Ever since I wrote a probing (and I’d argue, prescient) story about Strib publisher Chris Harte 14 months ago, I’ve been blackballed by the paper’s non-newsroom management. Calls and email are simply not returned, which makes it hard to get their perspective.
It’s pretty silly for a journalism organization, and a situation I wish didn’t exist — those who do speak to me at 425 Portland know I’m a pretty reasonable guy happy to present both sides. But as any good reporter knows, you don’t let a source’s non-cooperation stop a story.
Anyway, that often means the only way to know what management is thinking is to read it in their own pages. (The sort of message control many Strib subjects wish they had.) Friday, I wrote that several bought-out Strib workers lost tens of thousands of dollars in promised payments, and that the paper was shuttering its St. Paul bureau.
Perhaps prompted by “published reports,” management gave Strib business reporter Neal St. Anthony its take Saturday.
St. Paul bureau first: Editor Nancy Barnes says the Lowry Building space was too expensive — and at $7,500-plus a month, I’m inclined to agree — but that the closing is temporary. The paper wants to reopen its nine-person bureau in cheaper space, which, despite the disruption and landlord screw-over, is a perfectly reasonable position. For newsgathering’s sake, I hope they find it soon and creditors don’t object.
As for the more incendiary buyout issue: Strib spokesman Ben Taylor blames U.S. bankruptcy law, which he says “limits to $10,950 the amount that can be paid to employees who are severed within six months of a bankruptcy filing.” In other words, not the paper’s fault.
This leaves me with two questions that I’ll pursue Monday but post publicly for now. (Feel free to comment if you know your bankruptcy law!):
1. Workers who were severed Jan. 9 — well within the six months before the Jan. 15 bankruptcy filing — are being paid in full. Taylor says the paper sought and received court permission to fulfill the obligation. So why didn’t management request the same for everyone bought out during the six-month period?
One potential reason: Unlike those bought out in the summer and fall, the Jan. 9 workers still had the power to rescind their buyout acceptances. (The provision expired yesterday).
Had they changed their minds, the company would have been forced to lay off cheaper workers to achieve the same savings — meaning they’d have to lay off more of them. The still-in-force contract requires the least-senior people go first — those with the lowest carrying costs going forward, many of whom current management hired.
And oh yeah: The contract still would’ve required severance; one week for every six months of continuous service up to 40 weeks. Because these were newer workers, many payouts would’ve likely fallen beneath the $10,950 threshold.
2. St. Anthony’s story references another pool of unpaid workers: those bought out before the six-month period. They’re apparently not affected by the law Taylor cites, so why are they forced to go to court as unsecured creditors? And again, why didn’t the company at least ask the court that they be paid in full?
I realize that on some level, the Strib is treating its former workers like its former St. Paul landlord. But I’d argue the moral obligation is higher for folks who, for decades, helped tell our community’s stories.