The Riverside Press-Enterprise is the latest daily newspaper to suffer drastic cuts in their staff. Parent company A.H. Belo Corp announced the completion of a Voluntary Severance Offer (VSO) aimed at reducing staff at their three principal newspapers, including the Dallas Morning News and the Providence (R.I.) Journal. At least 120 employees at the Press-Enterprise will take their leave on Friday, September 12, according to a source at the paper who declined to be identified. A total of 412 employees at the three papers accepted the buyout offer, according to an A.H. Belo press release.
However, not enough P-E staff accepted the voluntary buyout, leaving about 30 jobs subject to layoffs in the coming weeks. According to a memo written by A.H. Belo Executive V.P. Jim Moroney, “[I]n order to reduce our workforce to the necessary levels we will implement an involuntary reduction in force in specific departments or work groups to be completed in mid-to-late October.” This cutback follows similar recent staff reductions at the Los Angeles Times and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and San Bernardino Sun.
The cuts come as A.H. Belo (a subsidiary of Belo Corp. of Dallas, Texas) tries to work its way out of a $3.2 million dollar net loss in the second quarter ending in June. Belo says the expense of the staff reductions will save them $2.4 million in expenses and will be recorded in the final quarter of 2008. Overall, the total cost of the VSO is estimated at $11.2 million.
The Press-Enterprise cuts will come from “the news, consumer sales, packaging and production departments (excluding pressroom)” according to the press release. In a Press-Enterprise article this past July which addressed the buyout issue, P-E editor Maria De Varenne commented that readers would see greater emphasis on local and community news and that their investigative reporting would continue. A phone call to De Varenne from the IE Weekly was not returned.
The cuts were met with dismay by those within the journalism industry. Bob Berger, a lecturer at the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC, said, “there will be regrets in news circles” over the Press-Enterprise cuts, due to the respect the paper has received over the course of its 130 years for exemplifying “journalistic vigor.”
Also alarmed but not surprised by the cuts is Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a media research organization based in Washington D.C. In July the PEJ completed a report entitled “The Changing Newsroom,” in which they interviewed editors of newspapers across the country to see how each publication is dealing with declining fortunes.
In an interview with the IE Weekly, Rosenstiel talked about the many troubles faced by newspapers in the Internet age, where changes in retailing and technology have given the industry a traumatizing one-two punch.
“You’re getting hit twice,” says Rosenstiel. “Once in the solar plexus and again in the gut. There has been a structural change in the revenue base.”
As circulation decreases and more people go online to receive their news, papers have found that advertisers have not followed, because online ads don’t have the same positive impact for their business. Some past cash generators for newspapers—like classified ads—have been almost completely wiped out by cyberspace competition. “Craigslist has had a devastating impact,” Rosenstiel says.
For the past 25 years newspapers have had more discretion in how they cut staff, with some publications stubbornly refusing to go along with the flow. That staunch opposition is no longer possible today, says Rosenstiel.
“You’re not just trimming back now—you’re cutting off a limb. You’re changing your mission, you’re changing your purpose, you’re narrowing your ambitions.”
The changing of missions has generally meant less foreign and national news in favor of locally based stories. Oddly, investigative reporting is still considered a valuable resource for most big dailies. “It’s good for the brand,” says Rosenstiel. But if a paper can find a way to cut something that can be easily outsourced, like a book or movie review, it will.
Where do the newspeople go, you ask? According to Rosenstiel, while some stay connected to the news industry by creating news blogs and doing their own citizen reporting, most have families to feed and are forced to look for work outside their chosen profession. Where the jettisoned P-E staff will go is anyone’s guess, but at least 30 others at the paper will have to make that same tough decision in the coming weeks when they, too, are cut loose.