Hassan Nezhadessivandi,65, emigrated from Iran to the United States four decades ago in search of asylum. Dan Vock, 41, is a husband and father of two with a mortgage. Casey Quinlan is celebrating their 31st birthday next week.
These Washingtonians were all laid off within the last three weeks. They didn’t work for the same employer, but worked in the same industry: media. Nezhadessivandi lost his part-time job at the Washington PostExpress on Sept. 12; Vock lost his job at Governing on Aug. 31; and Quinlan lost their job at ThinkProgress on Sept. 6. Altogether, at least 117 people living in the D.C. area were let go from their part- or full-time jobs because their respective media outlet shutdown.
Thousands of people working in media have lost their jobs this year. Industry cuts and closures have devastated journalism. 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders even devised a plan for how to mitigate the damage.
Each with an office in D.C., Express, Governing, and ThinkProgress served unique roles in the media landscape: Express, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, gave Metro commuters a free daily newspaper since 2003; Governing, owned by e.Republic, covered the intricacies of states and localities since 1987; and ThinkProgress, owned by the Center for American Progress, offered readers original reporting and analysis from a progressive perspective since 2005. (Disclosure: the reporters of this story, Gomez and Soong, have previously worked at ThinkProgress and the Post, respectively.)
Every media annihilation in the District, a journalism hub, leaves in its wake workers who’ve been let go and are now wondering when they will get their next paycheck, or weighing whether to independently purchase health insurance.
Sarah Kelly left a marketing job in March and moved from Kansas to D.C. to join the Express as its sports editor. “Definitely the best job I’ve had so far,” says Kelly.
It lasted five months.
Shortly after arriving to the Express office on Sept. 12, Kelly, along with the other editorial staff members at the newspaper, received a Slack message from their executive editor, Dan Caccavaro, alerting them of a noon meeting.
The paper had been losing money, the staff members were told, and Sept. 13 would be the last edition of the paper. Around 12:20 p.m., the Post published a press release and a separate article by media reporter Paul Farhi announcing that the Express would be shutting down, breaking the news in the middle of the Express meeting.
“Everyone’s phone is blowing up even before we know what our options are,” Kelly recalls. “It wasn’t handled well.”
In the immediate aftermath, Kelly says she couldn’t help but feel cursed. Since graduating from the University of Kansas in 2010, Kelly has counted five job losses, several of them in media. Last February, she was laid off from a part-time job at SB Nation and in 2014, Gannett eliminated her position as an assistant digital editor for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
She recently signed a 12-month lease in D.C. and adopted a 6-year-old bulldog named Lavender. Kelly says that Express staffers will receive two weeks of severance for every year of service with the minimum of four weeks. Another former Express staff member, who asked to remain anonymous, says that they will stay on the payroll until Oct. 31 and that their health insurance from COBRA lasts until “six months after your last day of employment.”
The Express was excluded from the Washington Post Newspaper Guild.
“I do wish we’d been unionized because I think that would have made it easier for us to get hired into other jobs at the Post, and just because I think unionizing is good in general,” Kelly writes in a text. “Many of us were earning less than we would [be] doing the same jobs in union positions; some of us had been massively underpaid for years, and that makes it hard to build up the kind of savings you need to survive a lay-off.”
Nezhadessivandi, who worked as a part-time Express newspaper distributor at Dupont Metro Station for the past four and a half years, did not even receive any notice. He says he arrived to his post at 5:40 a.m. on Sept. 13 to set up the bundles of newspapers and went to give a copy to a bus driver. “She told me, ‘You don’t have a job anymore,’” Nezhadessivandi remembers.
That was the first time he heard the news.
“They didn’t notify anybody,” Nezhadessivandi says. “They should’ve given us a notice of a week or two weeks advance … I have this money from retirement to pay rent … but some may not have other sources of income and may become homeless.”
Nezhadessivandi says he has not yet heard from anyone at the Post but adds that there are plans to meet with Post representatives at the K Street NW headquarters on Sept. 17. He isn’t yet sure where he would look for work. (The distributors worked for a third-party companycontracted via the Post.)
