Tempers Flare at CQ and Roll Call Over Firing of Senior Editor Brian Nutting

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Like any good journalist, Brian Nutting believes in asking tough questions. But when he asked his employer, Congressional Quarterly, why it was laying off staff, he got a response he didn't expect: You're fired, too.

Nutting, 62, was handed his hat Monday, four days after he wrote a memo to his bosses demanding an explanation for its decision to dismiss 44 staffers at CQ and its sister publication, Roll Call. "Subject: We need answers," Nutting, a senior editor with 27 years' experience at CQ, wrote in an e-mail last week to his boss, CQ Editorial Director Mike Mills and Laurie Battaglia, managing director of the Roll Call Group. "The newsroom needs to hear in person from those who are responsible for today's [layoff] announcement. Someone in authority should appear before us to attempt to justify the actions announced."

Nutting's apparent mistake -- at least in the eyes of his company's top brass -- was sending a copy of his e-mail to the publication's newsroom. Someone promptly leaked the memo to FishbowlDC, a Web site that tracks local media news, which published it in full.

Nutting said Mills told him he was "insubordinate" and that his e-mail had embarrassed the company. Mills, he said, gave him a choice of resigning or being fired. Nutting chose the latter.

Which leads Nutting to point up the irony of the episode: That a publication that holds its sources to account wouldn't put up with a guy who thought he was holding the publication to account.

"We were told that CQ was making money, that Roll Call was making money . . . so I never thought it was about the money," Nutting said Tuesday. "We've been misled, we've been lied to, or whatever, about what's been transpiring. I felt we needed some straight answers, that whoever decided there had to be layoffs needed to tell us why there needed to be layoffs. If they had been honest, they would have told us, 'We needed to lay off people to improve our profit margins.' "

Mills declined comment Tuesday beyond: "Obviously, we can't discuss personnel matters regarding any one individual."

CQ's former owner, the Times Publishing Co. of St. Petersburg, Fla., sold the publication in July to the Economist Group, the British publisher of The Economist magazine and Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. At the time of the sale, the Economist Group indicated that merging CQ and Roll Call's operations would result in some duplication of jobs.

Nutting's former co-workers expressed shock about his firing, said one colleague, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation. "He's known for speaking his mind. . . . There was a sense that they were going to let this go as just one guy letting off steam. A lot of people are upset."

Nutting said he wrote the e-mail in some haste, after walking out of a mandatory meeting called to discuss the layoff announcement. He said he did not expect his missive to go beyond his newsroom ("I'm a Luddite; I never thought about it"). But he took some issue with the notion that he was insubordinate: "I don't know what the definition of insubordination is," he said. "I guess it's whatever the employer says it is. I just asked some inconvenient questions."

At the moment, he said, has no job prospects and doubts he'll be able to continue in journalism, given the economy, his age and the declining state of the news business.

Nutting said he volunteered to be laid off last week if it meant sparing the jobs of two of his reporters, who had been laid off from other jobs. Both of the reporters were let go anyway, Nutting said.

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