touch, and they finally reached an agreement that he'd begin the next January. He's now a full-time faculty member in Youngstown's journalism school.
Davis had already been dabbling in teaching, at Cleveland State University and John Carroll University. "The kids energized me, they weren’t jaded, so I sort of liked that it gave me more energy and made me sort of look at the world differently," he said.
Youngstown is "a really special place to me," Davis said. "A third of the kids are the first in their family to go to college. Most of these kids have a full-time job."
Davis said he tries to teach his students to "be ready for the changes: I say, 'Look, you've got to report things well, you have to do your storytelling well, whether that's reporting, blogging, video, audio -- and you can't make mistakes."
That's even tougher in a world without an "army of copy editors" like the one that used to greet his copy, he acknowledged. "I tell students that it's basically Journalism 101: There are a lot of people out there who don't like us that well and are hoping we'll make mistakes so they can beat up on us."
"It’s really hard for journalists to leave journalism even if they don’t think the future’s that bright," he said. Moving to teaching full-time fed the idea that he was still helping and contributing to his community. "I was always proud to walk through the door of the newspaper every day." The university gig in many ways offers the same feeling, Davis said. "And summers off are nice."
Joe Maxse: 'I feel bad for the younger guys'
High school sports reporter Joe Maxse left The Plain Dealer because he was uncertain about what he'd be assigned to do next. Previously, he had covered a range of sports beats, from the Cleveland Indians to boxing to Division-III football. "At my age I didn't want to work the night police beat, you know what I mean?"
He misses the people in the newsroom but doesn't miss the job as much as he thought he would. "I was fortunate I was there during the good times," he said. "I feel really bad for the younger reporters, editors and photographers who did not have as much time as me."
For now, Maxse, 62, is enjoying the time off: "People keep asking me, 'Are you going to get another job?' I just had one for 36 years! Isn’t that enough?"
It's "good to recharge the batteries," he said. "Would I like to get back to it? Yeah, a little bit, but I’m not going to work for $50 a story."
Adrian Johnson: Was happy to get out
When Adrian Johnson was told not to come to work last July 31, he was relieved. He was told about nine months earlier that another round of job cuts was coming, and now he didn’t have to spend any more time in a newsroom that he says had become a “toxic environment.”
“Sometimes hearing news like that sets you free, and that’s what happened,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who had been an art major in college, got into the newspaper business because he loved the variety. But over the course of 18 years, he realized that journalism was really about helping a community.
That’s why, before he lost his job as a layout editor, he’d already begun taking classes toward a master's degree in public administration. After he was laid off, he pushed himself to get good grades so he could get a job as a graduate assistant. And when he graduates in December, he hopes to work for the city of Cleveland or a government agency in the Cleveland area as an economic developer, helping businesses grow.
Last month, he met up with some current and former employees from The Plain Dealer at a bar in the suburbs of Cleveland. He hugged his former co-workers and asked about their kids. Three had left the company and three were still working at the newspaper, holding onto their benefits and making sure they had enough money to retire, he said.
Johnson understands why they stayed and misses exchanging banter with his colleagues — but he’s happy to be starting a new career.
“I think the way things are going right now, I’m glad I was laid off,” Johnson said.
Donald Rosenberg: ‘Suddenly, I was not as beholden to deadlines’
Former arts reporter Donald Rosenberg, 62, was The Plain Dealer's classical-music critic until 2008, when he was tumultuously reassigned to cover dance and other arts. He also wrote about wine.
Rosenberg, who joined The Plain Dealer in 1992, estimated there are only 20 full-time classical-music critics left at daily newsrooms in the U.S. So when he was looking for new work after last year's layoff, he said, “I knew that was not a possibility."
Instead, he continued teaching music criticism at Oberlin College and in Case Western University's Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning Program. The trained musician writes for Gramophone, Symphony Magazine and other publications, and he's a founding editor of Classical Voice North America, the journal of the Music Critics Association of North America. Free of any conflicts of interest, he also helps out arts organizations he previously covered by writing essays for program books and doing lectures.
Four weeks ago, Rosenberg became editor of EMAg, Early Music America’s quarterly magazine. It's what he calls a "half-time" job, and it's one he can do from home: "You can do anything on the Internet these days, so the people who work for this organization are all over the country."
After being laid off, Rosenberg said, "My first thought was, well I’ve been in daily journalism nearly 36 years. Now it’s time to try something else."
“Suddenly, I was not as busy or as beholden to deadlines. That took some getting used to, but I did," he said. "Now that I’m doing a quarterly magazine, the deadlines are way far ahead. I was used to a daily journalism deadline, and now things are stretched out a lot.”
His advice for other journalists who find themselves working from home after decades in a newsroom: “Stay out of the kitchen. Make sure you get exercise, walk around a lot. ... Stay in touch with people. Make sure you don’t become a hermit.”
Bill Piotrowski: Couldn't stay away from a newsroom
Bill Piotrowski responded to the layoffs in an unusual fashion: He got married and bought a house.
He and his new wife (they were married in September) took his severance, which amounted to a year’s salary, and put a down payment on a five-bedroom residence in the suburbs of Cleveland. They had older children from different marriages who sometimes stopped by to visit.
“It was the whole Brady Bunch thing,” Piotrowski said.
Still, life after The Plain Dealer was tough. Piotrowski, a layout editor, had offers to sell insurance and work at Frito-Lay, but those jobs didn’t appeal to him. He had chosen not to take a buyout because he wanted to work in journalism; he wanted to come into a newsroom every day and fit stories onto a page, solve design problems and work with other journalists. Plus, Cleveland was his home. He was born and raised there and had been honored to work at its biggest newspaper.
“I read The Plain Dealer sports pages over my Cocoa Puffs when I was a kid,” he said.
Then, about nine months after he was laid off, Piotrowski saw a job ad: The (Toledo, Ohio) Blade was hiring a layout editor. There was only one problem — The Blade was two hours away from his new house. But his wife told him that his face lit up when he saw the ad. They decided to make it work.
Now, he lives and works in the Toledo area five days a week and returns home on his days off. The hassle is worth it.
“When I walked into the newsroom after not being in one for nine months, I think my heart just soared,” Piotrowski said.