Issue November 26, 2008

Newshound or hatchet man?

With layoffs looming, The C-J’s publisher discusses the state of the paper

Arnold Garson isn’t what you might expect for a guy sent by corporate America to cut costs and preserve profit. And last week, the new Courier-Journal publisher agreed to be the target of a public grilling, a brave move considering yet another round of layoffs is looming at the paper.

Arriving here from South Dakota in August with a reputation as a Gannett loyalist, Garson was brought in to steer the ship through troubled waters and wield the ax for Gannett-ordered layoffs.

Just weeks after being named to his new post, Garson wrote a lengthy memo to C-J staffers explaining that a 15-person staff reduction was necessary as part of the company’s 3 percent cut in expenses. In October, Gannett announced it would cut another 10 percent of its workforce by the end of the year, a move that has created some anxiety in The Courier-Journal’s newsroom.

Despite the troubled times at Sixth and Broadway, however, Garson accepted the local Society of Professional Journalists’ invitation to attend a reception welcoming him to town. The meet-and-greet at Jenicca’s Cafe and Wine Bar on Market Street last Thursday was on the record, and the publisher came prepared to answer tough questions from those in attendance, including a few journalists from his own staff.

Wearing standard-issue journalist duds — a brown sport coat, tie loosened at the throat — Garson voiced concern about the future of newspapers.

“We’re going through some hard times right now, but when the economy turns around, we’re going to be in a good position,” he said, indicating that other industries are in a much worse position to bounce back.

Despite shrinking newspaper profits — and as a result, shrinking staffs — Garson said it is crucial that the paper fulfill its role as a government watchdog and First Amendment backer.

“We can’t abandon our role as protectors of the First Amendment and public-service reporting,” said Garson, a longtime newsman who started his career as a reporter in 1965, spending the last decade in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he was publisher of the Argus Leader.

That’s good news to reporter Deborah Yetter, one of a dozen or so C-J staffers who came to see the boss in a rare public appearance. But the publisher’s dedication to news does not override the fact that layoffs are coming.

“His interest in news has been apparent from the start,” Yetter said in an interview after the event. “People are concerned because we’re well aware of what’s happening in the industry. There are tough times ahead.”

Yetter says there’s no panic in the newsroom, even though it’s less than a week before the deadline Gannett set for publishers to recommend cuts. Some staffers have said they expect the hammer to come down Dec. 3.

Whatever good feelings Garson may have engendered by showing up for the reception, he’s still the one deciding who gets the ax.

“We’re looking at jobs, not people,” Garson said of the impending layoffs.

The paper initially offered employees the opportunity to leave voluntarily, but Garson would not say how many took the company up on the offer, which included two weeks of pay for every year of service. Garson said a problem with the approach is that the volunteers don’t always come forward in the areas they’re needed.

Sports columnist Eric Crawford has seen some of this before. He was on staff at the Evansville Press in 1998 when the afternoon paper folded. Whatever is in store, he’s not blaming the new publisher.

“Garson is making some difficult decisions, but I’ve appreciated that there’s been some time to brace for the moves,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It’s tough in the interim for everybody, but I think it’s far preferable than calling people in out of the blue and cutting them loose. And I think people are glad that he’s a newspaper man. When he talks about these issues, he talks about them in newspaper terms as well as business terms.”

When C-J columnist Al Cross suggested at the reception that the editorial side of the paper has done a better job shifting to the Web than the ad department, Garson agreed in part, acknowledging that online sales make up just 10 percent of the paper’s revenues. The publisher also does not suggest the steady decline in circulation will reverse course, but he boasts that The C-J as a media entity still manages to reach 85 percent of the population every week.