Friday, April 24, 2009

Layoffs continue*

MediaNews made good on its warning that further layoffs would hit the Daily News this week. According to DN steward Steve Rosenberg, staff artist Jon Gerung, metro reporters Jerry Berrios and Brandon Lowrey, and photographer Tina Burch are no longer with the company. Burch requested a buyout, and was not laid off. On the management side, Senior Editor Oscar Garza was released. Three managers were also reassigned into the newsroom.

There are rumors that more layoffs could come as early as next week. We've heard nothing to substantiate this information yet, and are actively seeking details from the company.

This is absolutely frustrating for the newsroom at the Daily News, who continue to struggle against a management structure that seems to value them less each week. Despite furloughs, 401(K) suspensions, incessant layoffs, a lack of communication from senior executives, and the threat of a contract that will give them no rights and even less pay, they keep on pushing forward and giving their best to a company that offers little in return. It has to be exhausting.

And still the bloodletting continues.

It's nothing less than amazing that their newsroom, despite anemic staffing, manages to produce a daily newspaper that goes out to more than 100K readers every single day.

We've asked the newsroom to share their thoughts and offer comments on this latest round of layoffs. We'll update this post as more information arrives.

This was sent out by reporter Brandon Lowrey.

Hey all,

It's been a fun run. It was my first job out of college, and I had an idea of where this was going since a month after I was hired in February 2008. I was sure I was a goner, then, so the last 15 months have felt a little like bonus time. Really great bonus time.

I wrote this to thank you all for the fun, encouragement, puns and black humor - not to mention the opportunities.

Even as a pretty idealistic young guy, I can't deny times are depressing for our industry. Reporters are unappreciated and undervalued, both by corporate bigwigs and many in the public. I can see how some can become cynical and jaded.

But the very fact that you all keep doing is inspirational. It reminds me that there are good, smart and reasonable people out there who really want to change the world - or at least their corners of it - for the better. I wish you all the best in continuing your invaluable and incredible public service with care, compassion, reason and passion. They all really need you, whether or not they know it now.

Keep in touch,

Brandon Lowrey

* We've received an email from sports reporter Tony Jackson, who has reportedly been let go as of today. Jackson covered the Dodgers for LANG, and no mention has been made of who (if anyone) will fill his shoes on that beat. The L.A. Times has more details.

Antitrust hearing focuses on diversity

Are antitrust laws killing the newspaper industry? That's the argument media executives from made to congress this week, asking for an exemption to the laws regulating media consolidation, arguing that consolidation is the only way to preserve the industry's falling revenues.

But few have been swayed by the request so far.

Bernie Lunzer, President of the Newspaper Guild, testified that allowing MediaNews and Hearst to absorb more newspapers into their regional chains may do "do more harm than good" to readers and communities.

The largest concern we have about such a monopoly in Northern California is that an answer to the very real problems that exist in our industry will remain unanswered and that real innovation will be stifled. The two large corporations behind this initiative will only have forestalled their inevitable reckoning. The result will be underserved communities.

Lunzer isn't the only voice challenging the perceived "need" to homogenize content and reduce operations by slashing staff. Many believe that this trend toward consolidation and cost-cutting - which began long before the introduction of the internet - bears at least part of the blame for newspaper's diminished relevance.

Ryan Blethen argues that media conglomerates have been imperfect stewards for newspapers, and increasing their presence won't solve the problem.

The public-ownership model is disintegrating. That is what Congress must understand. We have a chance to put newspapers and professional journalism back in stewardship of smaller entities that care about community.

Lunzer agrees that ownership models, not industry conditions, may be the best solution for the newspaper industry.

If there is to be serious consideration of the problems facing newspapers, Congress needs to look at alternative ownership ideas, like employee stock ownership, non-profit approaches and the new L3C concept. The L3C approach would allow publications to serve a stated social purpose in exchange for the ability to accept non-profit foundation money. Smaller, more committed news operations will be more successful in providing real coverage to communities. Bigger is not better. The current financial crisis is evidence of this.

