The Fort Worth Star-Telegram is the best newspaper of the seven I worked for in 40-plus years. And that's saying something because some of the places I worked were very, very good.
Had a great time at most of them, and the sports departments were so much fun everywhere. Made lots of great friends, saw lots of great work, took pride in all of it.
Two of the papers I worked for (two of the best) are gone -- the Shreveport Journal folded in 1991, The Honolulu Advertiser was bought out two years ago by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- a rare instance where the afternoon paper survived and the morning paper didn't -- and merged into the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Many friends lost their jobs in those closures. These days that's part of the business, a hurtful part.
But I never worked with as much talent as at the Star-Telegram. With Celeste Williams in charge, leadership in sports was outstanding and, I believe, so was the product. Our sports section from 2001 through much of the decade was as good as any paper in the country; yes, even The Dallas Morning News. Consistent top-10 honors in the annual Associated Press Sports Editor contest proved that.
When I went to work there in December 2001, we had 85 fulltime sports people -- yes, 85 -- plus a bunch of parttimers. (A comparison: When I started at The Shreveport Times in May 1969, I became the sixth fulltime sports person.)
At Star-Telegram sports, we put out a big section almost daily, including three "zoned" pages for high schools most days during the school year.
We covered everything, most of it in detail. We had resources and, in my estimation, brilliant talent, both writing and inside the office. Our sections looked spectacular most days, and read well.
It all changed on Thursday, April 17, 2008. That day the layoffs began.
It started with eight "middle managers" being told they were gone, immediately. Our loss in sports that day was John Henry, who the night before -- as "night editor" -- had stayed extra late to get in the NBA playoffs pairings (it was the final night of the regular season).
John had been at the Star-Telegram 15 years. Obviously, there were many people in the department with less experience, less tenure and considerably less talent. We would come to find out that none of these factors mattered in subsequent layoffs/buyouts.
The people in charge told us that layoffs would be done by seniority. But, but, but ... that was only within your particular realm (assigning editors, writers, copy editors, designers, etc.)
Yet in the second round of layoffs, we lost an outdoors writer (Bob Hood) who had been at the paper 40-plus years; we lost an auto racing writer (John Sturbin) -- one of the best in the country, in my opinion -- who had been there 25 years. Hello, seniority.
It didn't make much sense.
We kept losing good people. Some left on their own, having located better jobs. Some took the buyouts, with no set plans. Some just got caught in the layoffs. Many of my favorite writers at the paper (David Casstevens, Pete Alfano, Mary Rogers, Gary West, Lori Dann, the best college sports writer/columnist in the country, Wendell Barnhouse) eventually moved on. So did a couple of good friends on the sports desk, the inside crew.
We lost promising young talent, and seasoned veterans. Each time it was very difficult.
By my count, the Star-Telegram has gone through seven layoff/buyout phases. But I might have lost count; in his Fort Worth Magazine article about the state of the paper and the newspaper business last month, ex-S-T editorial page editor Paul K. Harral says there have been 14 phases.
I survived five layoffs. By the time my layoff notice came -- in early May a year ago -- I was ready to go. I found night work increasingly tiring (after mostly 40-plus years of it), and my wife had been trying to get me to let go. We looked at the buyout offers, but they really were no better than the layoff package.
It was easier for me to go than for a lot of people because I am near the end of my career.
The mental strain of working knowing that layoffs could be coming ... again ... was tough. I'm sure it's still that way. I am working parttime, a couple of nights a week at the S-T, because I want to, not because I need to, but the remaining fulltime people there know their time might be coming.
Each time there were layoffs/buyouts, the publisher and editor had staff meetings thanking us for our hard work, urging us to continue to put out the best papers we could, and spinning the thought (the hope) that economic circumstances/revenue stream could improve.
Hasn't happened. One-week furloughs (time off without pay; in other words, a pay cut) have been a reality for a few years and continue.
I counted the other day and the sports department is down to 35 fulltimers, plus a double-digit number of "contract workers" like myself.
The talk is that the McClatchy Company, which owns 30 daily papers in the U.S. and which surely overpaid to purchase the Knight Ridder chain -- including the Star-Telegram -- six years ago, and other chains might soon have most of its employees be "contract workers."
That is, workers paid by the hour at a lower rate (and for fewer hours), with no health/vacation benefits, and no longtime ties. Think the three-day workweek for the paper isn't possible?
And McClatchy reportedly has a huge debt payment due next year. With its stock price having plummeted, who knows what will happen.
One thing about the Star-Telegram, though -- executive editor Jim Witt has been pushing the staff for several years toward improving the digital/online presentation. Thus the increased emphasis on putting more news, more quickly, on the S-T web site and making increased use of Twitter and Facebook.
It's been a wonderful place to work, and it still is. But it's not the Star-Telegram I came into.