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Taylor’s Star Tribune purchase triggers newsroom buyouts

Best guess now is approximately 20 newsroom, promotions and circulation employees will leave due to contract-mandated severance. 

Demolition crews tearing down the Freeman Building that belonged to the Star Tribune.
Photo by Chris Steller

Glen Taylor’s purchase of the Star Tribune next month may bring about the departures of about 20 employees, according to several Star Tribune newsroom veterans.

It’s not the prospect of working for Taylor that’s triggering a rush for the door, though his recent MinnPost interview “raised a few eyebrows,” according to reporter Randy Furst. Rather, it’s an opportunity to leave the newspaper with a financial cushion.

Union employees who resign when a new owner buys the newspaper may receive as much as 26 weeks’ severance pay under a provision of the company’s contract with the Star Tribune unit of the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild

Guild employees who resign within five days of the company’s sale get a week’s pay for each year of service, up to a 26 weeks.

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The company has held a series of meetings for Guild employees interested in leaving under the clause. Business reporter Steve Alexander — a 33-year veteran taking the severance — said there were about 20 people at the meeting he attended, though some were there as observers. (Reporter Mike Kaszuba, co-chair of the Guild’s Star Tribune unit, said representatives from the union had sent note-takers to the meetings.)

How many of the 250 newsroom, promotions and circulation employees represented by the Guild will leave in the end? “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was north of 20,” Alexander said. “The number’s in flux. Some people you didn’t think would leave, are. Some people you were sure would, aren’t.”

The number 20 came up repeatedly in interviews last week with a handful of newsroom veterans. However, Kaszuba dismissed such handicapping as guesswork because “we really don’t know,” and management spokesman Steve Yaeger adds, “It’s much too early to know how things will shake out in terms of any newsroom departures.”

One thing all agreed on: Most who leave will be employees ready to retire.

That’s different from past buyout offers that attracted mid- to late-career people, said theater critic Graydon Royce, who recently completed a term as Guild president.

Then, the company offered volunteers sweeteners to achieve staff reduction goals — “a chunk of money to go out and do something else,” Royce noted, adding the current contract’s 26-week maximum payout is “not a big chunk. … It used to be 40 weeks.”

Now people are “a bit more cautious,” Royce added, with most of those interested “very close to retirement age.”

Another point of consensus, though expressed with less certainty: The company will fill most, if not all, of the vacancies created.

Said Royce, “Five years ago, they had to think long and hard about filling positions left vacant by buyouts. Now they’ll still think hard, but they’re more amenable to hiring behind.”

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Says Yaeger, “One thing I can tell you is that our coverage will in no way be diminished. We’ll continue delivering the reporting that our growing audience expects.”

Furst speculated management “might try to stagger the departures if people were willing, especially on the production end. In the meantime, people could be chasing around trying to cover beats.”

But any way they’re sliced, the Strib will be shedding years of local journalism expertise.

“A difference now is we’re operating closer to the bone than the other times [when] we had 350 people,” Kaszuba said. “Any loss hurts, even if it’s backfilled.”

It’s a sentiment reporter Steve Brandt remembers well.

“I remember feeling a real sense of loss when people like Doug Grow and Linda Mack walked out of the building,” Brandt said. “Something would happen [in the news] that would strike a chord. You’d look around the newsroom and there was nobody senior enough to remember what happened 20-30 years ago.

Furst agreed that however the pending sale shakes out, “we’ll be missing folks we worked alongside for many years.” But asked about the current newsroom mood, Furst said, “I haven’t detected any mood.”

He said he’s heard less talk about the severance package than about what the newspaper’s new owner will be like.

Taylor’s statements in MinnPost “raised a few eyebrows,” Furst said.

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Taylor told Britt Robson that some reporters “from the old school [think] that ‘my job is to make or show one viewpoint’” and promised a “more of a balance” from newly hired reporters compared to those who “have been there for a long time.”

(“I don’t know how you are ever going to change those people and what they write, but through time itself, some of those people will retire,” Taylor added.)

Furst bristled at that: “Veteran reporters have been eminently fair — we work overly hard to be fair. We would like to know what he’s talking about, what he means. I hope he clarifies that.”

If Taylor does expand on his MinnPost comments, Furst will be around to hear it.

“Nobody asked me to retire, so I’m not,” he said. “Even if they asked me, they can’t make me.”

Brandt said he would probably wait to leave until the end of 2016: “I still like coming to work.”

But for Alexander, 64, the sale of the company is in sync with his circumstances.

“For me, the timing just worked out,” he said.