PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KS — Scott Bujnak might be the first carpenter to obtain “folk hero” status in a newsroom.
Bujnak, 56, was until recently the head carpenter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He’s not a journalist, but on April 16 he did something plenty of put-upon newspaper hacks have dreamed of: He went into his boss’s office and said he was ready to quit.
For years, as the company had gone through financial difficulties, Bujnak had been asked to economize. “The main word I heard every day was ‘cheap, cheap, cheap,’” he said. Then, earlier this month, he discovered that Mary Junck, CEO of Post-Dispatch parent company Lee Enterprises, had just pocketed a $700,000 bonus.
When Bujnak walked into his boss’s office, he recalls, “I said, ‘If you can justify that to me, I’ll stay.” He left.
Bujnak’s dramatic exit, first reported in the Post-Dispatch itself by longtime columnist Bill McClellan, didn’t come out of the blue. His decision captures the sentiment of journalists and media observers who have watched with mounting frustration in recent years as Junck and other executives collect bonuses while Lee’s papers cope with stagnant salaries and shrinking staffs. It’s an often-angry conversation that’s taken place on media blogs local and national; in earlier columns by McClellan; on social media; and, of course, in the newsroom. “You can always find a bellyacher in every newsroom,” one Post-Dispatch staffer who asked not to be named told me recently, “but I don’t think you can find anyone who still enjoys working here.”
One party that’s mostly stayed out of the conversation is Lee itself. Jim Romenesko has been dogging the company for years; this note, on an April 7 post, is typical: “Lee spokesman Dan Hayes has never returned my calls, but I rang him up today anyway and got voicemail.” When I tried to contact Hayes multiple times in the last two weeks by phone and email for this article, I got the same result. I called again April 30 and was told that Hayes is now out of the office for two weeks; I asked if someone else would talk to me and was sent to a voicemail in the finance department. I’ve still received no response.
While management isn’t talking, the story of Lee that emerges from official filings and news accounts is pretty clear: Tight times all around, but when there are spoils to be had, they go to the top. The Post-Dispatch has sustained more than 230 buyouts or layoffs since 2008, according to Paper Cuts, a website tracking newspaper layoffs which is run by former P-D staffer Erica Smith. In those six years, staffers at the company’s flagship publication have seen no raises, they have faced three unpaid weekly furloughs, pensions have been frozen, and retiree health and life insurance have been lost. Layoffs and buyouts have also hit Lee holdings from Montana and Utah to Arizona and upstate New York. For the 2007 fiscal year, the company reported 8,300 full-time equivalent employees; by 2013, that number had plummeted to 4,600. (It has 12 fewer daily publications than it did in 2005, when Lee acquired Pulitzer Inc., parent of the Post-Dispatch.)
In the same period, according to SEC filings, Junck’s base salary has remained steady at between $800,000 and $900,000 per year, and in some of the toughest years—2009 and 2010—that was her total pay. But in other years she has enjoyed millions in bonuses, stock and option awards, and other compensation. In 2012, she made more than $2 million total, including an award of 500,000 shares of stock just a day before the Post-Dispatch announced that 23 employees were being laid off. In late 2013, after a dismal earnings report and smaller layoffs earlier in the year, another round of executive bonuses brought Junck’s compensation to more than $1.5 million. Then there was this spring’s $700,000 bonus, paired with a $400,000 bonus for chief financial officer Carl Schmidt, as a reward for completing a deal to restructure the company’s sizable debt. “At least with this one there were no layoffs,” McClellan, the columnist, told me. (A timeline at the end of this article tracks the firm’s size, Junck’s compensation, and notable Post-Dispatch layoffs since 2007.)
Top management isn’t any more forthcoming with explanations for this trend within the company than it is with outsiders, the Post-Dispatch employee told me. The consequences for morale are predictable: “Nobody expects them to be in the foxhole, but at least let us know that you’re with us and you care.” If employees must do more with less because of the company’s financial difficulties, the staffer said, “at least let us do it in an atmosphere where we believe in the leaders.”