The McClatchy Strib: RIP. WTF?

Pruitt's Folly, big-daily blues, and the invasion of the stripper-flippers

According to the story, Dean refused to address the question of downsizing, saying only that the road to improved profits "may not be about staff cuts."

Everyone is bracing for cuts of some kind; the question is, how deep and in what manner? Some staffers note that the Strib's Guild contract contains an unusual provision granting members a five-day window in which they can trigger a buyout in the event that the paper is sold. The terms of that buyout are two weeks' severance pay for each year of service, up to a cap of 40 weeks. This is similar to the buyout package that 37 Pioneer-Press employees, including 21 people from the newsroom, took in late 2006. (The Pi-Press likewise paid two weeks per year but set the cap higher, at 52 weeks' wages.) But Chris Serres doesn't think that offer will find many takers.

"That's a bare minimum severance package," he said. "I think anyone who's been here for at least 10 years is going to want something more than that. If they offered something comparable to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer's buyouts—two and a half years' pay for everyone over the age of 50—then we're dealing with a serious buyout package. There could be 20-30 people who would take that. But it's really difficult to say how many people might opt out until we know what the company's going to offer."

If Avista doesn't want to offer premium severance packages, it could rely on attrition or simply start laying people off. But straight layoffs are unlikely, at least among reporters. Guild rules dictate that people with the least seniority go first. The youngest—and most ethnically diverse, and cheapest—people in the newsroom would therefore be hit hardest. Never mind the obligatory lip service to diversity, but what cost-slasher wants to jettison his cheapest resources as a first resort?

So for the near term, the likeliest prospect is that Avista will try to take out cash and fatten the operating margins through some combination of land sales, staff buyouts, and efforts to undermine the Guild, whose current contract expires in mid-2008. As for the longer view, well, there really is no longer view at the moment. A lot of the Stribbers I spoke to held out the stubborn hope that this private equity firm might be different from the vast majority of them—that it might actually sacrifice some short-term gains to build a solid future for the product.

John Morton of Morton Research takes a mixed view. "Something good [Avista] did was to hire Chris Harte, who's a respected newspaper executive. It should be comforting to the people there that they will have him instead of a bean-counter. Having said that, private equity investors don't buy out of love. Typically they want to flip the property in five to six years for a large gain. What remains to be seen is what they'll do to make the newspaper more profitable."

The growing fear among industry watchers on both the print and online sides of the divide is that the siege on newspaper revenues, and editorial staffs, is in effect de-capitalizing the gathering of news. "What's happening is not as simple as readers moving from print to online," said Poynter analyst Rick Edmonds. "A lot of it is purely on the business side. You can sell your car or fill a job by using craigslist, so why use a newspaper? That particular tradeoff doesn't have much to do with the quality of a paper or whether people like it. But it spills back into the news equation in the form of financial pressures on the budget. 'Death by a thousand cuts' is probably a good way to put it."

And as newspapers continue to hemorrhage ad revenues, it isn't as if those dollars are just moving to newsgathering organizations in a new medium. They're going dozens of places, to specialized ad platforms on the web (think jobs, cars, and real estate), to blog networks, to TV—or, as in the case of classified ads and craigslist, simply evaporating. So who will assemble the resources to do even halfway substantial journalism in a post-newspaper age?

"That's my major concern," said Morton. "Only newspapers are economically organized to collect a large amount of news. I fear that as the newsprint model declines, there will be—and there already has been—a reduction in journalistic efforts: cuts in staffing, reducing of news holes, closing of bureaus. It's all been happening for the last five years, and it all diminishes newspapers' ability to do what they're supposed to do."

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