The Asheville Citizen-Times lost four journalists in yet another round of decimating layoffs ordered by corporate parent company Gannett last week.
The following were shown the door: editor and content coach Brian Ponder; Asheville Scene editor Bruce Steele, photographer Matt Burkhartt and longtime reporter Mark Barrett, who covered a host of topics, including state and local politics. (One other Gannett employee was laid off, an editorial assistant at the News Record & Sentinel, the weekly newspaper in Madison County, which Gannett also owns.)
It was another disheartening day for the Citizen-Times. Employees there have endured layoffs and/or cuts of some kind just about every year since a first round of cuts in 2008. Today, the number of newsroom employees stands at 13, down from about 75 in 2000.
Last week’s layoffs were expected. At the end of 2018, Gannett offered buyouts to employees ages 55 and over with 15 years of experience. That, combined with a change in executive leadership, sparked speculation that more of more layoffs would come. (Also last year, the Citizen-Times sold its downtown building as Gannett continued its cost-cutting.)
A media company called Digital First has made an unsolicited offer to buy Gannett, the company that owns the Asheville Citizen-Times, which set off more speculation about the future of local news. Digital First is led by a hedge fund known for cost-cutting measures even more aggressive than Gannett’s over the past several years. Who knows what the rest of 2019 will hold.
Here’s more about those who lost their jobs last week:
Planning editor Bruce Steele joined the Citizen-Times in 2007. When I worked with him, I knew him as a master organizer and witty writer. He was also a film and theater critic, and his work continues at Asheville Movies, a partnership with local film critic and Mountain Xpress writer Edwin Arnaudin.
Editor Brian Ponder came to the Citizen-Times in 2002 from Delaware, where he worked as an assistant city editor and state editor for another Gannett newspaper. The soft-spoken Ponder oversaw daily assignments and made sure the trains ran on time, while also overseeing some of the newspaper’s larger investigative projects. He was a steady and wise hand in the newsroom.
Matt Burkhatt was a young photographer who joined the Citizen-Times a couple of years ago. I never worked with him, but met him while covering stories around town.
Western North Carolina native Mark Barrett joined the Citizen-Times in 1986 after working at the Andrews Journal. He grew up in Andrews in Cherokee County and knew these mountains like the back of his hand. Barrett covered the State House in Raleigh back when newspapers had capitol bureaus. He went on to cover a host of topics, often analyzing data and leading investigations. (As I recall, Mark was one of the first reporters in the newsroom to have access to a computer that could access a powerful new tool called “The Internet.”) He was always a gracious, thoughtful reporter and person.
Once again, careers were shut down and lives were upended through these harsh layoffs. It’s a sad day for journalism, as well as for our community and, I dare say, our democracy.
Does a long-serving reporter like Mark Barrett (33 years) get a retirement pension at the Citizen-Times after being dismissed like this? It seems the paper’s retirement plan would provide some cushion.
Get ready for whiplash. It now appears that the hedge fund wants to sell their newspaper assets to Gannett, after realizing that they couldn’t finance the cost of a takeover.