by Daryl Slusher

The Austin American-Statesman laid off seven reporters last Friday, April 24. The layoffs were part of a nationwide series of job cuts by the Statesman’s parent company Gannet, who in August 2019 merged with Gatehouse Media, which in April 2018 bought the Statesman from long-time owner Cox Enterprises. The layoffs are also part of the continuing financial decline of print journalism.

So far neither the Statesman nor the parent company are talking about the personnel moves. Several of the reporters announced the bad news on social media. One of those was Statesman K-12 education reporter Aaricka Washington who tweeted:

“It’s been taking me hours to muster the courage and strength to write this. I was one of seven reporters who just got laid off from @Statesman. It hurts. It feels unreal. But I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned as an edu reporter working for this great org.” 

The full list of names was reported in a fairly new local news publication called Austonia.

Reporting the news was former Statesman editor Rich Oppel who serves as “editorial advisor” to the new publication. In addition to the layoffs, Oppel wrote that already “most Statesman employees are on unpaid furloughs one week each month.” 

The seven reporters are:

  • Arianna Auber, a beverages, or wine and beer columnist who often focused on local brewpubs and regional wineries.
  • Joe Gross, a music, film, literature and culture reporter who had been with the Statesman for 18 years and really knows the local scene.
  • Suzanne Halliburton, a sports reporter with almost 34 years at the Statesman. Halliburton is a solid and entertaining sports reporter who routinely rises above the too often lame, every day palaver of sportswriting. 
  • James Gregg, a photojournalist who also served as deputy director of video and photo at the paper.
  • Nick Wagner, a photojournalist. Wagner was one of two Statesman photojournailists who was, in the Statesman’s term, “clipped” by Longhorn mascot Bevo when the steer bolted from handlers before the 2019 Sugar Bowl. After his layoff Wagner tweeted, “”Hey editor! I’m your newest freelancer available for hire in Texas/northern Mexico. I am fluent in Spanish, excel under pressure & nothing stops me from making photos (just ask Bevo XV).”
  • Mike Parker, editor of two community newspapers, the Round Rock Leader and Pflugerville Pflag
  • Aaricka Washington.

The loss of Gross and Auber appears to herald not only cuts to cultural coverage, but in particular to locally focused culture, or pop culture, coverage.

The loss of the photojournalists heralds that the remaining photographers will have to cover even more, and/or that the Statesman will photograph less. 

The loss of the editor of the Round Rock Leader and Pflugerville Pflag — which the Statesman acquired a few years ago — would seem to auger a lessening of focus on specific happenings in outlying areas,  

Halliburton’s layoff is hard to understand.

And, perhaps the most damaging of all is the choice to lay off Aaricka Washington, the education reporter. She is not the only Statesman reporter who covers education, but during her short time there (since September 2019) she poured out a wide array of reporting on the Austin Independent School District (AISD) as well as schools and districts all over the region. It is hard to see how remaining reporters with other responsibilities can step in and fill that gap. A drop in local education coverage is much more likely.

Thia comes at a very fraught time for local education. The AISD Board recently voted for controversial school closures. Other schools remain on the chopping block. AISD’s superintendent recently announced he is leaving so the Board will have to find a new superintendent. There are ongoing questions of conflicts of interest in the school closings (although it wasn’t Washington who broke those particular stories).  And, then there are the issues of when and how the schools will open again. That’s a lot.

The overall inescapable theme seems to be less local focus, but we’ll wait and see.

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