Twenty-two members of the Providence Newspaper Guild were laid off Tuesday, as part of New Media Investment Group's acquisition of Rhode Island's statewide newspaper, including the Providence Journal's well-respected longtime metro columnist, Bob Kerr.
The cuts, which also include some separate non-Guild positions, were implemented by the ProJo ahead of the closing of New Media's purchase of the Journal. New Media Investment Group is the corporate parent of GateHouse Media.
Guild president John Hill, a reporter, identified the number of layoffs in the ProJo's main union, which represented about 160 workers prior to the cuts. Asked about the approach behind the changes, Hill said, "We're still trying to assess it." He said getting answers has been more difficult since New Media's purchase of the paper isn't yet complete: "Until the deal closes, we can't get the answers we need."
Kerr says he was called into a meeting by the ProJo's human resources department before noon, "and of course I knew what that meant. It wasn't warm and fuzzy. It was pretty cold and abrupt. It was just explaining the severance package and, no explanation as to why, of course. I was just told it was a GateHouse decision. After 43 years-plus, I was out of there in about 10 minutes."
Kerr says ProJo staffers initially expected a series of meetings Tuesday to be about the ProJo's transition to new ownership. He says no GateHouse or New Media representatives were present for his meeting. Belo, which is handling the severance for Journal employees, had one person present.
A Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, Kerr is known for his strong sense of irony and wit, as well as skillfully telling slice of life stories. His periodic "Clemency Coach" columns sent up dubious behavior by various Rhode Islanders. He says he looks back with gratitude on his almost half-century at Rhode Island's statewide daily.
"I've been very lucky," Kerr says. "I knew it when it was a great paper, I knew it when it was a good paper. I was sad to see what happened to it, but it's always been great to write the column. I've done the column for a little over 20 years and that's the best job in the place and met a lot of great people because of it. So I don't have any regrets. I wish it could have ended better. I wish I could have retired when I chose to retire from a still-healthy paper, but that was not meant to be."
New York Times columnist Dan Barry, a former ProJo staffer, called the layoff of Kerr the loss of an important voice for Rhode Island.
"When I joined the paper in 1987, all the young writers looked up to him, both because of his ability to tell a story and his just general graciousness," Barry says. "He would listen to your stories and try to guide you."
Barry says writing a column three times a week -- as Kerr did -- is "a hard assignment, and it's hard to pull off for a very long time. But I think Kerr has always pushed himself to go out on the street and to talk to average citizens. He didn't want to just sit in his office and talk to some official in City Hall and then spin out a cheap 600-word column from that. He was often out on the street, talking to people who normally hadn't spoken to any reporter in their lifetimes, and he would tell their stories. He did it with compassion and with heart, and never tripped into sentimentality, really."
Kerr says other staffers in the same meeting with him included reporters Tatiana Pina, Michael McKinney, and sports staffer Rich Lee. Veteran reporter Tom Morgan is also among the laid off staffers.
New Media Investment Group bought the ProJo from Dallas-based A.H. Belo in July for $46 million.
New Media signaled the impending layoffs in an email sent to Journal staffers last week.
The Journal's staff has previously been cut through a series of buy outs and layoffs.
This post has been updated.