By now, it is understood that daily newspapers face tough times. Today’s readers have myriad options for getting information, and their long-held allegiances to dailies have all but vanished. To that, add high overhead for print publications. And to that, add that most major dailies are owned by publicly traded corporations, which tend to cut jobs as a way of maintaining or increasing profits.
All told, there have been better days.
Recently, according to the trade publication Editor and Publisher, The San Jose Mercury News eliminated 31 jobs in its newsroom (on top of 15 who accepted voluntary buyouts). Ten positions were cut from various departments at the Fort Collins Coloradoan, and The Indianapolis Star seeks to reduce its workforce by 20 throughout the paper. The latter two papers are owned by Gannett, which also owns The Courier-Journal.
The C-J has largely avoided these sorts of cuts, but it is not immune to economic pressures, and late last month, some of them hit home when the newspaper eliminated eight jobs in advertising operations, on top of four recent cuts.
Randi Austin, vice president of human resources at The C-J, confirmed the elimination of 12 positions and said the company is in the process of restructuring how it processes advertisements internally. She stressed the cuts were not in sales, and noted that the layoffs represent a tiny fraction of the company’s workforce, which now stands at 870.
The ad services employees who were let go received a severance package and continued benefits based on length of service, Austin said. She declined to elaborate, but current and former employees say the package includes a week’s salary for each year of service.
LEO spoke to a number of people who were laid off, and they expressed dismay at how they were treated. One of their primary complaints concerns a test to assess the skills of people who laid out and designed ads. Based on the test, employees were then ranked as grade 1, 2 or 3 designers, with the latter being the most proficient.
Kathy Howell, who was laid off from ad services after 18 years, said she had been a floating employee, and she thought her versatility would protect her job. She admits doing poorly on the test, but said it is unfair for compositors, who made prescribed changes to ads, to take the same tests as designers who created the ads.
Robin King, who had worked at The C-J for more than 20 years, was off work and enrolling her daughter in college when the layoffs were under way. She was told she could take the test when she returned, but said she was not allowed to take it and was laid off.
Sharon Deadwyler worked at The C-J for 9-1/2 years. Most recently she was a supervisor in ad services, but she was told she would be better suited as a designer. Rather than accept a demotion and pay cut, which Deadwyler described as “humiliating,” she asked for and received a severance package.
Michael L. Jones, who formerly wrote for LEO, was hired at The C-J in March 2005 to provide copy for specialty publications and advertising supplements. One magazine, Kentuckiana Parent, was cut after former publisher Ed Manassah retired last year, and another, Louisville Life, was published only once. Jones, who was also laid off, said it was frustrating to see the plug quickly pulled on publications he thought were popular with readers.
Austin, the human resources VP, declined to discuss specific personnel questions. She said the design test involved the standard equipment and computer programs that ad ops employees already used.
The cuts are no surprise to industry watchers. “The economic underpinnings of most American media are either in the staggering stage, or in some cases, shattering,” said Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla. Steele stressed that he has no specific knowledge about The Courier-Journal.
Steele said it is a given that American media companies are in a fight for survival. Some are likely to survive and prosper, but some will likely fold, he said, noting that financial analysts who follow media describe the leveling-out period as a multiple year journey.
While The C-J has not experienced newsroom layoffs, the mood in the newsroom is downbeat, according to numerous reporters who have spoken on background. They say the recent layoffs are unsettling because management shared no information about them or whether more are forthcoming. The new focus on Web reporting has diluted the paper’s tradition of in-depth reporting, they say, and the paper’s special projects unit has closed, along with most of its state bureaus. While many reporters say they think the paper still turns out some good work, they worry that the corporate strategy is shortsighted. They also note that at least a dozen newsroom jobs have gone unfilled in recent years.
Austin said the company has no hiring freeze, and that it typically has 15-20 active job openings, company-wide, in any given month. She said no other layoffs or buyout programs are planned.
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