This has been a tough week for us,” Orlando Sentinel editor Charlotte Hall said in a July 18 e-mail to her editorial staff. That’s something of an understatement.
The disassembling of this city’s once- proud daily newspaper, as foreshadowed almost a year ago when its parent company was taken over by a multimillionaire businessman with zero media experience, is now in full force, although the paper’s powers that be would rather you didn’t know about it – at least not yet.
Last week, the Orlando Sentinel let go 16 newsroom employees, the first stage of a purge of 20 percent of the paper’s editorial staffers, or about 50 writers and editors. Another seven current vacancies will remain unfilled. Most of those let go took the Sentinel’s buyout offer of two weeks’ pay for every year the person has worked at the paper.
Some of them are heavy hitters. Among the names sources confirmed to the Orlando Weekly: John Kennedy, Tallahassee bureau chief; Tammy Lytle, one of the paper’s two Washington, D.C., bureau reporters; Mark Pinsky, religion writer; Christopher Boyd, business reporter; Maya Bell, Miami bureau chief; Scott Joseph, restaurant critic; Claudia Zequeria, Osceola County schools reporter; Babita Persaud, staff writer; Tim Povtak, sports reporter; and Mary Ann Horne, a project coordinator for the business section.
Newsroom rumors suggest that the next round of cuts will be targeted at what’s left of the paper’s various county bureaus. Sentinel officials aren’t talking. Neither Hall nor human resources consultant Lisa Jacobsen responded to this paper’s interview requests to confirm the list of the pink-slipped.
In fact, in an article published July 17 on Editor & Publisher’s website, Jacobsen “misspoke” about the layoffs. She told E&P that no cutbacks were planned “at this time” and that there is “a lot of misinformation out there. Nothing is happening, nothing is planned.”
An ex-Sentinelian with inside connections told us that was a “blatant, shameful lie.” Realizing the paper had just walked headfirst into a public relations disaster – after all, what’s a newspaper without credibility? – publisher Howard Greenberg called E&P the next day to clarify that no cutbacks were planned beyond the 20 percent staff reduction, and that’s what Jacobsen meant to say.
Hall’s July 18 e-mail told staffers, “Lisa Jacobsen’s comments to E&P were taken out of context and, therefore, did not reflect the situation accurately.” As of press time, E&P hasn’t issued any sort of retraction, however, and the Sentinel hasn’t asked. Publisher Greenberg told E&P that Jacobsen had been unclear.
Word is that Sentinel honchos are very concerned about the list of ex-employees ending up on various blogs about the paper, some of which are written by former Sentinel staffers, including The Amazing Shrinking Sentinel (amazingshrinkingsentinel.blogspot.com) and Sentinel Watch (eyeonthesentinel.blogspot.com). Both of those sites have already published lists of those the paper allegedly let go (though we could not confirm all of those names by press time).
At Sentinel Watch, former Sentinel columnist Maria Padilla lays out her take on the paper’s unwillingness to talk: “The hyper-loco folks at the Orlando Sentinel are also becoming hyper paranoids. I have heard from many of you in these last few days. One of the most disturbing e-mails talked about the level of deceit practiced by the top editors in not putting out a list of who’s going or gone. Not wanting to put things down on paper because they don’t want this news to appear in print, online, anytime. Not wanting to report to the public in its very own pages the extent of the bloodshed, its effect on the paper, staff and general mayhem.”
It’s very true that, especially on the editorial pages, the Sentinel has taken many a politician, business and government to task for not being transparent and accountable to the community. Apparently, it’s also true that the paper doesn’t always practice what it preaches.
Most newspapers tell their readers in advance when newsroom cuts are coming. The Sentinel did not. According to Hall’s e-mail, the Sentinel will report on the cuts, eventually: “As you know, we have another round of cuts coming at the end of the month, and numbers can change up to the last minute. At that time, we will do a news story when the process is complete.”[email protected]