The Voluntary Buyout That Wasn't: Strib Denies Sports Writer's Bid to Keep Working

Ninety-seven seconds before midnight on March 10, Star Tribune sports writer Steve Aschburner emailed his managers telling them he wanted to take a voluntary buyout of his contract. He was on the road, covering a Timberwolves game in Atlanta, and his decision came at the very end of a five-day window in which employees could choose to leave the paper in exchange for a payout for time served.

Aschburner quickly regretted his decision, recognizing it as an "impulsive, stressed-out thing" complicated by personal issues and the "ticking bomb" nature of the five-day clause, and within four days he told his editor he wanted to stay. For the past six weeks he's been pleading with Star Tribune managers to let him keep doing a job he loves -- but what he's found is that management sees his buyout as anything but voluntary.

For 13 of his nearly 21 years at the Star Tribune, Aschburner's beat has been the NBA, and the Minnesota Timberwolves in particular, and in that time he has earned praise from fans -- including one who hailed his ability to work the word "vomitorium" into a piece on a Timberwolves' loss -- and colleagues alike (he recently finished a two-year stint as president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association). And while he couched his successes in modest terms, he admitted, "I really loved my job, and I think I made [the Star Tribune's NBA coverage] into a brand."

But in the five days after the Star Tribune sale to Avista Capital Partners was finalized, he found himself facing a "perfect storm" that fueled his decision to leave his job: "The grind of the season, the isolation of the road, some miscommunication with my wife and then the shock and scare of a friend's and peer's death." A sudden heart attack killed his colleague, the seemingly healthy 55-year-old Hartford Courant sports reporter Alan Greenberg, and seeing himself as out-of-shape, he wondered if he was next. Combined, these factors left him "in no position to be making a life-altering decision."

But the long view is this: he loves his job and has no problems with the paper's new management. His desire to stay isn't about a change of heart. Instead, his fleeting wish to leave was a "hiccup" in judgement, but now the paper is viewing that mistake as the norm and his the two decades of eager service as an anomaly, he said. The Star Tribune denied his request to rescind his buyout application, citing budget concerns, according to a letter sent to publisher Par Ridder by members of the paper's Newspaper Guild unit.

Referencing conversations with Aschburner and letters from his doctor, Guild members Jaime Chismar, Pam Miller, and Chris Serres wrote that they believed Aschburner was under "emotional duress" when he indicated his interest in the buyout, and that he was in no condition to "reflect clearly on how leaving the Star Tribune would affect his career and family." They continued:

To deny Steve the opportunity to continue his career at this newspaper, especially in light of the anxiety he was under at the time of the resignation deadline, seems senseless and cruel. We urge compassion and respect for a dedicated journalist who loved the Star Tribune and is prepared to remain a productive contributor for many years to come.
Aschburner has also received unexpected and unsought support from sportwriting colleagues. Phil Jasner of the Philadelphia Daily News and Doug Smith of the Toronto Star have both written letters to Aschburner's editor urging his reinstatement.After finishing out the Timberwolves' season, Aschburner's last day of work was Friday, April 20, and he has not yet considered what he'll do next. He said he won't pursue legal action against the Star Tribune and isn't bitter about management's decision, but he still holds out hope for a change of heart.

"Someone is going to have to cover that team and league going forward, and no one on staff wants it or has experience," he said. "I am dying to stay on the job."

In times when the paper is in upheaval after the departures of 23 other newsroom staffers, continuing budget concerns, and the turmoil of a new publisher accused of swiping business secrets and staffers from his old employer, the Pioneer Press, why is the Star Tribune refusing to welcome back a popular, well-recognized and, above all, enthusiastic member of its team?

[Cross-posted at Minnesota Monitor. Photo: Aschburner presents Kevin Garnett the 2005-2006 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, via Garnett Tribute.]

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