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Get ready to grumble: Star Tribune union releases merit pay list

[Note: Two corrections appended 8:30 p.m.]

In April, the Strib forced its 275 newsroom workers to take a collective $2 million pay cut. Of that, $533,000 was in “overscale” pay — merit pay — which about three-quarters of the newsroom received.

Paradoxically, management fought for the right to restore $360,000 of that — for a smaller number of employees it wanted to keep or reward.

Wednesday morning, the newsroom’s union — almost certainly to management’s consternation, and some of the rank-and-file’s — published the names of the favored few.

As Newspaper Guild leader David Chanen explained in the memo (reprinted below), “Knowing who got the money restored or redistributed is essential if members are to understand what characteristics the newsroom values in its employees.”

So who does management stretch for? The list is long on sports guys, investigators, editors, metro columnists and designers.

Unless I missed something, I couldn’t find a single copy editor, only one metro reporter and one member of the Capitol bureau.

It’s certainly tempting to cherry-pick the list — CJ yes, Staffer X, no?! — but I don’t have a fuller explanation. Chanen was a no comment when asked to expand on the memo, as was Managing Editor Rene Sanchez.

To theorize: Competitive pressures could explain the lengthy sports list. Reporters such as Kevin Seifert have recently been lured away by the likes of ESPN, and management specifically refused columnist Pat Reusse’s buyout request earlier this year so he could move full-time to radio. Then again, are nine reporters in demand, with no decent replacements available should they bolt?

Designers took a relatively large pay cut in the most recent contract, so beyond individual merit, their presence here might make up for some of that. [Update: That said, 46 of 58 people are reporters or editors (aka team leaders); only 12 are from design, copy desk, video, online or photography.]

There are certainly many excellent staffers not listed, such as reporters who pound daily beats. It’s hard to believe the increasingly beleaguered copy desk lacks a single reward-worthy worker, especially when so many lost night pay. [Correction: there is one person from the sports copy desk.] All in all, it seems like a lot of discord to save $173,000.

Two caveats here: Merit-paid workers did not lose all, or even most of their overscale in April; those not on this list still get 70 percent of what they once did. And while staffers listed below did receive something back, the amounts are unspecified, so it could be a little or a lot.

Here’s the roster [note: titles taken from Strib’s website; editors/team leaders in italics]:

Business
Jennifer Bjorhus, Dan Browning, Karen Lundegaard, Kara McGuire, John Oslund, Chris Serres

Columnists
CJ, James Lileks, Gail Rosenblum, Jon Tevlin

Design
Chris Carr, Mark Nicole Hvidsten, Colleen Kelly, Bob Kyle, Leslie Plesser

Editorial/Opinion
David Banks, Jill Burcum, Lori Sturdevant, Doug Tice

Features
Susan Barbieri, Connie Nelson, Rick Nelson, Claude Peck, Chris Riemenschneider

Health
Chen May Yee, Dave Hage, Maura Lerner, Josephine Marcotty

Investigative team
Glenn Howatt, Tony Kennedy, Pam Louwagie, Paul McEnroe, David Shaffer, James Shiffer

Metro/Region
Curt Brown (Region), Tom Buckingham, Maureen McCarthy, Dick Meryhew (Region), Larry Oakes, James Walsh (Metro)

Online design
Jamie Hutt

Politics
Pat Lopez

Photography
Jim Gehrz, David Joles, Deb Pastner

Sports
Dennis Anderson, Kevin Bertels (copy), Dennis Brackin, Joe Christensen, Chris Miller, La Velle Neal, Pat Reusse, Mike Russo, Chip Scoggins, Jim Souhan, Mark Wollemann, Jerry Zgoda, Judd Zulgad

Video
Brett Akagi

Here’s the memo:

Guild members:

After much thoughtful debate, the majority of the Guild’s leadership decided it would be appropriate to offer everyone the opportunity to see the list of the 58 members who had over scale pay restored.

But first, a little history on how the concept of over scale redistribution landed on the table.

The company’s desire to redistribute over scale pay began last summer during contract negotiations. At that time, the company wanted to take all over scale pay and redistribute it to employees of its choosing. The same was true during negotiations last December. (At the time, roughly 75 percent of the membership made at least some over scale pay.) In both instances, Guild negotiators were able to fend off the company’s redistribution attempts.

