Monday, April 6, 2015

Six Laid Off at Post-Dispatch, Buyouts in the Newsroom Next? [UPDATE]

Posted By on Mon, Apr 6, 2015 at 2:45 PM

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Update: Gordon tells us that buyouts or voluntary layoffs will not happen in the newsroom after all. More after the jump.

Last week, six employees in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ad department were laid off. Daily RFT heard from multiple sources that buyouts for the editorial staff are likely to be offered in the coming days or weeks.

However, P-D spokeswoman Tracy Rouch released this statement which at most contradicts those rumors or at least tiptoes around them: "St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a work force reduction on Thursday, March 26 of six positions from Advertising and Information Technology. We are not offering buyouts to any Post-Dispatch employee at this time."

Jeff Gordon, president of the United Media Guild and a long-time sportswriter for the paper, says while that statement is technically true, conversations have begun around the newsroom.

"Whether the company decides to do it or not, we don't know," he says. "I think the discussion is real, but we don't know the outcome."

Previously: -- Food Editor Judith Evans Among Post-Dispatch Layoffs -- UPDATE 5: More Layoffs at the Post-Dispatch; Don't Worry, Mary Junck and Her Bonuses Are Fine

Two newsroom workers told Daily RFT that wheels are turning on buyouts or voluntary layoffs on the editorial side. One told us that parent company Lee Enterprises is "willing to consider" anyone who's interested in leaving voluntarily. Both say it's possible some long-time, big-name staffers are seriously considering leaving.

Gordon says buyouts would be particularly attractive to employees who've been with the paper since 1994 or earlier, as they would receive two weeks of severance pay for every year of service, up to 66 weeks.

"We sense [management] might think about it, which is a change," says Gordon. "Until recently we were told that this would never happen again."

All this comes despite the fact that the paper has been putting out award-winning coverage and investigative work on Ferguson, on the recent tragic deaths in the state auditor's office, and on dubious practices in local municipal courts.

"It's kind of depressing," says one worker.

A spokesman for the paper's parent company, Lee Enterprises, told Daily RFT that these decisions are being made on a local level.

"The company isn't saying much at all, they haven't even put out a memo outlining the offer or talking about the layoffs [in advertising]," writes one tipster. "Clearly there is another round of cost-cutting going on, but I think Lee has just decided not to talk about bad news and hope no one notices."

Indeed, some employees of the paper had no idea when Daily RFT contacted them that there was a possibility of buyouts, so it's unclear how the information is being spread among the ranks.

Layoffs are nothing new in the media industry, and the P-D is all too familiar with them. Almost a year ago, Bill McClellan wrote about a long-time carpenter who quit in protest after hearing that Lee Enterprises CEO Mary Junck got a $700,000 bonus while he was busy trying to save money by fixing broken chairs. Those bonuses are legendary for occurring at the same time that staff numbers are shriveling. From a 2014 article in the Columbia Journalism Review:

In 2012, she made more than $2 million total, including an award of 500,000 shares of stock just a day before the Post-Dispatch announced that 23 employees were being laid off. In late 2013, after a dismal earnings report and smaller layoffs earlier in the year, another round of executive bonuses brought Junck's compensation to more than $1.5 million. Then there was this spring's $700,000 bonus, paired with a $400,000 bonus for chief financial officer Carl Schmidt, as a reward for completing a deal to restructure the company's sizable debt.

"It sounds corny, but democracy depends on us," says a P-D employee. "If there's no more print journalism because no one's paying people to do what we do in print and online, it doesn't bode well for the future."

Update 4/6/15: According to Gordon, all conversations about voluntary layoffs have ended, and staffing levels will stay where they are in the newsroom.

"There was never going to be a layoff in the newsroom," he says. "The issue was, 'Could some people who've been there a long time retire early?' Right now the company decided not to allow anybody to depart early and take the severances. That was presented as a possibility and then it was withdrawn."

So, yay...for now?

Email the author at Jessica.Lussenhop@RiverfrontTimes.com.

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