The threat of layoffs, which are replacing buyouts, is becoming a powerful tool to extract concessions. At the San Jose Mercury News, another former Knight Ridder property now under MediaNews management, the union agreed in December to higher health insurance premiums and the outsourcing of finance and advertising jobs, reducing guild layoffs from sixty-nine to twenty-eight. During the Philadelphia negotiations, management suggested that Inquirer newsroom layoffs could reach 150.
Privately held Block Communications Inc. has been wielding a different cudgel: a threat to sell its money-losing newspaper properties if it can’t get significant cost savings and jurisdictional flexibility. The National Labor Relations Board has charged the Toledo Blade with illegally locking out more than 200 workers representing five unions. In response, the unions have mounted advertising and subscription boycotts. “We decided that if they’re going to sell the paper, there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it anyway,” said Larry Vellequette, a spokesman for the Toledo Council of Newspaper Unions.
Michael Bucsko, president of The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, said in February that Pittsburgh Post-Gazette guild members were likely to approve a new thirty-nine month contract that cuts pay by diverting about $280 a month to health insurance and the pension fund.
Jeremy P. Sherman, a Chicago-based lawyer at Seyfarth Shaw who has advised management negotiators in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, said newspapers must learn to compete with the “entirely different economic model” of the Web, with its “constellation of different content providers,” and more flexible job assignments. “This is a paradigm shift,” he said.
That isn’t to suggest that newspaper managers aren’t “passionate about putting out the finest quality consistent with business reality,” Sherman added. Where those goals intersect is “the area subject to legitimate debate.”
To Mark Cooper, the research director for Consumer Federation of America, the continued cost-cutting spells trouble. Newspaper Web sites still dominate their markets, Cooper said, but newspapers “do exactly the wrong thing: They say, ‘Let’s get rid of reporters.’ ”
In Philadelphia, despite the cuts, Tierney said in January that his promotional efforts were yielding results, with Inquirer print circulation edging up and page views of Philly.com increasing by about 50 percent from the same time last year.
At the Inquirer, a one-time Pulitzer magnet decimated by three major buyouts since 2000, the layoff process has been chaotic. One well-respected arts reporter was told he would be laid off, then reprieved, threatened again, and finally spared by being moved into management. “The newsroom is in shambles,” Holcomb said, “because nobody knows what’s next. Nearly every department has lost or is in the process of losing key people.”
While the new contract protected dozens of reporters in key beats from seniority-based dismissals, it made no allowance for diversity. About 28 percent of those on the layoff list were African American or Asian American, nearly twice their newsroom representation. After a protest from the National Association of Black Journalists and a meeting with minority staff members, Tierney promised to reinstitute a diversity committee.
“You couldn’t overstate how difficult and painful it was to lose so many great journalists and colleagues,” Bill Marimow, the paper’s new editor, said he told the staff. Still, he said, “We have to play the hand we’re dealt—and, to me, having a newsroom this size is a good hand.”