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Abandon Ship 

The Spokesman-Review suffers some of its worst hits yet --� by only losing three people.

The Spokesman-Review has been dwindling for years, slashing its size and page count and cutting its newsroom staff by almost half. But Spokane’s (former?) paper of record suffered what must be one of its most painful cuts yet last week, with the announcement that investigative reporters Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn Steele and arts writer Dan Webster have all resigned. Together, they brought 96 years of journalism experience to the paper.

The Seattle P-I called Morlin and Dorn Steele “two of the Northwest’s top journalists.”

All three writers — along with two copy editors — have accepted the company’s voluntary buyout offer, the window for which closed Monday night. Their resignations become effective on April 1.

“It’s like a morgue around here,” Webster said of the vibe in the newsroom last week. “But it hasn’t been much better than that for months, years.”

“It just seemed like it was a good time to leave,” says Dorn Steele, who has been with the paper since 1982. She says she had been pondering the idea since the March 5 announcement that the paper would be laying off two young reporters and an editorial assistant. That announcement opened a two-week window during which other staffers could take a buyout, potentially saving the jobs of those who were involuntarily laid off  (though there’s no guarantee that will happen).

Dorn Steele says her decision had just as much to do, though, with the state of journalism, both in general and in the Spokane newsroom. “When I look forward for the Spokesman-Review, it’s going to be a smaller [and] less effective watchdog than it’s been in the past. And I just didn’t want to be a part of that.”

Though she had recently been reassigned to cover local courts, Dorn Steele spent years covering environmental issues, from Hanford and the downwinders to the Superfund cleanup at Bunker Hill and the labor strike at Kaiser. When the Spokesman broke news of Mayor Jim West’s improprieties in 2005, she was made half of a dedicated investigative unit with Bill Morlin, who helped break the story.

Morlin, whose first job in journalism was a pair of paper routes with the Spokane Chronicle while still an LC student, similarly foresaw a change in focus in the Spokesman’s coverage — away from the kind of in-depth investigative reporting he’s done there since 1972. “It’s [coming] to the point where we’re more worried about the next downsizing than the next day’s news stories,” he says. “The focus on doing the sort of journalism that’s meant the most to me over the last 37 years just isn’t there anymore.”

Morlin spent 25 years chronicling the goings-on of white supremacists in North Idaho. In the 1980s, he wrote a series that led to the resignation of a Spokane police lieutenant who had become compromised with an organized crime figure. Last year, he broke a story about a diploma mill operation awarding thousands of bogus high school and college degrees. But lately, he says, “Everything’s turning into a three-paragraph story, and that’s just not what I’m about.”

Morlin, Webster and Dorn Steele all fret over the future of journalism, pointing to friends of theirs who were laid off at the Seattle P-I and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, both of which recently shut down their print operations. “Watching the craft we’ve grown up in and devoted our lives change so drastically, with nothing new on the horizon…” Webster sighs. “Nobody’s been able to say where this is going to go.”

Webster joined the paper as a sports writer in 1981 before installing himself in the Features section, writing about movies, books and other culture. For seven years he has blogged at Movies and More (his latest post suggests he may continue). His voice is also familiar on KPBX’s weekly Movies 101 program.

“I still feel like I have things to give, but it’s just been so bad,” he says. “And with hard negotiations that seem to be placing lots of demands on our bargaining unit, it just seemed to be the right time.”

Indeed, Webster was not the only one to mention the ongoing labor negotiations between management and the writers’ union, which continued this week.

As we’ve reported over the last several weeks, management has been trying to get the union to accept a 5 percent pay cut — outside of the ongoing contract talks — to help keep the paper afloat. Arts reporter and union president Jim Kershner told The Inlander last week that now management is pushing for 8 to 10 percent. Not only that, he says, but the paper has hired an infamous union-busting attorney from Tennessee. And some of the language in management’s proposals has been disturbing, with calls for loyalty oaths and the ability to search employees’ vehicles in the company’s garage.

“[These are] Wal-Mart techniques,” Dorn Steele says, noting the loyalty oaths, lower entry-level salaries and ditched pensions for workers under 35. “This is a shattering of the compact between managers and employees.”

“I think there’s something so appropriately symbolic about leaving this place on April 1, don’t you?” Webster asks.

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