CPI reduces staff to compensate for $2 million budget hole

The Center for Public Integrity laid off staff today to try to compensate for a $2 million budget shortfall.

Ten positions were eliminated, and five people lost their jobs with the Washington-based nonprofit journalism organization. One of those five people was transferred to a newly-created position within CPI, according to Communications Director Randy Barrett.

Sandy Johnson and Keith Epstein were among those laid off. Johnson started working at the Center one year ago this week. She was the managing editor for politics and government. Epstein was also a managing editor.

“It’s a very difficult position,” said Bill Buzenberg, CPI’s director, who also handled the 2007 layoffs when nine people lost their jobs.

“We started 2011 with a lot of momentum. It was the most money we’ve ever had rolling into 2011. But it’s no surprise that 2011 has been very challenging. And yes, we’ve come in short and had to draw down on our reserves,” Buzenberg said by phone.

Buzenberg and his senior staff have all taken salary cuts, said CPI board chairman Bruce A. Finzen, though he would not provide specific numbers. Finzen said there would be belt-tightening across the board, indicating the layoffs and salary reductions would not make up the deficit.

He said the current $9 million budget will be “reduced between $2 and $3 million, more like $2.5 million. The budget for next year will be in the 6 to 7 million range.”

“Bill and his staff have done a good job of managing this,” said Finzen, “so the board has complete and continued confidence in Bill and his staff.”

Ellen Weiss, who began Oct. 3 as executive editor, will remain with the Center. She was hired to oversee domestic investigations after leaving NPR last January.

Since Labor Day, the Center has hired five key people who make six-figure salaries, acknowledged Finzen. “The people we have hired are a necessary component for us to do what we have to do in order to make the Center work,” he said by phone. “We have to have a senior editor who can really oversee the entire editorial staff. And we need Web guidance and direction, which in part is mandated by the Knight grant.”

These new hires include Weiss, Christine Montgomery, the chief digital officer; R. Jeffrey Smith, managing editor for national security; John Dunbar, managing editor for the financial desk and Gerard Ryle, the new director of the Center’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Currently, there are a little over 50 employees at CPI, which makes it one of the largest nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative centers in the country.

News of the $2 million shortfall first appeared in Politico Monday in a piece by Keach Hagey on a massive, expensive investigative project on tuna fishing that revealed Center journalists relied on a source’s password to access information from an international, inter-governmental database.

Buzenberg would not talk specifically about how those involved with the October 2010 merger between the Huffington Post Investigative Fund and CPI will be affected. At the time, the Center absorbed HuffPost’s investigative arm and eight journalists moved from HuffPost to CPI.

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