Swan Songs at the Strib

"Uncle Al" Sicherman took the buyout and hung up his spoon

"Uncle Al" Sicherman took the buyout and hung up his spoon

Al Sicherman spent last Thursday morning wearing a glitter-encrusted tiara around the office.

Uncle Al, as Sicherman is better known to readers of the Star Tribune, wrote the paper's long-running "Tidbits" column, a strange and incredibly popular hybrid of dry wit, reviews of new processed foods, and cultural commentary disguised as detailed analyses of packages.

Sicherman was cleaning out his cube in preparation for his last day on the job, and he unearthed the tiara from under several layers of cookbooks, snack foods and promotional giveaways. As he cleaned, Uncle Al—who sometimes talks about himself in the third person—set aside the worst of the flotsam to take home to add to a personal collection he admits has taken over his laundry room.

"I collect the boxes of products I suspect won't last," he explains.

Among his favorites is a box of Berry Berry Kix, introduced in 1992 and still on the market despite Uncle Al's predictions to the contrary. "It has the name of a nutritional deficiency," he quips, incredulous.

As he worked, Uncle Al packed some items to donate to the food bank, and set out a few curiosities—including a book titled "How God Gives Us Chocolate"—that he thought colleagues might want.

"My desk used to be in his league," joked Jeremy Iggers, longtime Strib restaurant reviewer and ethics writer who was excavating his own desk nearby. "Now mine's third-worst."

Last Wednesday, the Star Tribune released a list of 24 newsroom employees who were leaving the paper. Not layoffs or traditional buyouts, their departures were triggered by a clause in the Strib's contract that guarantees two weeks "dismissal pay" for every year of service up to a maximum of 40 weeks.

The clause was triggered when the sale of the Star Tribune by McClatchy Co. to Avista Capital Partners became final.

"I've lived in St. Cloud since 1981 and have been reading Al Sicherman's columns since then," reader Linda Saupe wrote to the paper after the list was announced. "I just wanted him to know how sad I am that he's leaving the Star Tribune. I'll miss him."

Like Sicherman, nine of the departing employees had planned to retire in coming weeks or months anyhow, and another half-dozen are, like Iggers, in their 50s.

The buyouts will reduce the paper's 361-person newsroom by 7 percent. Managing editor Scott Gillespie says he doesn't know how many jobs were eaten by attrition in the last two years; staff estimate another 25.

As a venture capital firm, Avista is expected by analysts to try to unload the paper in a few years at a handsome profit. With ad dollars shrinking, newspapers throughout the country are increasing profit margins by reducing staff, and Star Tribune management has been silent on the question of whether more jobs will be lost.

"There's a lot of uncertainty as to how many departures they were hoping to get and whether they're going to have to offer another round of buyouts or make layoffs in the future," says Iggers.

Adding to the intrigue around layoffs is the new arrival of former Pioneer Press publisher Par Ridder.

"Given the short time Par Ridder has been there and it's been owned by Avista, I can't imagine they know entirely the extent," Poynter Institute media business analyst Rick Edmonds says. "Certainly even the analysts I talk to have some skepticism about at what point does cutting news staff hurt the bottom line? And I think a good number of places are at that line or over it."

Strib economics reporter Mike Meyers says layoffs aren't necessary. "We make close to monopoly profits and they bought us for a song," he says. But he ominously adds that he's heard secondhand that the newsroom doesn't yet have a budget.

Many of the staffers who took the buyouts planned to keep working for a few weeks, but were told when the list was announced on Wednesday that Friday would be the last day for most.

Because some sections of the paper lost more workers than others, staff say they anticipate some of the remaining newsroom employees will end up with new assignments. Five copy editors are leaving, for instance, as are five news clerks and three graphic designers.

"There's been some scrambling to fill slots for copy editing and designing on the weekend," says reporter Chris Serres, the vice chair of the paper's unit within the Newspaper Guild. "They're just discovering someone's not going to be there. Obviously layoffs are on everyone's minds. We think that any additional staff reductions would lead to reduced coverage of our community and people are going to recognize that."

Staff are watching two positions in particular. State Capitol reporter Dane Smith, 57, took the buyout, and reporters say they are anxious to learn whether the paper will still dedicate a staffer to doing the same kinds of time-consuming, analytical stories for which he was known.

There's also curiosity about two jobs for Washington, D.C., correspondents that were posted earlier this month. When ownership of the paper was transferred to Avista, Strib reporters Rob Hotakainen and Kevin Diaz stayed with McClatchy and are now reporting from D.C. for other cities within the chain. Reporters used to get a 25 percent premium over Guild wages to make up for the cost of living in D.C., but when the jobs were posted earlier this month, it was for $60,000-$80,000 and outside the union, according to reporter Steve Brandt.

At the same time, Serres and other staffers say so far that they like what they're hearing from new editor Nancy Barnes, who they say is working to get more local news into the paper.

Some of the departed hope to stay in journalism, but in a different medium. Iggers is one of the founders of the community journalism website TC Daily Planet and its parent foundation, Twin Cities Media Alliance. "As newspapers become more and more corporate, and more market-driven, something's got to come up to fill the gap," he says. "The long-term prospects of the printed newspaper are not good. They're losing advertisers and they're losing readers."

Others are getting out of the business altogether. Reporter Darlene Prois and her husband, a Fridley police officer, sold their house a year ago and plan to move to Hayward, Wisconsin. "The Star Tribune, no matter who's owned it, has been good to me. When I got sick, when family members died, it's been a good place to work. I've been here for 30-some years. It's been a place where I've been able to purchase homes and I sent two kids to college."

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