It’s all too common in the newspaper world to go to work one day only to find out that it’s your last with the publication. Usually it’s because of layoffs that may have been anticipated or it follows warnings that a journalist’s job is in jeopardy.
Lisa Sorg says that neither was the case Wednesday morning when she walked into the Durham office of Indy Week as its editor and left without a job. She asked if she was let go for cause and was told no.
“I had no idea,” said Sorg, who was with the publication for nine years, the last nearly eight years as editor. She first saw an email saying that Susan Harper, the publisher of the alternative newspaper, needed to meet with her. “I walked in and she said ‘we’re letting you go today.’ And it was just like that.”
“We’re in the process of looking at changing things up and there will be some announcements about who the new editor will be and some other things, too. It will be sometime within the next month,” said Harper, who added that the editor search would not be a national search.
Harper, who said the dismissal was her decision, said that she told Sorg that she was “not gonna go into any reasons about why she was fired.”
“This was a change I had been considering for a while,” Harper said. “I am not going to comment on the reasons. I have a great deal of respect for Lisa. She has done a wonderful job of covering Durham and I’ve worked with her the whole time she has been here. She was a very good staff writer, it’s just that the decision was made to make a change, and I wish her the very best.”
After the meeting with Harper, Sorg went to the middle of the office and spoke to the dozen or so Indy staffers who were there. She told them that she had been let go, wasn’t sure why and that she wasn’t given a reason.
“There were some tears, and not just mine,” Sorg said.
“For whatever reason they decided I’m not the person they want running the show at this moment in the paper’s history,” Sorg said. “It would have been nice to have some notice to prepare because I have been in an emotional and very difficult personal situation.”
Her husband has stage four prostate cancer and she doesn’t know his timeline. Sorg said it will be “sooner than later, a more shortened timeline than we had hoped.”
Given her situation, Sorg said she is appreciative of the severance package she is receiving. She says that everybody at Indy Week knew about her husband’s battle.
“If I ever came in and was a little distracted, I wanted them to know why and that it wasn’t anything that they had done and that I had a lot on my mind. It came at a hard time,” Sorg said.
ZM Indy, Inc., which also own the Willamette Week (an alternative weekly in Portland, Ore.), purchased what then was known as the Independent Weekly in September 2012 from Steve Schewel (currently a Durham City Council member), and changed the name to Indy Week.
ZM Indy, Inc.’s co-owners are Richard Meeker, the brother of former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker (who is running for labor commissioner), and Willamette Week editor Mark Zusman, who both live in Oregon.
“The way we operate our news operations, the local publishers make decisions like this,” Richard Meeker said. “Obviously, they run them by us, but this was a decision made by Susan Harper. We were informed of it. It wouldn’t have happened without our approval.”
Meeker didn’t want to discuss the reasons for Sorg’s dismissal, but said that she “made some decisions as the editor that were not cleared with me in advance.” Asked if he had disagreements with Sorg, he said that he was “not about to talk about these things.”
Sorg said that she never had an argument with Meeker.
“I don’t say that we’ve never had a disagreement on vision,” she said. “We’ve had disagreements, but it’s always been respectful and I’ve never had reason to believe that I was in trouble.”
Sorg knows the pain of having to fire somebody because she has had to do it. But she said that whenever she has fired someone, they had been warned. She said that person knew their job was in jeopardy if their performance didn’t improve and she gave them a “warning period.”
“That did not happen,” Sorg said. “We always talk about improving the paper and let’s do this and we need to do that. But, in terms of having that ‘coming to Jesus meeting’ that many of us may have had, I’ve not had that.”
Sorg said that Harper mentioned the zoning of covers (different covers for different cities) and working with writers, but never gave her a reason for her dismissal.
“There had been a discussion several months ago that maybe I would step down as editor and just become a staff writer because I felt that that’s where my heart was,” Sorg said. “I really love writing about Durham City Hall and Durham development. I have no ego in the game. I like being an editor, but I really love being a journalist. I asked if that was on the table, and she said no.”
Sorg is the third full-time staffer to lose their job this year after a graphic designer and an associate editor were let go earlier this year. Unlike the editor job, which will be filled, Harper said that the graphic designer position has not been filled. Half of the duties of that associate editor were filled last week when a new copy editor started.
Sorg would not characterize the two other dismissals as layoffs and both she and Meeker said that those changes were not financial decisions.
“There has been no one at the Indy let go for budgetary reasons,” Meeker said. “We are on a slow, but solid upward trajectory.”
Discounting the editor position, Harper said that the Indy Week staff is almost at the same level as a year ago, possibly being down by one part-time position.
“I think that we are in a good place, as far as currently who we have on staff and will look to continue to bringing in more writers,” Harper said. “I feel like we’ve been strengthening our coverage in the Triangle, especially in Raleigh, and we will work on continuing to focus on our coverage in Durham and expand our coverage, hopefully, in Orange County. That’s been a little lacking.”
Sorg still is coming to grips with the news she got Wednesday.
“I think my greatest sorrow about this, besides the fact that I’ve lost a job that I love, is that I miss the people already,” she said. “It feels like the Beatles just broke up. So that’s my sorrow, is that I don’t get to hang out with my favorite people in the world every day.”
Despite what she called a few “trolls” on Twitter and a couple who commented under a brief story about the change on the Indy Week website, she said she’s received an outpouring of support from readers.
Sorg hopes to continue to report on Durham and tell stories. But she isn’t sure what shape that will take, and expects to do a lot of freelancing. On Twitter, she mentioned her intention to launch a Durham news blog.
“I feel like my body of work speaks for itself,” said Sorg, who interviewed for a non-journalism job Thursday. “There are people who would say, ‘I hate your body of work,’ but I think for people who I trust and the readers who really get it, I feel like I can hold my head high. I feel like I served the readers of Durham.”
feature image via Indy Week, Lisa Sorg image via Eric Waters