In bankruptcy negotiations, the compromise we reached in the company’s effort to cut $2 million from the Guild was to reduce over scale pay by 30 percent, a savings of $570,000. The company insisted that it needed to redistribute $360,000 of that amount to worthy employees, those with “special skills.”

We asked, repeatedly, what skills were considered valuable to management, and were only given vague explanations. We also asked, pointedly, whether creditors were pushing for a redistribution of over scale pay. We were told no, it was “top newsroom management.”

It should be noted that contractually, we have no say in how the company redistributes the money. It should also be noted that no member of the negotiations committee had their over scale pay restored or partially restored.

At this point, management has redistributed $262,000, which includes about $35,360 that was taken out of the pot to offset the waiver on the 30 percent over scale cut or the night differential reduction for the reclassified folks. Management has said it plans to distribute about another $50,000 in quarterly performance bonuses and reserve the last $50,000 for redistribution as it desires.

It should be made clear that some people on the list only had a portion of their over scale restored. Knowing who got money restored or redistributed is essential if members are to understand what characteristics the newsroom management values in its employees. Nancy Barnes included management’s criteria for redistribution in a newsroom-wide e-mail. Over-scale information has always been public and, given the extent of the latest redistribution, it’s important that members have these details.

If you would like to be sent an e-mail with the redistribution list, please contact David Chanen or Graydon Royce.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 07/08/2009 - 05:49 pm.

    Sometimes I wonder if what you print is ethical. The Strib rightly or wrongly is treated like a public entity. What would it be like if a greater focus was turned on the U of MN, or a company? Just a thought.

  2. Submitted by David Brauer on 07/08/2009 - 06:01 pm.

    Dan, it’s a fair question. I had to think about this one, especially in identifying people.

    As I’ve said before, my beat is the media, and the Strib is the big dog here, so I often focus on them. Intensely, I admit, though I think major institutions should be covered this way.

    The newsworthiness of the above story, to me, is how disparate treatment may affect news-gathering.

    On some level, management is indicating who – and what – it values. I pay attention to bylines, and I assume many of my readers do, too. I could’ve withheld names, but decided that was not in the public interest, much as some principals may dislike it. It’s a tough call, but one news orgs make all the time.

  3. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 07/08/2009 - 11:21 pm.

    Transparent organizations are inherently more credible. Seems the Strib could use all the cred they can get.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/09/2009 - 08:57 am.

    Why is it that whenever I read about unions, I can’t help but form a picture of a pack of dogs fighting over a piece of meat?

  5. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 07/09/2009 - 12:30 pm.

    Kara McGuire? Are you kidding me? Anyone who has listened to her over the past few years is now broke. I could program a computer to write better financial advice. Lileks? Tice? Newspaper, meet drain.

  6. Submitted by Tony Carideo on 07/09/2009 - 01:44 pm.

    There’s an old saying in politics, usually applied to local or, particularly, university/academic politics: The reason university politics are so nasty is that there’s so little at stake.

    Such has always been the case concerning merit pay at the Star Tribune, or any unionized situation employing people who are engaged in a creative process.

    Do the math: $262K to 58 — fifty-eight! — people. That works out to roughly $4,500 per year to each individual, assuming an equal amount is given to each individual, which is not the case by the way. Now tax-effect that sum, assuming a 25 percent marginal tax bracket at the federal level and 7.05 percent at state, and we’re talking about a combined effective tax rate of about 30.6 percent (no, you don’t add the two rates). The result? Total take-home pay of about $3,123 a year, or about $60 a week. Or, put another way, $1.50 an hour after tax.

    (Is that going to thwart the competition from picking off your sports reporters?)

    The lamentable problem here is that so much of what goes on in journalism is unseen — story selection, editing, interviewing (asking the RIGHT question, sometimes several times over), developing honest and reliable sources — that all that often remains is the finished product and/or the physical visibility a given columnist or reporter has in the newspaper.

    I can’t even count the number of times a copy editor absolutely saved my ass or took a totally garbled sentence and translated into the mother tongue. The same holds true for designers, who package all this stuff up — on deadline — and make it look like something worth reading.

    One further irony here: Some of the newspaper’s most talented people happen to be on the negotiating committee or otherwise involved in union governance. So they get nothing, too.

    Given the ongoing bankruptcy proceeding at the Star Tribune, I am puzzled by both the decision to award merit pay at this particular moment, as well as the decision to make it all public, both within the newsroom and in this forum. It’s like adding fuel to an already blazing fire, resulting in much ado about so very little.

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