It boils down to a simple question: Why are newspapers failing? If the answer is simply that archaic print media is no match for the faster, leaner online competition, then consolidation seems to make sense. But that argument overlooks the fact that for most community newspapers, there is no natural online competition. The internet is a boon for economies of scale, where your market is quite literally national, if not global. For most newspapers, this isn't the case. And there are few community-centric online newsgathering operations, and virtually none that operate on the scale of a local newspaper.

In other words, newspapers have stacked the table against themselves by relying on national and international content that puts them squarely at odds with online outlets. Wire news is cheaper - but the competition, as we've seen, is much stiffer. That's a fight most print outlets have been unable to win.

It's true that classified advertising is gone, or severely diminished, and those losses have hurt the industry. And there's no indication that money will ever come back. But the revenue losses from classified advertising alone aren't enough to put most newspapers out of business. Adjusting projections and expectations to more modest goals, and focusing on developing content that's truly relevant will do more to preserve newspaper fortunes than simply drawing more ink out of the same tired well, and running identical pages across several newspapers, in a region that's larger than many states. Readers are smart enough to know when they're not being served, and the earnings sheet reflects their disappointment. More of the same won't change that.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Proposal could avert layoffs

MediaNews has informed the Guild that it intends to lay off five newsroom staffers at the Los Angeles Daily news by the end of the week as part of its declared need to reduce Daily News newsroom expenses by 15 percent. As reported yesterday to Guild members, the positions identified by the company include three metro reporters, one photographer and one graphic artist.

The Guild has been discussing a plan with the company that could avert or reduce the planned lay offs by allowing some workers at the Daily News to volunteer for a reduced work week for a period of six months.

While the Guild is opposed to any reduction in force by the company, such a plan may offer an option in lieu of more drastic workforce reductions.

Guild members that opt to take the reduced hours under the proposed plan would retain the same hourly rate of pay and still receive all health benefits afforded to full time employees.

Guild representatives are meeting with the company on Wednesday to further discuss this proposal.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Tuesday Roundup

Three plus six equals one

It's been confirmed that April 20 is LANG's D-Day for transferring copy editors of the Daily News, PT and Breeze to the universal copy desk at the San Gabriel Valley Tribune facility in West Covina. Daily Breeze EiC Phillip Sanfield sent out a memo on Monday informing Breeze and former-PT copy editors that Monday April 20, the day following Long Beach Grand Prix coverage, would be their first day in West Covina. Daily News employees report being told the same date.

MediaNews options

Gary Scott has an excellent article on the options available to MediaNews Group in the wake of the foreberance agreement recently negotiated with its lenders and announced last week. This includes a startling prediction by former Los Angeles Daily News editor Ron Kaye that MediaNews will unload all of the LANG papers and be gone from Southern California by mid-summer.

Better late than never

After years of giving away content for free on the Internet and letting online aggregators steal content with few repercussions, it appears that the newspaper industry is finally beginning to see that content costs money to generate and news organizations should be compensated for this work appearing in the digital world.

The AP on Monday announced that while it prefers to work out solutions with websites now using its content without permission, such as Huffington Post, Yahoo and Google, the trade association would resort to legal remedies to either block unpermitted use of AP content or force such users to pay for the content.

“We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories,“ AP Chairman and MNG head Dean Singleton said at the AP annual meeting being held in San Diego. "We are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it any more," said Singleton, using the oft-quoted line from mentally deranged and obsolete newsman Howard Beal from the film "Network."

Friday, April 3, 2009

Friday round-up

MediaNews Group has reached a forbearance agreement with its lenders, according to a report in the New York Times. A forbearance agreement is where the debtor and the creditor both acknowledge there is a financial problem and arrange a payment schedule that will allow the debtor to make moves to regain its financial footing. While not specified in the NYT article, it should be noted that forbearance agreements typically include a drop-dead date by which time the debtor must straighten out its finances or face default to the lenders. This could all mean that unless MNG revenues dramatically increase, more "cost cutting" is likely.

The Los Angeles Newspaper Group announced further company-wide cost cutting measures Thursday. The latest move freezes vacation accrual for all non-Guild employees, as well as management, between April 5 and July 4. LANG is also asking these employees to take any vacation time already on the books.
The move does not apply to LANG employees under a Guild contract at the Press-Telegram and the Daily News.
Gary Scott at reporter-g and LA Observed have posted several internal management memos explaining the freeze from the MNG perspective.