D.C. resident Annie D’Amato has gotten to know Nezhadessivandi over the years and started two GoFundMe pages—one for Nezhadessivandi and another for all Express distributors. As of Sept. 16, the campaigns have raised nearly $12,000.
“I miss everything about it,” Nezhadessivandi says of his old job. “To get to meet people, and you interact with people, and also you find friends. It’s something that actually keeps you socializing and have you passing the time with happiness or other things that comes with it … Now that’s taken away from me.”
Governing laid off 15 employees last month, 12 of whom live in the D.C. area. Employees learned operations for the magazine and website were shutting down early August. This was the second time some were laid off; there were layoffs when Governing was sold ten years ago, says Vock—his editor was brought back only to lose his job again. Some staff were notified while out of the office and on vacation—including 29-year-old Graham Vyse, who was in Cape Cod with his mother and sister.
“The sad thing is I wasn’t shocked,” says Vyse. “I had expected to spend many years at Governing and thought that the finances and stability of the magazine would endure. But the sad truth is that in this industry, in this moment, you can never be entirely surprised.”
Severance was based on how long each employee worked at the publication. Vyse wouldn’t say how much he received, but said it was “respectable.” He lost health care the last day he was employed, so now purchases insurance on DC Health Link; he’s paying roughly $350 per month for his plan. “That’s not an insignificant expense,” he says. (He emphasized he’s lucky in that he has some savings and a good network for employment opportunities.)
Meanwhile, 28-year-old Candice Norwood is going without health insurance. (She received one-month severance because she started in July 2018.) She’s holding off purchasing insurance because job prospects look promising. But a recent incident while she was visiting the Shenandoah Valley has her a bit concerned: She tripped while getting out of the shower and clocked the back of her head.
“I’m still incredibly privileged in many respects. I don’t have a serious illness and I’m young, but it puts things in perspective,” says Norwood.
The news of the layoffs definitely hurt; the former Governing staff City Paper spoke with described their positions as dream jobs—Norwood immediately called her parents, crying; she was just promoted so the news was especially disappointing. But several former Governing staffers also said they are freelancing to earn some money, which isn’t always an option for those laid off in other industries.
“This is a life changing event but you can’t stop,” says Vock. “You get up in the morning, take the kids to school, pay the mortgage. It keeps going.”
Unlike Express or Governing, the ThinkProgress workers were unionized and represented by the Writers Guild of America East. ThinkProgress unionized to become editorially independent of CAP, but organizing also meant that the 11 workers who were laid off were contractually entitled to 12 weeks of severance pay and health insurance through the end of the year. They also received an additional stipend, which amounted to roughly $500 per employee. (Twelve employees were laid off in total; one was a manager.)
“We were undoubtedly much stronger as unionized workers,” says Quinlan.
CAP told the employees they were being laid off during an afternoon meeting and they had to leave that same day, close of business, with their belongings. However, employees anticipated layoffs for awhile. The laid-off employees included someone who is pregnant, someone who depended on ThinkProgress for a work visa, and several others who are concerned about making rent and student loan payments.
“[T]he process was long and drawn out, opaque from CAP and punctuated by traumatic meetings where staff repeatedly felt insecure about their jobs but unclear about next steps,” writes one former ThinkProgress employee who asked to remain anonymous via social media. “And while we are all devastated to be laid off, it does mean less constant anxiety while having to produce content regardless.”
Because they anticipated being without a job, Quinlan planned to move out of their apartment by the end of September; they are moving in with their boyfriend to save money.
Quinlan is applying to media jobs. The experience is challenging for the obvious reasons, but it’s also harder because they are non-binary. Some applications force candidates to select either male or female as their gender.
“That’s something that I’m self conscious about,” says Quinlan. They felt comfortable working at ThinkProgress, and were even able to elevate LGBTQ issues as the gender and sexuality reporter.
When asked if they have ever thought about leaving journalism, Quinlan responds: “I’ve definitely considered over the past two months, but I have decided I’m not leaving without a fight.”
“We can’t keep hoping that a few billionaires are the key to saving journalism. We need to build something better,” they add. “I don’t know for certain what that will look like but I’m tired of watching so many of us fight for scraps in this industry.”