The Pioneer Press is asking for six newsroom staffers to take buyouts. If they don’t get six, layoffs are likely.
That’s the nut of the news from St. Paul this week. But every time the paper goes through one of these “rightsizing” episodes (™ Par Ridder), speculation begins roiling anew over what it really means and how much longer the paper can continue paring down coverage and remain a credible, viable product, although “credible” and “viable” are not necessarily mutually inclusive qualities.
Outdoor writer Dave Orrick, the spokesman for the union that represents the PiPress’ reporters, part of the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild, has been on vacation so hasn’t “wandered the newsroom” yet getting a sense of who might be interested in this latest appeal. But he repeats what he and others have been saying for the past decade: “I don’t know where they can cut that won’t affect coverage.”
“I mean, I was originally hired to cover Anoka County, and we’ve already pulled back out of there,” Orrick said. “We still report stories from up there, but there’s no one assigned to it. That’s significant. And that’s pretty much the situation now with western Wisconsin.”
Orrick says the paper, which is owned by New York-based Digital First Media (DFM), essentially a hedge fund and outgrowth of the MediaNews Group, has sweetened the buyout offer a bit in hopes of luring people otherwise hesitant to give up a full-time gig. As of Monday, he had no way of knowing if the offer was going to be tasty enough. “If they don’t get six and have to go to layoffs, I have no idea where they’re going to get them.”
Update: The offer includes: To employees with 20 years of service or more, or who are over age 55, one week’s pay for every six months of continuous full-time service, or a major portion thereof, plus an additional eight weeks up to a maximum of 52 weeks. Also, on the medical insurance offer: Also for 20 years plus 55 or older, DFM is offering a one-year lump sum payment equal to whatever the employee’s monthly premium is of today. For example, $300 per month equals a one-time cash payout of $3,600.
Orrick adds that despite the call for another round of trimming, “we’ve got profit-sharing checks the last two years.”
The Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild executive officer, Candace Lund, says the Guild currently represents “just under 80” people in the PiPress newsroom and “over 200” throughout the company. Six reporters equals 8 percent of the newsroom, but echoing Orrick, she says: “There just isn’t a lot of room to make cuts to begin with.” (By comparison, the Guild represented 400 PiPress staffers a decade ago.)
Officially, DFM’s long-term strategy is focused on … digital, meaning a conscious evolution away from print. The primary question though is, “How comprehensive is this digital product going to be?”
Few expect anything like the substantive reporting staffs of yore, and PiPress Editor Mike Burbach didn’t respond to calls for comment on the buyout offer (I’ll update this piece if he does). But had there been a conversation, the first question would have been: Are you getting any guidance from the home office on how to remove yet another layer of bone from the staff?
Specifically, rather than steadily reduce the quantity of every area of coverage, when does the smarter move become simply eliminating entire sections?
Both Orrick and Lund brought up the desire to find new, preferably local ownership for the PiPress. Neither, unfortunately, has any hot prospects. But their concern is that it’s easier to attract new ownership while the basic product is still viable. And with each round of cuts (the paper lost a position and a half late last fall), that viability becomes more imperiled.
One old saw about newspapers (really news media of any kind) is that the average reader/consumer rarely if ever complains about what isn’t in the paper. It’s another way of saying they don’t notice what doesn’t exist. But at some point — and Orrick for one thinks the PiPress is perilously close — that mythical average subscriber no longer perceives enough value to pony up.
Lund was asked what she knew about the PiPress’s current daily circulation figures, which are usually touted at something over 100,000. Could they be lower?
“Yes,” she said, citing “people who work in departments who tell me that off the record.”
If that is true, the print paper, which has had historically loyal readership in the east metro, may have already reached the point where its core subscribers have moved on. Not enough for DFM to board the place up or have a fire sale, perhaps, but enough that the evolution to full digital makes ever more sense to them, as self-fulfilling a vision as that would seem to be.