Union: Providence Journal plans more staff cuts this month

By Ted Nesi

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence Journal will cut an undetermined number of employees this month through buyouts or layoffs, according to the largest union at Rhode Island’s statewide daily.

The Providence Newspaper Guild said Friday management has told union officials the paper will offer “a new round of buyouts, and warned layoffs are possible if enough employees don’t accept them.”

The deadline for workers to request a buyout is Monday, Sept. 17. Eligibility will be determined by seniority, though exceptions may be made for workers in key jobs. The Journal’s work force fell by a third to 468 employees between 2008 and 2011.

Union president John Hill told WPRI.com he’s pressed executives to put a specific number on how many staff members they need to shed, but Journal management has only told him they want “significantly more” than the eight cuts they targeted in last December’s buyout round.

That “is making it difficult for us,” Hill said. “A number would help us communicate the seriousness, the magnitude of what we’re confronting.” Journal publisher Howard Sutton did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s unclear what will happen if management doesn’t get enough voluntary buyouts. “The answer is, until Sept. 17, we don’t know,” the Guild said in its unsigned message. “This is a step-by-step process and we are in the first one.”

The union has asked its members to show “compassion” toward their colleagues. “This situation is going to make for a difficult few weeks. It will involve hard, life-changing decisions for those who are considering leaving and anxiety about the future for those who fear a layoff,” the union said. The Guild signed a new contract last year.

“If you’re in the newspaper business [today] you always see it coming – this is all you think about,” Hill said. “Nationally, this is happening all over the country. Everybody is worried this kind of thing is coming, so in a way it is unfortunately not a total surprise. You always hope you’ve got enough going to sort of stagger through.”

Employees who accept the buyout will receive 1.25 weeks of base pay for each continuous year of service at The Journal, capped at 10 weeks, according to the Guild. They will also receive a supplemental pension transition payment by next year, the union said. Employees are especially concerned about the lack of extended health insurance coverage, Hill said.

The Journal’s total revenue rose to $46.7 million during the first six months of 2012, an increase of 1.3% compared with the first half of 2011, its Dallas-based parent company A.H. Belo reported last month. The paper’s advertising revenue plunged 61% between 2005 and 2011.

Hill said Rhode Island’s continued economic weakness is a major contributor to the reduction in ad sales, and expressed hope that a stronger national upturn next year could lift the state’s economy, as well.

“You can only put out a newspaper that the advertising revenue you generate can support,” he said. “Hold the paper – you can see how thick it is. It is not because they decided they’re going to put out a thinner paper. … They’re doing it because this is the paper that the economic base that we have can support at this moment.”

The Journal’s weekday print circulation fell to 85,496 copies a day in the six months ended March 31, down 7% from a year earlier, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The paper put up a paywall in February after limiting its HTML site to short news briefs and sold 273 electronic-edition subscriptions as of March.

The Journal is dealing with the same seismic changes in the newspaper industry that have impacted other outlets from The New York Times to the Newport Daily News. The New Orleans Times-Picayune has announced it will lay off staff and cut its print-publication schedule down to three days a week starting this fall.

The Journal continues to have Rhode Island’s biggest newsroom. Hill pointed out its three-person State House bureau is the only team left there, and the paper has also put significant resources into recent coverage of topics such as the economy, pensions and Central Falls’ bankruptcy.

“Everything that people talk about in this state, they learn from The Providence Journal,” he said. “I have never lived in a state where I think the newspaper is so embedded in the fabric of public life. … The only way people really find out what’s going on up there [at the State House] is our people telling them.”

“There’s just so much that no one else pays attention to if we’re not there, and no one would know what’s going on,” Hill added. “I can’t conceive of a Rhode Island without The Providence Journal. But if people don’t buy the paper, they may have to someday.”

M. Charles Bakst, the former Journal columnist who accepted a buyout in 2008 after four decades at the paper, said he has “no complaints whatsoever” after “a long and gratifying career” there, but expressed concern that others won’t have the opportunity to enjoy similarly long careers.

“And when staff is reduced, quality suffers and readers lose,” Bakst told WPRI.com in an email. “Websites are a great invention and I appreciate them, but it is important to understand that websites will not be able to offer the same kind of content they have been if reporters are not available to produce the stories in the first place. Not to mention the work of photographers or other personnel.”

“This is, in our nation, a very challenging and sad time for print journalism,” Bakst added. “People should savor their newspapers while they still have them.”

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

• Related: Projo parent AH Belo’s board awards big raises to top bosses (March 20)

This post has been updated and expanded.

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