Can the Free Press Survive the Mass Exodus of Experience And Talent?

September 12, 2012, 8:39 PM by  Allan Lengel

The strange gurgling noise you hear on W. Lafayette Blvd is the sound of talent trickling down the drain.

Since last summer, the paper has lost 20 staffers, who quit for a variety of reasons, and it soon will lose 22 more reporters, editors and photographers who have accepted a buyout offer from the Gannett Company, the Free Press’ Virginia-based owner.

In all, the 42 departures represent about 20 percent of the staff, and the employees who will have left include three Pulitzer winners, the paper’s No. 2 and No. 3 editors, the No. 2 sports columnist, the outdoors writer, the politics editor, photo editor, auto editor, the top Web writer and the investigations editor, plus nationally known reporters who have covered their beats for years.

In 2005, just before Gannett bought the Free Press, the staff numbered about 320. It will soon be about 180.

The recent exodus is unprecedented in size for local media outlets, and it has shaken the staff and left the top management searching for talent to fill a few of the positions.

“I think it’s worse than anything else we’ve absorbed,” says veteran Free Press reporter Jim Schaefer, who shared the Pulitzer for the Kwame Kilpatrick text-message scandal.

“To me it’s very depressing because of the talent level of those leaving and the institutional memory that’s going to be walking out of the door forever.

Some staffers quit out of frustration or for a better job, or both, or out of concern about management and its vision, or because of the shaky prognosis for a shrinking newspaper industry that has shed talent around the country through resignations, layoffs and buyouts.

Paul Anger, the Free Press editor and publisher, did not return a call seeking comment.

The Detroit News, whose staff is younger than that of the Free Press, is losing only six people from this round of buyouts, which required that eligible employees be at least 56 years old and have a minimum of 20 years of service. They will receive a year’s salary and health insurance.

Ashenfelt1208 Ashenfelter SmallFree Press reporter David Ashenfelter, 63, who won a Pulitzer in 1982 while working at the Detroit News, said it was time for him to retire from the paper.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Ashenfelter said. “I did pretty much what I wanted to do. I pretty much accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish.

Joe Swickard, 64, one of the top crime reporters in the city for decades, doesn’t buy into the doom-and-gloom scenario for the paper. He praised colleagues who are remaining, mentioning metro editor James Hill, deputy metro editor Amalie Nash and reporters Robin Erb and Kathy Gray.

“People like that are going to pull the Free Press through, get it through a rough patch,” he said.

Beside the talent drain, there’s also union leadership that is leaving, or has already left,  just as contract negotiations approach. M.L. Elrick, who left for Fox 2 Detroit this summer, was one of the guild’s biggest supporters, and Jocelyn Heard, head of the Free Press unit and a veteran contract bargainer, is taking the buyout.  Lou Mleczko, president of the Newspaper Guild, calls it a big loss for the union as well as the newsroom.Joe Swick161656 771098135 611967 N

Schaefer says there is still good a talent at the paper, but he believes readers will see a difference.

“Until we get some people in here and train them and cover the important things in the metro area, they are not going to see the great stuff” departing staffers were putting out.

He added: “We’re not going to be able to cover things as broadly as we once did. But we’ll do the best with what we’ve got.”

Elrick, who also won won a Pulitzer for the Kilpatrick text message scandal, echoes the sentiments of Schaefer, his former investigative partner.

"It's impact is almost impossible to gauge," he said of the departures of the seasoned veterans. "It's seismic. The gray beards, if you will, are the people some of the experienced reporters turned to for guidance. They can't be replaced."

In addition to Ashenfelter, Swickard and Heard, some of the Free Press staffers leaving in the coming weeks include:

Health writer Pat Anstett; Associate Editor Ron Dzwonkowski; Director of Photography Craig Porter, photographers Pat Beck, William Archie and Susan Tusa; Politics Editor Bob Campbell; Lansing reporter Dawson Bell, Outdoors Writer Eric Sharp and Editorial Writer Barb Arrigo.

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