For the moment, at least, no alarms are ringing at the Star Tribune over a new round of newsroom buyouts. “Nothing seismic,” is the description editor Rene Sanchez gives the current “offer,” which seeks six employees willing to accept 26 weeks of pay to leave the paper.
The Newspaper Guild — the union representing newsroom employees — seems willing to take Sanchez at his word, even if they remain wary of the offer’s portent given the paper’s (and the industry’s) trimming over the past decade.
In a statement, guild cochairs Mike Hughlett and Mike Kaszuba said: “Management directly told the Newspaper Guild about the buyout offers prior to its announcement. We are concerned about any lost positions at the newspaper. At this time, however, we do not believe these buyouts are a harbinger of greater cuts.”
In an email exchange, Sanchez said:
We are simply shifting strategy on how we publish suburban news. Instead of producing five weekly suburban Extras, we are going to redirect that coverage into the Sunday print edition on two newly showcased pages, and into the daily paper as well.
Couple key reasons for that: First, we want to get more of this coverage into the main Sunday print edition, where our readership is highest. Two, the absence of the Extras will allow us to shift some resources to rising digital priorities. That said, we also believe there’s a small amount of staff interest in buyouts in the newsroom. If a few people do take a buyout, we would then be able to either shift or save a little money for other things, or possibly create a new job or two that we need, and hire for it.
Hard to know how that all shakes out until we see what few people want a buyout. But that’s the heart of the matter: Some likely opportunity, modest but still important, from a tactical shift in publishing suburban news. In the end, our local news teams will be almost entirely the same, as will our coverage.
Veteran theater critic Graydon Royce was one name rumored to be interested in the buyout. But that turned out not to be the case. “No. Not yet,” he said. “I haven’t heard anyone talking about it openly. What I have heard is more along the lines that 26 weeks isn’t enough to change plans [and leave early].”
What kind of offer would? A full year’s pay? “That might do it. It’d have to be something more substantial than 26, which is pretty standard.”
One line of thinking/assumption among the staff (and in a daily newsroom of 100 people there are usually 150 lines of thinking), is that the reporting jobs vacated by early retirement won’t be “backfilled” by new hires, no matter what anyone says. Also, there is concern over adequate staffing on the copy desk, one area where some believe the paper absolutely cannot afford any reductions.
To this Sanchez says: “That assumption is inaccurate. It’s too early to tell what will or will not be backfilled; some things might. Also, unequivocally, staffing on our copy desk will NOT decline.”
Post-bankruptcy, which is code for saying “post-Avista Capital Partners” — the private equity crowd that bet big on the Strib and lost even bigger — the Strib has calmed its financial waters at least as well as any other major daily in the country, and better than many.
Now owned by local billionaire Glen Taylor and operating under new newsroom management in Sanchez, who gets generally better grades for newsroom interaction than his predecessor, Nancy Barnes, the vibe of constant uncertainty and panic in the newsroom has ebbed and given way to the more normal tone of professional skepticism.
In other words, “nothing seismic.”