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The Star Tribune’s layoff/buyout list

The Star Tribune layoffs have happened, and depending on who’s counting, the paper whacked 60 percent of its copy editing positions.
By David Brauer

[Note: The original version said copy editor-classified positions fell from 30 to 12; it’s 32 to 14. Also, five copy editors were shifted to a higher classification, instead of a new one.]

The Star Tribune layoffs have happened, and depending on who’s counting, the paper whacked nearly 60 percent of its copy editing positions.

All told, 27 newsroom staffers were cut; 11 took last week’s buyout, 15 were let go Wednesday and Thursday and one non-union editor was laid off earlier this month. That’s fewer than the 30 positions targeted in November, but it’s not huge comfort to anyone at 425 Portland.

Here’s the roster, with buyout-takers in italics:

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Copy editors (18): Steve Fisher, Ann Wilhelmy, John McIntyre, Lisa Hoff, Patty Pryor-Nolan, Sharon Hodge, Cyndi Nightengale, Jean Shea, Paulette Henderson, Nancy Lo, Kelly Maynard, Mark Holland, Tim O’Brien, Troy Melhus, Sherri Hildebrandt, Bill Crum, Sharon Kessler, and David Gustafson.
Photo editors (2): Jennifer Simonson, Tricia Drury.
Multimedia producer (1): Karen Paurus
News assistants (2): Chris Reusse, Christine O’Connor
Calendar writer (1): Mary Ellen Smith
News techician (1): Paul Joppa
Photo lab person (1): Mary Beth Vanyo
Manager (1): Christine Ledbetter

In a Friday memo, the newsroom’s Newspaper Guild says there were 32 copy editors and copy desk chiefs, now there are 14, a decline of 56 percent. The copy editing calculation gets muddied a bit because some classified as copy editors have other duties: O’Brien, for example, is the letters-to-the-editor editor and wrote a weekly “Bloghouse” column; Melhus is a web producer. Some are also part-time. But no one argues the copy editing hit was less than 40 percent.

A couple of other business notes. In the Strib’s brief story on the matter, spokesman Ben Taylor said the news organization saved $6.8 million after cutting 95 positions company-wide, including those in the newsroom. That’s 9 percent of the staff.

Based on bankruptcy filings last year, I estimated the Strib paid out $104 million in comp in 2009. In financial projections filed with the court last fall, Strib consultants projected payroll falling to $87 million in 2010, with earnings before interest, taxes and depreciation of $20.8 million. Overall, the paper forecast a $2 million net loss for this year, though assumptions about ad revenue (and payroll) likely have changed since then.

Management deployed at least two strategies to keep workers it valued highly. They shifted five “A-scale” copy editors to a higher classification, independent of seniority. Also, top editors used new contract power to exempt less-experienced workers within classifications from seniority-based layoffs. That created some awkwardness for those protected, though it was tougher for higher-seniority workers who would have been safe, but weren’t.

One of the most senior workers taking the buyout was copy editor Ann Wilhemy, who had 42 years experience. Wilhemy says her decision, though technically voluntary, wasn’t: “I was not planning on leaving at this time but when you are told your job has been eliminated you just kinda know you are out.”

She is the longtime union president of the Minnesota Newspaper Guild, a position she says she has to resign.

It’s not always easy to communicate all a copy editor does, and space won’t allow me to do the deserving exiles justice. But last fall, I wrote a post about the Strib bringing back its weekly TV guide. After the story ran, I received this note from an ex-Stribber:

Until its demise, Ann Wilhelmy did the production for the Sunday TV book. A complicated and mostly thankless task at which she was superb. It was produced several weeks in advance as it was printed off site and collation was done prior to the news run. The famous TV book oops occurred on an Easter Sunday when people opened their papers to find a color photo of the Crypt Keeper from “Tales From the Crypt” gracing the TV book cover.

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I asked Wilhelmy about it and she responded with good grace:

Yeah, that Easter cover really upset a number of people – some readers thought I should be fired! It was April 1990 when that happened. … these photos were selected at least four weeks in advance of the actual date and I was not even thinking about Easter. The reason the art was selected was because that week was the second season premiere of the HBO series and Arnold Schwarzenegger was making his directorial debut. Thought it was a good cover story item.

Not everyone who was let go was a copy editor; one that hits home for me is Mary Ellen Smith. When I was cutting my teeth at the Twin Cities Reader, Mary was a combination den mother, orchestra conductor, and clown car driver.

We were all young and stupid; Mary wasn’t much older but way savvier. Even though we j-saps didn’t appreciate the money-making part of the business, Mary kept the calendars and other useful parts of the paper together — she did the same, awesomely I’m told, for the Strib features section. Hire her!

I also received several emails about Paul Joppa, described variously as “Mr. Everything,” the “ultimate yeoman” and the guy who “did a lot” to make the paper’s 2008 Republican National Convention set-up work. He is also apparently the person who has to “fix” Sid Hartman’s phone when the hard-of-hearing columnist perceives a problem. Under the gun from ownership, management made protecting news-gatherers such as reporters a priority, but guys like that are the newsroom’s connective tissue who, unsung, enable the bylined folks pull it off.