Draining Times

After the strike, many top reporters have left The Seattle Times.

IN THE WAKE of a bitter seven-week strike, The Seattle Times is hemorrhaging talent. Thirty-five workers of the union's roughly 500 strikers have announced their departure from the paper. More departures are expected as Times management says it has to trim its 2,500-person workforce by 10 percent to 20 percent. The 300-person newsroom staff is taking the biggest hit, a 24 percent cut. The Times has even gone so far as to offer an early retirement package to encourage departures. While management says such turnover is commonplace at a big paper, some of the Times' best-known reporters have left.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize- winner Eric Nalder, an investigative reporter, leads the exodus, which includes vet-erans, such as aerospace reporter Stanley Holmes, technology writer Paul Andrews, columnist Mark Trahant, religion scribe Sally McDonald, and Pulitzer-winner Byron Acohido, as well as fresh new voices, such as editorial writer Susan Nielsen, political correspondent Dionne Searcey, and social issues reporter Kim Barker. Not all of them left because of the strike, but all of them are still gone.

That's a sizeable brain drain at a time when the paper needs to be better than ever. Not only does the Times need to win back the many readers who left during the strike, but less than a year ago it started a fierce head-to-head competition with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by switching to a morning edition. The P-I—which, unlike the Times, did not seem to view the strike as a declaration of war by its employees—has not experienced a similar loss of talent.

"It's a tough time for us in terms of turnover," acknowledges Times executive editor Michael Fancher. "In some ways it reminds me of the recession of the early to mid-'90s." But Fancher says that setback served to refocus the paper and eventually make it stronger, and so will this one.

At the same time, assistant managing editor David Boardman warns against exaggerating the exodus. "At any given time, during a three-month period we would have turnover," he says. "Some of those people would have left—strike or no strike." While he concedes it's unusual that so many people would leave at once, he says, "I don't think it's devastating by any means."

Still, Boardman admits that one departure in particular is a blow: Eric Nalder's. "The loss of Eric is something unique," Boardman says. "He's so associated with this place; he's part of the franchise."

NALDER WORKED at the Times for 18 years, and in that time, he became known nationally, even internationally, for his investigative prowess and was solicited frequently to lecture and write about his technique. He built the Times' reputation as he built his own, sharing two of the three Pulitzers the paper earned in the last decade for stories on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and corruption in Native-American housing programs. Moreover, as recently as last May, Nalder publicly reaffirmed his commitment to the Times. Receiving an award at a Society of Professional Journalists banquet, he told the crowd that he had had lots of opportunities to go elsewhere but stayed at the paper because of its exceptional editors, publisher, and staff.

In truth, Nalder says, leaving the Times was not out of the question before the strike. In October, he says, he interviewed at the prestigious Los Angeles Times but ultimately turned down its job offer because he didn't want to move. Then, during the strike, the well-regarded San Jose Mercury News contacted him and offered to let him stay in Seattle while working for its investigative team.

Reached during his first day on the job, Nalder says he accepted it for "positive reasons," including a new set of people to learn from and "a whole new jurisdiction to work in." Nalder will cover stories along the West Coast.

But he also says of his decision to leave, "Certainly the strike had some play in it. I was concerned over the way the newspaper treated people." Citing the way the paper has brought striking employees back slowly, rather than all at once, he says, "There was a little too much of a control-freak atmosphere there." The 54-year-old Nalder also had a financial incentive to leave as a result of the strike, taking the Times up on its early retirement offer, which translated into a pension as if the staffer either were five years older or had worked five years longer at the paper.

Stanley Holmes, the aerospace reporter, accepted a Seattle-based job at BusinessWeek for a similar mix of reasons. "I took the job at BusinessWeek because I wanted to do a different kind of journalism with more analysis—and also because I didn't want to work at The Seattle Times anymore." Though Holmes didn't vote for (or against) strike authorization, he says he was disillusioned by both the Times' unwillingness to see strikers' position and its hiring of permanent replacement workers. "That was just out of line, and out of alignment with their rhetoric," he says. "On the one hand, we're supposed to be part of a family; then, within 30 days [of the strike's beginning], they say we're going to replace all of you."

The award-winning Holmes recently showed the Times what it's missing by breaking a big story for BusinessWeek, alleging that Boeing plans to shut down its Renton plant and move its work to Everett.

Paul Andrews, one of the nation's top experts on Microsoft, is also a big loss for the paper. Reached in Silicon Valley, where before the strike he had been filing reports for the Times, he says he isn't resentful of the paper: "I've never personalized the strike." At 51, he was eligible for the early retirement offer, which struck him as a good deal. And he wanted to stay in California because his wife, Cecile, is a visiting scholar at Stanford University. He suspected that the leaner, post-strike Times would not allow him to continue writing from there.

Sally McDonald, who made up her mind to take early retirement last week, supported management during the strike by crossing the picket line. "It was a financial decision," says the 61-year-old religion reporter of her leaving the company. "My husband and I ran the numbers with a financial advisor, and she said, 'Go for it!'"

DESPITE ALL ITS LOSSES, the Times has managed to hold on to some of its top talent. Alex Tizon, who shared a Pulitzer with Nalder for the Native-American housing series, had one foot out the door. During the strike, he accepted a job with the Los Angeles Times and was planning desk arrangements with his soon-to-be editor when the strike ended.

His editors at the Times didn't exactly beg him to stay. "I don't think that happens after a strike," he says. But he says they reassured him that he could continue writing the same kind of in-depth, varied stories he likes to write. However, the most important reason for staying in Seattle, he says, was family related.

Like many, though, his tie to the paper is more tenuous than it used to be. "I'm going to give it a few years because that's how long I think it's going to take to rebuild the place." If it doesn't work out, he says he has learned from the strike that he has places to go.

Pulitzer finalist and longtime local investigative reporter Duff Wilson says he is also staying, "for now." While he's sad to see his colleagues leaving, he's actually excited about some good news: The investigative team he works on has an impressive new hire to announce—Jim Neff, currently president of an eminent professional organization called Investigative Reporters and Editors. The Times had offered Neff a job before the strike and asked him to wait until it was over before coming on board, according to management.

"That shows we're not just crying in our beer," says Wilson. "We're going to move on."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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