Thursday, July 3, 2008

Media Death March: LATimes to Cut 150 Editorial Jobs

By John C Abell WIRED

he Los Angeles Times announced it was cutting 150 editorial jobs -- in both print and online -- and cutting the number of pages it publishes by 15% per week.

The good news, if there is any, is that as part of the shrinking process the LATimes will finally merge the print and online staffs. There probably are still some other significant non-converged newspaper newsrooms out there but the LA Times is the nation's second-largest metropolitan daily -- it must have occurred to someone high up there a while ago that there is no sane rationale for this divide, which is almost an accident of internet news history.

The reason for the cuts? The usual suspects: readers and advertisers are flocking to online and while the readers may in the main remain loyal the advertisers, with a zillion more choices, are not. And -- oh yeah -- the lousy California housing economy is also blamed, according to a memo to staff.

You all know the paradox we find ourselves in: Thanks to the Internet, we have more readers for our great journalism than at any time in our history. But also thanks to the Internet, our advertisers have more choices, and we have less money. Add to that a poor economy, particularly for us in the California housing market, and you quickly see why a wave of cutbacks has swept through newsrooms this year from New York to Santa Ana.

We are not immune. As David Hiller mentioned in his memo last week we are embarking on another round of cost cutting. I deeply regret to report we will be reducing the size of our editorial staff, both print and Web, by a total of 150 positions, and reducing the number of pages we publish each week, by about 15%.

These moves will be difficult and painful. But it is absolutely crucial that as we move through this process, we must maintain our ambition and our determination to produce the highest-quality journalism in print and online, every day.

Through all of our changes, we continue to give readers terrific coverage, whether it's the continuing collapse of the housing market, public pools that have been taken over by gangs, or the controversy surrounding liver transplants at one of our most prestigious hospitals. We've provided insight into the historic presidential campaign, and we've delivered exclusive, on-the-scene looks at the brutal repression in Zimbabwe and the continuing war in Iraq. The future of The Times, in print and on the Web, depends on that kind of journalism -- exclusive, original, excellent. We will not retreat from that commitment.

I don't yet have all the details on the reductions to come, but we expect to complete these moves by Labor Day. We'll provide more information, including the severance terms, as soon as we can. As part of this process, we will be combining the print and Web staffs into a single operation with a unified budget.

I appreciate your patience, understanding and cooperation during this difficult time. John, Davan and I, and the rest of the senior editing team, will be available to answer your questions. With more than 700 people, we will remain one of the largest and best newsrooms in the country. And we will continue to be a strong and formidable presence in the business we so dearly love.

Russ Stanton
Los Angeles Times

Even after this round of cuts the LATimes will still have about 700 editorial staff, one of the largest contingents in the nation, it says. No explanation on how "great journalism" perseveres with fewer reporters. But owner Sam Zell had a very testy exchange in February with a reporter at another one of his papers who asked then about editorial policy.

See also:

Excerpts from LA Times

The newspaper cites falling ad revenue in economic slowdown.

LA Times Publisher David Hiller said the goal of the cuts was to "get to where we need to be for the long term. We want to get ahead of the economy that's been rolling down on us and get to a size that will be sustainable."

Hiller said the size of the reductions was predicated on the expectation that the economy would "bottom out and reach equilibrium" early next year. The editorial staff cuts will be among 250 positions cut across all departments of The Times, including circulation, marketing and advertising, Hiller said. Company wide employment will be about 3,000 after the reductions, he said.

The editorial staff cuts, which amount to roughly 17%, will be spread between the print newsroom and The Times' Web operations and are to be completed by Labor Day. The two operations employ about 876 people, meaning that the editorial staff will remain above 700. The paper would continue to have one of the largest corps of editors and reporters in the country. Details on the reductions, including severance terms, will be forthcoming.

Hiller said he expected that the severance terms would match those of earlier staff buyouts at The Times, including payment equivalent to two weeks' salary for every year of service, up to a maximum of 52 weeks, to be paid into the employee's retirement account. One issue still under study, Hiller said, is whether the reductions trigger the California Worker Adjustment and Retaining Notification Act, or WARN, which requires 60 days' notice of impending layoffs under certain circumstances.

As part of the reduction process, Stanton said, The Times will be combining its print and Web staffs into a single operation with a unified budget.

"These moves will be difficult and painful," Stanton said in his memo. "But it is absolutely crucial that as we move through this process, we must maintain our ambition and our determination to produce the highest-quality journalism in print and online, every day."

The cuts are the latest, and among the most severe, in a series of reductions that have pared The Times' editorial staff down from its 2001 level of nearly 1,200. The most recent reductions, announced in February, involved the elimination of more than 100 jobs in all Times departments, including more than 40 in the newsroom.

The reductions have come amid considerable management turmoil: In 2006, then-Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson and Editor Dean Baquet publicly refused to make cuts requested by management at Tribune Co., owner of The Times. Both eventually left the newspaper. Tribune was then a publicly traded company, but it has since been taken private in a buyout led by Chicago entrepreneur Sam Zell.

Johnson was succeeded by Hiller. Baquet was replaced by James O'Shea, then the managing editor of the Chicago Tribune; O'Shea departed in January, also after objecting to planned cuts in the newsroom budget. Stanton, a 10-year veteran of The Times, was named editor three weeks later.

Announcements of hundreds of reductions were issued only last week by dailies in Boston, San Jose, Detroit and elsewhere. Among Tribune newspapers, the Baltimore Sun said it would cut about 100 positions by early August and the Hartford Courant announced plans to cut about 50 newsroom positions. The New York Times and the Washington Post both instituted layoffs or buyouts to reduce their staffs this year.

Besides the changes in the newspaper industry, Tribune carries the burden of about $1 billion in annual payments on its debt, much of which it took on to finance the $8.2-billion buyout.

Since the buyout, which became effective at the end of December, Zell has moved to reduce the debt through asset sales. A $650-million sale of the suburban New York daily Newsday is pending, and the sale of the Chicago Cubs along with the baseball team's iconic Wrigley Field ballpark and related properties is expected to bring in $1 billion or more when it is completed, probably this year.

Zell said last month that the Newsday sale and new credit arrangements would ensure that the company would meet its interest and principal obligations this year and would remain in compliance with its loan agreements.

"Even with the reductions, this is one amazing place with great people and great customers," Hiller said, "and we're going to keep doing amazing work for them."

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