The Oregonian is about to get Newhouse’d.

As the billionaires’ Advance Publications has rolled out its newspaper-liquidation plan across the country, it has engaged in a curious bit of corporate name-shuffling.

The Times Picayune company yielded to NOLA Media Group (and Advance Central Services). The Plain Dealer shifted focus to digital, cut publication/delivery, and added Northeast Ohio Media Group. Advance’s Alabama papers became Alabama Media Group. All more or less followed the same template: gutted newsrooms, reduced publication, and a turn to the hamster-wheel model of digital journalism.

Now Portland’s Willamette Week reports that The Oregonian’s holding company has filed to trademark the name Oregonian Media Group:

On May 17, the Oregonian Publishing Co. filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for protection of a new brand name: Oregonian Media Group.

For the employees of the state’s biggest newspaper—and anyone concerned by the paper’s already weakened state—this is an ominous move.

When I was reporting my story on the Battle of New Orleans, in our March issue, I tried to answer the question of why Advance had gone through the trouble of creating new corporate entities for these publications.

Here’s some string that didn’t fit the piece but may help shed some light on the matter.

The Newhouses have long been anti-union. That’s hardly unusual among their class, but their famous Newhouse Pledge helped prevent unionization at Advance’s papers, including in New Orleans, by promising employees that “no full-time, non-represented, regular employee will ever be laid off because of economic conditions or because of the introduction of new technology.”

In 2008, when the Newark Star-Ledger was bleeding tens of millions of dollars and needed to sharply reduce staffing to cut costs, the Newhouses found their hands tied by the Pledge. They threatened to sell the paper if the nonunion staff didn’t agree to a 27 percent reduction in headcount. Forty percent of the newsroom eventually took buyouts.

Less than a year later, when Advance launched AnnArbor.com, it made the decision—strange at the time—to kill the 174-year-old Ann Arbor News and form a new corporate entity, AnnArbor.com LLC. It would run the website, with a drastically reduced newsroom, and print a newspaper twice a week. Advance was so eager to bury the News entity that the “new” paper is actually called AnnArbor.com.

The next month, Steve Newhouse announced that Advance would rescind the Pledge, telling The New York Times that “It was not meant for a time when our newspapers, like others, are struggling to survive.”

Among the talking points handed out to managers, one said, “I suggest you stop worrying about being laid off and focus on your work,” according to court documents.

The ultimate question here is whether Advance thought it had a serious legal liability due to the Pledge. Can you promise employees that “no full-time, non-represented, regular employee will ever be laid off because of economic conditions or because of the introduction of new technology” and then unilaterally say “oopsie! we don’t mean that anymore”? I don’t think so.

Advance never responded to my requests for an interview during my reporting in New Orleans, but we do know the company had reason to worry about the implications of the Pledge.

One week after rescinding the Pledge, Advance forced out the publisher of the Mobile Press-Register, Howard Bronson, who had run into trouble with brass in part by advocating charging for news online. Bronson sued Advance for breach of contract, citing the Pledge, and asked for 10 years of his whopping $745,000 salary.

The case went to trial in 2011 and even forced Donald Newhouse to the stand to say the Pledge “was intended to be a promise that Advance would keep as long as it could keep it,” according to the Mobile Lagniappe’s excellent coverage of the trial.

It’s worth noting that later versions of the Newhouse Pledge added a critical clause: “No full-time, non-represented employee will be laid off or otherwise lose his or her job due to technological change or economic conditions, as long as our newspaper continues to publish daily in its current newsprint form.”

As Bronson v. Newhouse neared a close, Advance settled the case on undisclosed terms.

Bronson was replaced by a more amenable leader, a Mississippi publisher named Ricky Mathews.

Mathews would take over for beloved Picayune publisher Ashton Phelps after he stepped down in New Orleans early last year.

Mathews went to work implementing the Advance plan, which involved shutting down the Times-Picayune Company and creating two new corporate entities: NOLA Media Group and Advance Central Services. The newsroom and Nola.com went to NOLA Media Group, while the rest of the newspaper operations went to Advance Central Services. Laid-off Picayune employees were given fairly generous severance packages, presumably not out of the goodness of the Newhouses’ hearts.

Thomas Maier, author of the authoritative biography of Si Newhouse, told me when I was reporting my story a few months ago: “I think it’s an abject lesson for anybody concerned about unions and middle class existence for reporters. It’s a classic case study of people who bought the plantation owners’ promise of a lifetime job and when things truly got bad found out that there was nothing behind the promise.”

 

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu.