Nine newsroom employees to be laid off at Roanoke Times
Sports, education beats heavily impacted in eliminated positions
Nine newsroom employees at The Roanoke Times were notified of their pending layoffs Monday by parent company Lee Enterprises Inc., according to the newspaper’s local newsroom union and multiple staff writers who spoke with Virginia Business. The layoffs, set to take effect April 23, would cut the editorial staff to 37 positions, a nearly 20% decrease in newsroom staffing, the union said in a news release.
Virginia Tech beat reporter Henri Gendreau and Claire Mitzel, who covered local K-12 schools and broke news last year about Black cadets’ complaints about racial incidents at Virginia Military Institute, were told by phone that April 23 will be their last day as Roanoke Times employees, they said in interviews Monday afternoon. They say they were told not to work or to access their Roanoke Times email accounts during the next two weeks.
Michael Niziolek, who covered Virginia Tech football, was told he would be laid off, he said via Twitter, adding that he was “still in shock.” Sam Wall, who reported on Radford University and surrounding localities, said in an interview that he was told Monday to stop working during the call informing him of his imminent layoff.
The Timesland News Guild said in a news release Monday that the newspaper’s digital editor, one copy editor and three editorial assistants who contributed to local sports coverage also are among the layoffs, which took place a month after the union’s employee contract was certified March 10.
The Roanoke Times was purchased by Iowa-based Lee Enterprises in March 2020, part of a $140 million sale by Berkshire Hathaway Inc. of 31 local daily papers in 10 states, including 10 newspapers in Virginia. Roanoke saw seven copy editing jobs eliminated in favor of centralized editing and design hubs in the Midwest last summer, and newsroom positions at other Lee-owned papers in Virginia were eliminated earlier this year.
With the eliminated positions announced Monday, the Timesland union says The Roanoke Times has lost more than 25% of its newsroom employees since early 2020.
Under federal law, a company cannot lay off anyone while negotiating a contract with a union, or in the first 30 days after it has been certified, a period that ended Saturday at The Roanoke Times. Mitzel said “there was a lot of anxiety in the newsroom” in recent days, in part because Lee had laid off workers at other newspapers when The Roanoke Times’ unionized employees were temporarily exempt. The Roanoke Times building, owned by Berkshire Hathaway, also has been put up for sale, and the paper gave up its lease on its former New River Valley bureau office in Christiansburg.
“These layoffs mark another difficult day for The Roanoke Times and its continued survival in Southwest Virginia,” union vice chair Alison Graham, an investigative reporter at the newspaper, said in a statement. “Our corporate owners have once again put shortsighted profit goals over both long-term solutions and the newspaper’s mission to deliver vital local news.”
A Lee Enterprises spokesperson said Monday that the company had no comment on the layoffs.
In what Gendreau characterized as a “weird sort of holding pattern,” some of the Roanoke Times journalists notified Monday of their April 23 layoffs were told they could keep their jobs if other Times employees decide to take buyouts before Friday — but that’s not a sure thing.
“I personally am not sure” if anyone has volunteered, said Gendreau, who joined the newspaper as its crime and public safety reporter in 2018 and moved to its higher education beat in November 2019.
“I don’t know also whether [Lee] is open to that,” added Mitzel, a Roanoke native who started at the newspaper in March 2020. “I’d prefer they don’t take a volunteer for my job.”
Mitzel, Gendreau and Wall, who joined the newspaper in January 2019, said the layoff decisions were based on reverse seniority, or “last in, first out,” Wall said. All three said they’re disappointed about the negative impact on news coverage in the region, beyond their personal situations.
“I’m more worried about the institution that is The Roanoke Times,” Wall said. “That’s what I’m worried about. I’ll be OK.”