The East Bay Express laid off nearly its entire editorial staff this week in a blow to the alternative weekly, which has been a pillar in the community for four decades.
Five of seven editorial staffers were laid off Friday, Editor Robert Gammon said. The newspaper, which is known for its investigative reporting as well as arts, culture and music coverage, will rely on freelance writers.
“These are not only great journalists, but great people,” Gammon said. “This was through no fault of their own. It was just an unfortunate series of events that occurred.”
Over the last six months, the owners of Telegraph Media, which acquired East Bay Express, were trying to sell their publications. They appeared to have found potential buyers, Gammon said, until the Express lost a lawsuit filed by a former sales and marketing director who said he was illegally denied overtime by the newspaper.
The First District Court of Appeal ruled that the newspaper should have paid overtime to Terry Furry and remanded the case to the trial court to determine how much he is owed, according to a blog Gammon posted this week. The Express also must pay Furry’s legal bills.
As a result, Gammon said, the sale “seems very unlikely.”
“The East Bay Express itself has been struggling for a number of years now, and there were hopes that with a new buyer we’d be able to potentially invest more money into the paper,” he said. “But without that new capital coming in, we had to cut back.”
Azucena Rasilla began working as a freelancer for the Express in 2016 and later became an associate editor. Rasilla, who is from Oakland, grew up reading the newspaper.
“It was a dream come true to work for my hometown publication,” she said.
But after the paper lost the lawsuit, staffers feared layoffs were imminent. Rasilla, one of those laid off, called it a “huge blow for local journalism.”
“The fear obviously is if the paper ends up folding, what’s going to happen to local journalism?” she said. “Who’s going to be the voice of the community?”
The newspaper is considering launching a membership program as a way to raise money, Gammon said.
“If we can find another alternative revenue stream to make up for the shrinking of our traditional ad revenues, it could help us hire back, perhaps, some of the people we had to lay off,” he said.
Publisher Stephen Buel, who stepped down in July after admitting to using a racial slur during a staff meeting, will return to the paper next week. Gammon, who had taken over as publisher, will focus on editing responsibilities.
Gammon said he asked the editorial staffers who were laid off to freelance for the newspaper, which they agreed to do.
“I’ve been really heartened by the outpouring on social media,” Gammon said. “I can really see that people really care about the newspaper and they want it to continue.”