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Sun chain emerges from bankruptcy cutting staff, possibly papers

Friday was the first day of the rest of Minnesota Sun Newspapers’ life, which meant the end of more careers and probably some of the suburban chain’s stand-alone weeklies.

Creditors officially took over the Sun’s corporate parent, American Community Newspapers, June 26, according to a memo by still-CEO/President Gene Carr. That makes Sun the first local chain to exit bankruptcy … and the only one that will leave the executive who created the mess in place.

Strib Chairman Chris Harte, a similar over-leverager, at least had the decency to announce his impending exit. Carr celebrates his survival by spewing classic corporate b.s., noting “we do not anticipate any changes in our day to day operations as the result of our new ownership.”

This even as several longtime staffers were laid off and six suburban editions are likely to be consolidated into two.

I’ve been able to confirm five local layoffs, though internal sources indicate the number could be over a dozen. Reporters in Plymouth, Minnetonka and Stillwater were let go, as was a managing editor responsible for several south suburban papers. At least three of the five worked for Sun for over a decade; in one case, for 30 years.

The headcount strategy became a bit clearer Friday, when staffers were told that the new entity (creatively named American Community Newspapers II) will likely combine the Hopkins Sun-Sailor and East and West Minnetonka editions into one paper. Meanwhile, East and West Plymouth papers will be folded into the Wayzata edition.

Consolidation isn’t necessarily an awful idea, as long as you can still kick out the news. But this isn’t just cutting production costs, or making papers look fatter with fewer of them. While no publisher is immune from economic punishment, Carr’s blithe reference to ACN as “a mainstay of our local communities” is clearly threatened as journalists are cut.

The troops would appreciate a bit more honesty, Gene.

Sun papers have never been lavishly staffed, but the situation in Stillwater sounds especially absurd.

The chain’s only local daily, the Monday-Friday Gazette, will now put out five papers a week with a staff of three: a managing editor, news reporter, and sports guy. A Sun competitor, the weekly Stillwater Courier, closed last month, and the Stillwater community is quickly experiencing the joys of monopoly. You can argue a city Stillwater’s size doesn’t need a daily — and that may well be the next step.

To lessen the workload, the chain will cut down its daily reporter videocasts to one per area, rather than one per paper. I don’t know how many hits the extremely awkward and poor-resolution vidcasts earned the Sun’s website, but evidence from the chain’s YouTube channel indicates the most-watched episode received 437 page views — with many getting fewer than a dozen looks.

“It’s ridiculous how little these are watched,” one staffer says, indicating the internal numbers are little better. “We’re always asking why they even do them at all.”

The Sun’s vidcast backtrack mirrors that of the Strib, which is also retrenching NewsBreak. The lesson seems to be that no one wants to see print reporters read the news, and newspaper sites are better off focusing on truly visual stories like the Sun’s “Four-fingered pianist wows Edina, MN students,” which at least got 10,000 YouTube views.

Anyway, here’s Carr’s memo:

June 26, 2009
To all American Community Newspapers Employees:

I am pleased to announce that today we have successfully completed the sale of our newspaper groups to American Community Newspapers II, a new company owned by our former lenders. Under our new ownership, our debt has been substantially reduced, which places us in a much better position to execute on our business strategy, serve our communities, and provide ample opportunities for our employees.

I would like to thank all of you for your support and patience. You have demonstrated an exceptional level of professionalism and dedication, which has aided the company immensely and allowed us to complete this transaction in a timely and efficient manner. Throughout the entire process, you continued to provide excellent service to our readers and advertisers, never wavering in your commitment to serving our local communities. A
heartfelt thanks to all of you.

We do not anticipate any changes in our day to day operations as the result of our new ownership. We will continue to serve our advertisers and readers in the months and years to come and I look forward to continuing to lead our company.

I believe we have the right model with our community newspaper focus. We are a mainstay of our local communities and continue to provide our readers with compelling news and information. I remain confident in our exceptional employees and in the value and potential of our newspapers and Web sites.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. In order to ensure consistent communications, we would ask that all vendor questions be forwarded to myself or David Kosofsky and all customer questions be forwarded to your Group Publisher. In addition, all media inquires should be forwarded to Joe LoBello at Brainerd Communicators….

Thank you for all of your hard work and remarkable service.

Respectfully,
Gene Carr

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Larry Grimes on 06/30/2009 - 12:13 pm.

    For a web site that states in its commenter rules and regs, personal attacks are not allowed, how on earth do you justify the continued personal swipes you are making towards Gene Carr and American Community newspapers? It’s disgraceful. Bottom line, it is the recession stupid that has caused the pain at ACN. And with advertisers severely scaling back their spending, newspapers have taken a big brunt. And guess what, without ad revenues, it is very difficult to run a newspaper operation. How are you going to pay for staff, for printing and distribution when the ad dollars aren’t coming in? But we guess you already know that answer. For your own operation receives very little advertising. It’s probably safe to say, an afterthought on the part of local merchants trying to reach their desired target demographics. Thank goodness for foundation support as far as your operation is concerned. You would not exist with out it and my guess, some of your sponsors would be appalled by your constant attacks on your competition. Before you personally bash a publisher please get at least some of the facts straight. Or perhaps MinnPost is really just an Emperor with no clothes.

  2. Submitted by Alistair MacLean on 06/30/2009 - 02:50 pm.

    I’ve worked for the man. The analysis regarding Carr is correct. These hard-working people deserve better.

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