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Day Other Shoe Finally Dropped : Economics: Tribune’s demise has long been rumored. But delivery of the actual news stunned both editors and reporters.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 8 a.m. Wednesday, 20 editors stood silently in Tribune Editor Neil Morgan’s office, waiting for him to finish typing a computer file titled: SECRET.

Morgan finally swung around from his computer terminal, faced his waiting staff, saying, “I have a eulogy to deliver at 10:30 and that’s going to be a cakewalk compared to what I’m going to do now.”

Morgan then calmly explained that the Tribune was merging with its larger sister paper, the Union. No one was surprised because it had been rumored for years that the troubled paper would fold or be sold. Yet everyone was stunned. Only two weeks earlier, this same group had been assured that the Tribune was healthier than it had been.

As he listened to Morgan, John Gilmore, an assistant city editor, wiped away the tears that filled his eyes.

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“It was like the day my dad died,” said Gilmore, who has worked at the Tribune for 20 years. “This is like a death in the family.”

After the 20-minute editors’ meeting, Morgan braced himself and went to face the reporters in a hastily called gathering that was poorly attended since many reporters were out of the office. Quickly, word spread that the merger meant layoffs since the two papers could not afford staffs that duplicated one another.

In the Tribune newsroom, the shock and grief over Morgan’s tidings quickly gave way to anxiety as journalists contemplated the possibility of looking for work in a bleak job market.

Rumors ripped through the newsrooms at the Tribune as well as the Union, fueled by the lack of clear information about the merger. Herb Klein, Copley Newspapers’ editor in chief, said that “no number had been set” for proposed layoffs. Nor could anyone say which editor would take charge of the new newspaper that would emerge.

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Gilmore, father of two, has an 8-year-old son who has been treated for leukemia.

“I don’t think I have job security,” said Gilmore, 46. “Without medical insurance, there’s no way I could pay for my son’s treatment if he has a relapse.”

Others began to take stock of their professional careers, trying to figure out how they measured up.

“It would be only normal to be worried about the future,” said George Varga, a Union pop music critic. “The biggest fear is the fear of the unknown.”

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At both newsrooms Wednesday, there was more un known than known. Although no one has indicated how many will lose their jobs, many--including mid-level management--expected the worst. James G. Wright, an assistant city editor, joined the Tribune nine months ago from a Denver paper.

“I just hope the severance will cover the cost of a U-Haul,” said the father of two. Because the Tribune has 10 assistant city editors and the Union has 14, Wright figured the outlook for his continued employment was grim. “There’s no way they need 24.”

Still others figured that the merger held the promise of a better newspaper. As Tribune reporter Susan Duerksen said: “I may be in the minority, thinking it may not be that bad.”

Many reporters learned the news as colleagues called them. Others found out as they arrived at work. Still others spotted the story about the merger stripped across the top of the newspaper--a story that editors had decided in the early morning hours was important enough to displace a scheduled story at the top of Page One.

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“You felt like you had just been told you had cancer and the doctor said there was a chance you’d survive,” said Jim Crawley, a reporter who joined the staff about a year ago. “You feel OK today but you know that one morning you’ll wake up and feel sick to your stomach.”

When reporter Sharon Jones arrived at work at 8:45 a.m., she spotted three editors standing in the newsroom, each facing a different direction as they talked on the telephone. She approached her own editor and started to joke that they looked like they were about to stage a play. But when he handed her a copy of the merger story, her jaw dropped.

“We’ve known it was going to happen; the surprise is that it came so quickly,” said Jones, who immediately called her roommate, another employee, to tell her the news.

“Do you think we should return the new washer and drier that we bought?” Jones asked her roommate.

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Among the more junior reporters, the panic was almost palpable. Randal C. Archibald, 26, who started last October, was one of the newest young reporters.

“I’m still in shock--put yourself in my shoes,” said Archibald, who learned about the merger when he spotted the paper in a newspaper rack. “In my case, I don’t have the experience that the other people have.”

As Archibald’s editors walked him toward an office to talk, the young man pulled a yellow envelope out of his mailbox. Seeing his panic, they told him it was a notice about the merger--not his dismissal.

“I look around and I don’t see anyone with less seniority than I have,” Archibald said, “and that’s ominous.”

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Archibald joined about 30 Tribune reporters and editors at a bar at the Red Lion Hotel after work Wednesday. For him and many others, the news was just beginning to settle in.

“I can’t assure people they will have a job,” said Carl H. Larsen, metro editor who has spent 17 years at the paper. “That old gang of mine is not going to be there.”

As the staff pounded down drinks, the jokes began. Someone referred to the paper as the Trib-tanic. Another described a reporter lying on his desk, tie loosened, arms folded across his chest, saying: “It’s an open coffin.”

And as the group began to get rowdier, a couple walked up, holding the paper, and asked if everyone there worked at the Tribune.

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With one voice, the reporters and editors sang out: “We used to.”


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