Bee-leaguered: Newsroom layoffs cut arts, sports coverage to the bone

As many as 12 Sacramento Bee employees may depart following last week’s shakeup

This is an extended and updated version of a story that appears in the June 1, 2017, issue.

Arts coverage is getting a lot less vibrant around the capital region.

The Sacramento Bee cut ties with six editorial staffers last week, rocking a newsroom already weary of staff reductions and sending ripples through the local media landscape. The slashing was expected to bleed into this week with another half-dozen departures crimping The Bee’s local news, sports and opinion coverage, SN&R learned.

According to Ed Fletcher, a Bee reporter and labor representative, as many as 12 employees may be displaced following the May 22 shakeup, including managers and other personnel not covered by the Pacific Media Workers Guild, a labor union representing more than 1,000 industry professionals.

Among those who exited the newspaper last Monday were features writer Blair Anthony Robertson, deputy sports editor Vic Contreras, theater critic Marcus Crowder, critic-at-large Chris Macias and lifestyle reporter Allen Pierleoni. According to his LinkedIn profile, Crowder has been with the newspaper since 2000; Macias joined the newsroom in 1999.

While declining to name the affected employees, Fletcher, who leads the unit representing newsroom and advertising employees, confirmed that The Bee’s feature coverage would be the hardest hit by the reductions, which included five layoffs and one contract buyout. But the next wave of dismissals could cast a wider net, one that snatches away a handful of “very veteran reporters.”

That premonition came true on Wednesday, when Politico reported that longtime Bee columnist Dan Walters accepted a buyout after more than 30 years with the newspaper.

Along with punching out thousands of tough assessments of California politics, Walters was recalled as a mentor by younger reporters, especially those who toiled in the statehouse beat.

Former Bee reporter Jeremy B. White wrote on Twitter that “Walters is a California legend, the model of an old-school reporter’s reporter and also a generous, decent guy. He’ll be missed!”

But it’s likely Walters won’t be the only old lion being released into the wilderness.

“Nobody seems to have a clear picture,” Fletcher wrote in an email Tuesday.

As the Poynter Institute reported, The Bee’s parent company “has laid off staffers from several of its newsrooms in recent weeks,” including eight newsroom employees at The Fresno Bee on May 2. Two days later, a gloomy financial forecast showed the McClatchy Co. lost $95.6 million during the first quarter of 2017.

The demoralizing news at the Midtown-based newspaper comes less than a month after ABC10 declined to renew the contracts of two of its veteran anchors, Cristina Mendonsa and Dale Schornack.

Ironically, Pierleoni reported on the ABC10 decisions for the Sacramento Bee.

Fletcher said the newsroom last experienced modest cuts to its universal copy desk in March. But layoffs and staff buyouts have been a semiperennial occurrence at McClatchy papers since the company purchased the Knight Ridder newspaper chain for $4.5 billion in 2006. A global recession followed and print revenues spiraled, never to recover. McClatchy has worked to transition The Bee into a digital media platform, but online advertising revenues have yet to match what the paper has accrued in debt and lost in declining circulation and print ad sales.

Reporters in the newsroom were taken aback by the latest developments. Senior reporter Brad Branan wrote last Monday that he was “exhausted” by the cycle of attrition on Facebook. “I’d get out, but I love what I do and still believe it is essential, perhaps more than ever,” he wrote.

Branan later learned he was spared from the latest round of cuts, but expressed concern for his “colleagues and the institution of journalism. I don’t blame anyone for this situation, because no publication has figured out an answer.”

Fletcher suggested that readers who cared about local news coverage could show their support by signing up for paid digital subscriptions. “I hope the downsizing is a wake-up call for people who enjoy the news but don’t want to pay for it,” he said.

McClatchy has put a positive spin on its current transitional period. On the webpage devoted to careers, McClatchy boasts that the company “is experiencing the most transformative period in its history. We’re growing rapidly in the digital space and delivering award-winning journalism in innovative ways.”

On the day he was dismissed, Macias was still being advertised on the webpage as a member of “the McClatchy family,” with a smiling photo of Macias and the following quote: “I feel very lucky to work for a company that’s not only allowed me to hone my creativity and journalism skills, but provided me with a fantastic career that’s enriched my life.”

That profile was replaced with another employee’s some time over the next three days.