Taking a bullet on the job doesn't guarantee job security

The newspaper business is in such bad financial shape that winning a Pulitzer Prize, or being shot while out reporting, didn't lead to job security for some journalists.

Todd Smith was laid off at the Suburban Journals, a chain of newspapers outside St. Louis and owned by Lee Enterprises, on April 15 -- about a year after he was shot while covering a city council meeting in Kirkwood, Mo., according to a New York Times story.

A gunman with a grudge stormed City Hall on Feb. 7, 2008, killing six people before he was killed by police. When the gunman aimed toward Smith, the reporter raised his hand in a reflexive, shielding gesture, and a bullet tore through his hand and grazed his chest. After two surgeries, he has permanent damage that limits the use of his thumb. He was the only person shot that night in Kirkwood who survived.

When Smith was called to a meeting this year at his paper's offices, he wondered if the staff had won an award for coverage of the massacre. Instead, he learned that he and several others were being laid off.

Unemployment is bad, he told the Times, but "to be honest with you, getting shot was worse."

The Pulitzer is the ultimate prize for a journalist, and two who worked at the East Valley Tribune outside Phoenix, Ariz., won one April 20 for their work last year on stories that were critical of a county sheriff.

In January the Tribune laid off about 40% of its staff, including Paul Giblin and Patti Epler. Giblin and reporter Ryan Gabrielson wrote the award-winning stories, and Epler worked as an editor on the project. The Tribune also cut printing from daily to four days a week, dropped some areas of circulation and became a free newspaper.

Granted, the layoffs happened before the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced. But newspapers usually nominate themselves for such awards, so the top editors must have known that the people they were laying off had a chance of winning.

I was a journalist for 22 years, including being part of a Pulitzer-winning team, before being laid off in June 2008. Getting laid off is no fun no matter how it happens, but getting it after being shot while working, or just before winning a Pulitzer, have got to be all-time lows in layoffs.

To keep track of which newspapers are about to sink, or get updates on staff reductions, the Wall Street Journal has an excellent link worthy of checking back on as the economy continues tanking.

Aaron Crowe is an unemployed journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read about his job search at www.AaronCrowe.net
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