No one ordered champagne. Instead, it was whiskey, gin and beer, in large quantities, over several hours last Wednesday at the Far West bar. As much as these Spokesman-Review journalists wanted to toast the departure of their embattled editor, Steve Smith, they couldn't. The announcement of Smith's resignation came along with news that some 60 positions, including 25 in the newsroom, were headed for the chopping block.

"Dead man walking!" a reporter shouted as another doomed co-worker walked into the bar.

The evening had the feeling of a wake for a dying tribe of newspaper workers and the paper that they've loved passionately but which, at least recently, hasn't loved them back. "Hey, listen to this bullshit," a reporter said as he read aloud the company's press release announcing the cutbacks. Aside from layoffs, the release explained, the physical size of the paper was also going to shrink.

Surrounded by drinking companions, the reporter quoted the release: "'[Publisher Stacey] Cowles noted that there is nothing unusual in workforce reductions and stressed the newspaper "remains committed to being the Number 1 provider of news and advertising in the Inland Northwest.'"

The publisher's comment gave little comfort that night and quickly became a target of derision. So did Smith's quote, "my resignation ... should not overshadow the simultaneous layoff of more than 25 newsroom staffers." Last week's announced layoffs were the second in less than a year and will bring the newsroom to about 85 employees — down from about 130 when Smith started six years ago.

"This is a brutal cut. ... It's also the latest in a long series of bad decisions by the people who own and run the Spokesman-Review," Jim Kershner, arts writer and president of the union representing editorial staff, says in a written statement. "Management told us that these cuts are necessary to 'ensure the continued profitability of the company,' although I have never heard anybody claim we are actually losing money."

The paper isn't losing money, but it is making less money than it traditionally has, in large part driven by shrinking numbers of national advertisers and classified ads, says sales and marketing director Shaun Higgins, speaking on behalf of Cowles, who left town shortly before the layoff announcement. Higgins wouldn't reveal how profitable the paper is. "Every newspaper in the country is operating below its traditional margins."

Smith's No. 2, Managing Editor Gary Graham, was named as Smith's replacement during a staff meeting on Tuesday afternoon. Some had thought Carla Savalli, the assistant managing editor for local news, would be promoted, but she resigned the day after Smith did.

Aside from the reorganization of personnel, the publisher plans to shrink the paper's width from 13 to about 11 inches. The paper says it will continue to produce several weekly sections, including Voices and the Handle Extra in North Idaho. However, the future of other sections, like the entertainment tabloid 7 and the youth-oriented VOX, could be in jeopardy. "There are decisions about all our publications and sections that will be made down the line," Higgins says. "I won't reveal our plan to The Inlander."

The company will continue to produce radio news reports and plans to launch a revamped Web site next month, but as the news operation shrinks, the paper will focus on its core mission of meat-and-potatoes journalism, Higgins says. "There will be some things that we will not cover."

But even with scaled-down ambitions, it's not clear how the paper will manage to absorb such deep cuts, Kershner says. On the chopping block: veteran music writer Isamu Jordan, restaurant critic Tom Bowers, photographer Rajah Bose, development writer Parker Howell, food editor Lorie Hutson and radio host Rebecca Mack. While the list of laid-off employees won't be finalized for another week — it could change if others voluntarily resign — it's clear that a large pool of talent is headed for the door. As for the morale of those who remain, "It's as low as it can get," Kershner says.

This is the second time in a year that Taryn Hecker, a reporter in North Idaho, has been laid off. Last time, she was re-hired. This time, she's done — she says she wouldn't come back if she could because she's tired of not knowing when the next ax will fall. A divorced mother of two, Hecker recently bought a house thinking she'd be safe for a while.

"I need some sense of stability.... I need to pay my mortgage and support my family," she says, adding later, "Emotionally, it's just as tough for people left behind.... It's not going to be the same Spokesman, empty desks everywhere. It's kind of like going through a funeral."

For his part, Smith says he's not sure what he'll do next. He says he resigned because, with a reduced staff, he couldn't do the same quality journalism. "There's no managing a layoff of this depth," he says. "It's devastating for the newsroom."

He leaves the newsroom in a state of flux and his legacy may in part depend on what happens next — whether his successor continues or dismantles Smith's investments in radio, the Internet and community journalism, like the paper's summer "staycation" series. Smith has also been credited with making the newsroom more transparent and adopting a code of ethics, following the River Park Square scandal. Personally, he says he's especially proud of two things: the controversial investigation into Mayor Jim West and "Our Kids, Our Business," a joint-media project looking at child abuse.

But last week, in the Far West bar, Smith's employees, many of whom he hired, spoke of a different legacy, of a man whose quick temper and impetuousness kept the newsroom on edge — this, during an already uncertain time in the newspaper business.

Asked if Smith left the paper better off, Higgins hedged. "It's a different place. Personally, I'm not into better or worse in that regard. ... This has been a wrenching time for the newspaper the last six years."

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About The Author

Jacob H. Fries

Jacob H. Fries is the editor of the Inlander. In that position, he oversees editorial coverage of the paper and occasionally contributes his own writing. Before joining the paper, he wrote for numerous publications, including the Tampa Bay Times, the Boston Globe and the New York Times. He grew up in Spokane Valley...