By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 2009; C01
The Washington Times slashed its 170-member newsroom staff Wednesday, laying off its top editor and scores of reporters, editors and photographers at the 27-year-old newspaper.
The Sports and Metro sections will cease to exist as stand-alone entities after Friday's edition, numerous sources said, and layoffs in those sections neared 100 percent.
At a somber staff meeting at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, the newspaper's management did not give an overall number of layoffs and did not spell out the fate of various sections and areas of coverage. Instead, after hearing from Times President and Publisher Jonathan Slevin and an official from the human resources department, employees were told to pick up packets that revealed their fates.
The paper's executives said in early December that impending layoffs would cut about 40 percent of the staff. Several newsroom sources said Wednesday that the layoffs had met or exceeded that percentage.
"Our market-based, forward-looking plan is both a response to the recessionary economy, continued downward financial pressures on the news industry and our transition into a 21st-century multimedia enterprise," Slevin said in a statement.
His office did not answer repeated calls Wednesday afternoon.
It was not immediately clear who was in charge of editorial operations at the paper, founded in 1982 by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification Church. The paper's top newsroom executive, Managing Editor David Jones, said Wednesday he had been laid off. The paper's managing editor for digital operations, Jeffrey Birnbaum, said in a statement he had resigned the position but that he would continue as a columnist.
Slevin's statement did not name replacements to fill the two executive positions, though several lower-level editor posts were announced.
The Times has lost money since its inception, industry analysts have long said, yet had seemed to carve out a niche of coverage in the nation's capital, particularly for its conservative editorial pages. But dramatic upheavals began last year, when its Saturday edition was scrapped. Three senior executives were fired in November. Executive Editor John Solomon, whom the paper had hired away from The Washington Post, resigned the next week.
The company announced on Dec. 2 that layoffs would ensue but did not give a timetable, prompting harsh criticism from many employees. When the company announced that the Sunday edition was to cease after Dec. 27 and that a remodeled print edition would debut Jan. 4, employees figured the end was near. Several said their dismissal packet included notice that they would receive salary until Feb. 2, plus the amount of vacation pay they had earned for 2010.
"In spite of all turmoil and uncertainty about their jobs, this staff has come in each day and put out a solid, professional paper," Jones said. "I'm incredibly proud of them all."
The paper's Redskins beat reporter, Ryan O'Halloran, said he learned Wednesday that he had been laid off while covering a practice for the Redskins' Sunday game, which he already had been told he wouldn't be sent to cover.
"All I know is that the section is done," O'Halloran said. "It's good to finally get some closure, but it's still going to sting on Monday when there's no section."
Sports features writer Bob Cohn was traveling Wednesday and said he had not been notified whether he had been let go. But given the fate of his sports department colleagues, he was not optimistic.
"I'm grateful the Times hired me and enabled to be reunited with my family," Cohn said Wednesday by phone, noting that he came to the paper a decade ago from Arizona to be near his children. "I'm saddened not just for myself but for my colleagues. I think with limited resources, we've done a terrific job."
Slevin's statement said that the new version of the paper would emphasize investigative reporting, coverage of national politics, cultural issues, international and domestic economic matters and "in-depth local reporting." The company will continue to develop its Web site and radio show, he said.
"Monday begins a new chapter in the history of the Washington Times as a 21st-century multimedia company," the statement said. "The Washington Times intends to fill that role as a vital news provider nationwide by continuing to cover the news with a distinct and independent voice."