In the aftermath of Citizen Lorton's decision to jettison the Community World section of the Tulsa World last week, and the 17 unsuspecting journalists who produced it, one of his newly unemployed reporters/editors is speaking out against what some see as a Draconian move on the part of the newspaper heir, as well as the "spin doctoring" job he offered as a public explanation.
"This was the most cold, callous, corporate 'Wal-Mart' thing I could expect," said Emily Priddy, who was, until last week, the associate editor and reporter for the Westside edition of the weekly Community World section of the Tulsa World.
Publisher Robert E. Lorton III issued a written notice in his paper last Wednesday that the Community World section would no longer run, and Priddy told UTW that she and the rest of the Community World team were only informed hours before Tulsa World readers were.
She said Community World managing editor Delbert Shafer told them late on Monday afternoon to meet the next day at the Midtown office for a staff meeting.
"We all thought it was odd," said Priddy, since Shafer had already cancelled their regularly scheduled Tuesday morning editors' meeting in anticipation of inclement weather.
"We thought he was going to be announcing his retirement," she added.
"We even joked, 'We can't all be fired--we can't all have screwed up at the same time,'" Priddy also said.
But, their banter turned out to be portentous of the shock to come.
Tulsa World executive editor Joe Worley met them at the Midtown office, with a letter in hand from Lorton that he read to them, informing them that the Community World no longer existed and that their employment had been terminated, effective immediately, and that they were all to return to their offices to clean out their personal belongings, with a representative of the Human Resources department to supervise.
"We were all just in shock. Nobody had an inkling this would happen. This was the first anyone heard about it," Priddy recounted.
The only exception was Shafer, Worley and Tulsa World managing editor Susan Ellerbach, she said, who'd been told only a day or two earlier.
And that notification came from on high only after they'd hired two new employees for the Community World only two weeks earlier, both of whom left stable jobs to work for the Community World.
"No one below Lorton knew about this when they made these hires. Human Resources didn't know--they were as baffled as we were when the axe fell," Priddy fumed.
Ellerbach, though, told UTW that there were still two open positions within the Community World offices, but a hiring freeze had been implemented within a week of the layoffs.
"Some of these people had just made major life decisions and financial commitments," Priddy also said.
"One woman had signed a lease on a new apartment four days earlier, and another had put down a payment on a condo a week before. A woman who has struggled financially for several years had just gotten back on her feet and was about to move into a house," she said.
"I was very, very disappointed in the handling of it. It blindsided me. It was handled in such a cold, corporate, 'Wal-Mart'-sort of fashion," Priddy said.
"And that's almost a compliment to the Lortons to say 'I'm disappointed.' That says I had higher expectations," she explained.
Priddy described the publisher's manner of jettisoning the Community World, and the people comprising it, as "so wildly out of character from what I know to be true of them."
She emphasized, "I don't hate Bobby for this. I'm just very, very disappointed in him.
"This is not something that a man of his caliber--not his social class, but his character--this is not something a man of his caliber would do," Priddy explained.
"I watched the Lortons pony up a lot of money for Katrina victims, matching every dollar Tulsa World employees donated, which was extremely magnanimous, extremely gracious of them," she recounted.
"I even sent him an e-mail saying, 'I'm glad to be working for one of the good guys,'" Priddy added.
From a business standpoint, though, she said she couldn't fault Lorton for the layoffs.
In his published explanation last week for the discontinuation of the weekly Community World section of his paper, Lorton explained that the changes made in 2006 to the daily content of the Tulsa World to include more local news have made an extra weekly section devoted to local news unnecessary.
"Our readers are telling us that they enjoy reading our intensive local coverage and that they want to see local coverage of our metropolitan areas in all editions of our newspaper--not just zoned weekly editions which only go to a geographic segment of our subscriber area," he wrote.
As Priddy explained, though, the Community World section just wasn't getting enough advertising revenue.
"I laid out the ads, and we clearly did not have the level of advertising that I would have thought was enough," she said.
"I thought we might have been there as a community service, and as an avenue for businesses to advertise who couldn't afford the rates in the main paper," she added.
With those business considerations in mind, Priddy said she isn't angry so much about getting laid off, but about the "cold, thoughtless, corporate" manner in which it was handled.
"If this were a large corporation with a headquarters a thousand miles away, I could maybe understand them handling it this way, but this is a third-generation family-owned newspaper with a main office only a few minutes away," she said.
Ellerbach, though, told UTW, "I don't think it's a good situation in any way you can handle it. There's just no good way to lay off 17 people."
Priddy also took issue with portions of Lorton's public explanation, calling it "disingenuous" and "a little dishonest."
The publisher said the Tulsa World will "continue to incorporate intensely local news into the daily product with additional coverage available on Tulsaworld.com. Some personnel from the Community World editions will be reallocated to provide the additional daily coverage. This will involve added positions in the Tulsa World newsroom and for Tulsaworld.com."
Priddy said Lorton's announcement put an unwarranted benevolent spin on the scenario.
"If by 'reallocated,' you mean 'reallocated to the unemployment line,' I guess they've been reallocated," Priddy said.
"He made it sound like we'd all have jobs waiting for us at the main office," she added.
She said there are only five "added positions" for the newsroom and website, and one of them is more of a technological position, for which members of the Community World staff wouldn't be qualified, which leaves only four open positions over which the 17 out-of-work journalists must compete.
Priddy said the announcement also "neglects to mention the fact that those laid-off were given absolutely no warning and received eight days' pay and 26 days' benefits in exchange for their loyalty to the company."
"He really ought to run a clarification and an apology to readers and staff," she added.
Shortly after she got the news, Priddy began speaking out about layoffs, she said, in a deliberate effort to burn the Lorton bridge behind her.
"I didn't want to leave myself a temptation," she said, stating that she didn't want to compete with her 16 friends and former co-workers for the four open positions.
"They need them more than I do. I already had a new job lined up before I pulled into my driveway that night," Priddy said.
Some of the kindling for that burning bridge was set ablaze on the Tulsa Now Forum, where Priddy initially spoke out about the layoffs.
She wrote of the Lortons, "Money will buy Armani suits and Ferraris and all sorts of other pretty toys. It will put a few kids through Holland Hall, and it will buy their grandma's best friend a byline on a column that someone else ghostwrites for her. But there is one thing money--even old money--can't buy: Class. And I've seen far more of that commodity in Oakhurst, Turley, and my beloved Red Fork than I see coming out of the mansions around Woodward Park this morning."
It wasn't long before Priddy's comments reached the ears of the Tulsa World's upper management, but Ellerbach declined to comment for or against her statements.
"I wouldn't be a very happy camper if I were her, either," she said.
"She did a great job for the Tulsa World, and I respect her as a journalist," Ellerbach said.
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