Thursday, December 6, 2012

Tough choices ahead for Plain Dealer staffers as 35% cuts loom

Even as The Plain Dealer’s journalists mount a campaign to keep the newspaper a daily, they’ll soon face wrenching choices.

The paper’s owner wants to reach an agreement with the newsroom union over how management will go about cutting the news staff by 35 percent and shifting its Cleveland operations to focus more on digital news.

Will the union accept an agreement, even though the journalists feel those cuts will devastate the newsroom and may be a prelude to publishing only three days a week? Or, if they say no, will they risk cuts to their pay and even deeper layoffs?

That’s the question I’m reading between the lines of the news trickling out of the newsroom union’s negotiations with Plain Dealer management.

Newspaper Guild officials revealed this week that the paper’s owner, Advance Publications, intends to cut the unionized newsroom staff — reporters, photographers, designers and mid-level editors — from 168 people to 110 on or after May 1.

Company negotiators haven’t talked about the paper’s future print schedule, except to say it isn’t part of the negotiations, says Harlan Spector, chairman of the union local.

“It’s certainly not a good sign as far as maintaining a seven-day publication schedule,” Spector says. “It doesn’t look good, but we’re still hopeful that the management of Advance is going to maintain a daily newspaper.”

Advance has already slashed its dailies in New Orleans and Alabama down to three-day-a-week newspapers and laid off 48 to 60 percent of the staff. Its papers in Syracuse, N.Y. and Harrisburg, Pa. are making the change in the new year. Staffers here fear the same fate is in store for The Plain Dealer.

Company officials have said only that its Cleveland operations will shift to stress online news more. That goal is the same as it’s expressed in other cities. But the shift will look different here. The Plain Dealer is Advance’s only paper with a newsroom union, and labor law and the Guild contract may be limiting its options.

In other cities, Advance merged its newspaper and online operations into a single “media group.” Here, the company seems to be planning to keep the operations separate, but cut print staff and increase digital staff. The company has offered to shrink the newsroom by a combination of layoffs and re-hires of some newsroom employees at the nonunion cleveland.com.

“One of things being discussed is the May 1 layoff date,” Spector says. “We anticipate job offers for cleveland.com, job interviews, the whole process, being earlier than that.”

That seems designed to give the company maximum leverage over current staffers, forcing them into tough choices. The company could entice its newsroom stars to move to cleveland.com with offers of higher pay. Or it could tell some staffers they’ll be on the layoff list if they don’t accept an online job offer. Or it could leave them in the dark, so that if they turn down a cleveland.com offer, they’ll risk being laid off.

The new online jobs may well be like those in these ads for Advance’s Syracuse and Harrisburg media groups: a blend of traditional beat reporting with intense social media engagement.

It’ll be painful for the union to agree to a downsizing plan like this one, especially one so at odds with the goals of its Save the Plain Dealer campaign. John Mangels, chairman of the campaign, says reports from cities where Advance has implemented its strategy show the quality of news has declined.

“It’s not as comprehensive, not as deep, not as edited, has mistakes,” Mangels says. “That’s the kind of preview you’re getting, unfortunately, of what you’ll be seeing in Cleveland if this goes forward as we think it will.” Veteran reporters have been laid off or declined to join the new media groups, he says. “The inexperience of the reporters left there shows through.”

So the Save the Plain Dealer campaign is pressing on. “There has not been a publicly announced of number of days we are going to publish yet,” Mangels says. “We take this as a good sign. We can still have an impact on that decision. Because the layoffs have not happened yet, we believe we can still have an impact on that.”

But even as it resists the layoffs, the Guild may soon have to decide whether to agree on how they’ll be implemented. Its members have a lot at stake.

They accepted pay cuts in 2009 in exchange for a no-layoffs pledge that expires Jan. 31. So the remaining staffers should a bump back up in pay once layoffs happen. But if the union rejects a new agreement, another deadline looms. Starting Jan. 31, the company can also exercise an option in the Guild contract to request an “economic reopener” and try to renegotiate wages and benefits downward.

“If these talks don’t result in some sort of agreement, that’s possible,” Spector says.

The company and union are discussing whether to extend the Guild’s current contract, which expires in February 2014, into 2019.  So if the union turns down an agreement, its members could end up with even less job security. Advance’s offer to hire current staff for online jobs could disappear. Possibly even its plan to keep 110 Guild members could change.

So the journalists are facing two bad choices. Even as they work to create a region-wide debate over the paper’s fate, the company is reminding them of how little control they have.

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