SAN JOSE – On March 1, the publisher and top managers at the Mercury News and Bay Area News Group delivered sobering news to staff that as much as 20 percent of existing newsroom jobs will be eliminated by mid-April, through a combination of voluntary buyouts and layoffs. Adding to the deep downsizing of the local newspaper chain that has already suffered years of cuts, publisher Sharon Ryan announced the venerable 142-year-old Oakland Tribune will cease publishing as a daily newspaper in a matter of weeks.

The news was couched as a reader-responsive initiative to merge mastheads and respond to the challenges of the digital age. But behind the company spin, the reality of the announcement is that 30 employees who are 60 and older and have served the paper for at least 20 years, are being offered financial incentives to leave the paper. The paper will accept 23 buyouts before moving to lay-offs of between 10 and 20 people.

Although few hard numbers or targets were described, there are roughly 200 newsroom employees throughout BANG, and the force reduction of buyouts and lay-offs combined could cause between 15 and 20 percent of current employees to lose their jobs in the coming weeks. Although columnists and editors are not eligible for the buy-outs, a total of five reporter buy-outs will be accepted. Others targeted include photographers, copy editors, designers and production staff. There were no specifics on where the lay-offs would strike once the 45-day buyout period closes, but company officials made clear that copy-editing – a key element of any quality news product – would be central to the downsizing.

Adding insult to dedicated staff who have remained and produced more than ever despite years of pay cuts, unpaid furloughs, downsizing and benefit loss, the company news was framed by management as a “rebranding” and streamlining to better serve readers.

In a story that was not staff-written but posted to the website Tuesday afternoon, publisher Sharon Ryan was quoted as saying:

“Readers have been quite clear with us about how much they like their newspapers and what they want more of, and we’re changing to serve them better.”

When asked, Ryan had no answer to how readers are better served by a newspaper with dozens fewer content producers. 
Central to the company’s plan announced is the revival of an idea repeatedly rejected in years past as a losing venture: the merging of mastheads throughout the local newspaper chain. Beginning April 5, the San Jose Mercury News and the San Mateo County Times will become a merged “Mercury News.”
The Oakland Tribune will be eliminated, along with the Contra Costa Times, the Fremont Argus, and the Hayward Daily Review, several of which will now appear as weekly inserts in a new “East Bay Times,” serving daily readers in the East Bay.