Job losses follow vulture fund Alden’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing shares and board seats
Newsroom cuts of 10 to 17 percent across the chain
By Julie Reynolds
Scores of news workers are leaving their papers after Tribune Publishing offered buyouts to anyone with eight or more years’ employment with the company.
The buyout offers came in January, two months after Alden Global Capital, the vulture hedge fund notorious for gutting local newspapers nationwide, took a 32 percent stake in Tribune. Alden also negotiated to take two seats on Tribune’s board, and it has the option to buy even more shares after June 30.
Tribune Publishing owns the Chicago Tribune, the Daily News (New York), The Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) the Orlando Sentinel, the Sun Sentinel (South Florida), The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.), the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.), and the Capital Gazette (Annapolis, Md.)
Tribune did not announce specific target numbers, and some employees said they feared layoffs would follow if the company doesn’t meet unstated buyout goals.
In all, at least 75 people took the buyout offers, at least 42 of them represented by the NewsGuild.
More than numbers
Megan Crepeau of the NewsGuild’s Chicago Tribune unit said 16 newsroom employees from the Tribune and its sister suburban papers took the buyouts, 13 of whom were Guild-represented.
The Chesapeake NewsGuild’s Danielle Ohl reported three jobs lost, two of them Guild members. The union posted images on Twitter of what previous editions would look like without the contributions of those departing:
You won’t see blank pages in the paper this week. But we wanted to show you what previous weeks would have looked like without them. pic.twitter.com/6YApAIwdkQ
— Chesapeake News Guild (@ChesapeakeGuild) February 10, 2020
Especially poignant was the loss of reporters Joshua McKerrow and Pat Furgurson, who reported from the bed of a pickup truck in a parking garage after five employees were killed and two injured in the June 2018 mass shooting at the Annapolis Capital Gazette.
In a longer thread, McKerrow tweeted, “I really wanted to stay. I really did.” Also leaving was the Gazette’s high school sports editor Bob Hough.
Reporter Rachael Pacella posted this on social media:
Today is their last day at the paper. Both took a buyout from Tribune. I love them. We shared the experience of coming together as a newsroom after the shooting, but now people who don’t know what it means to #PressOn are chipping away at our family for profit. https://t.co/QuBr8PPQWw
— Rachael Pacella (@rachaelpacella) February 6, 2020
At the Baltimore Sun, NewsGuild representative Scott Dance confirmed that six union members took buyouts: a sports reporter, a features reporter, two people from advertising and two from customer service.
Some employees said at least three or four non-union workers also left, but DFMworkers hasn’t confirmed this.
Sara Gregory, unit leader of the Tidewater Media Guild, which represents workers at the Virginian-Pilot, Daily Press, Virginia Gazette and Tidewater Review, said, “It’s an understatement to say that those of us left are apprehensive about the future.”
The four papers had 105 union employees in 2018, down to 65 today, Gregory said. “This round of buyouts, we lost a total of 20 from the newsroom.” Thirteen of them were Guild-represented.
The losses aren’t just numbers — they represent many decades of dedication to community journalism.
“The Guild journalists leaving us today have spent a combined 360 years at our papers,” Gregory said in an email to DFMworkers.org. “The number doesn’t even begin to represent the breadth of institutional knowledge that Tribune Publishing is pushing out the door.
“We live in a community with the largest naval base in the world, and we’re losing a military reporter, who thanks to previous cuts, was also doing double-duty covering the state’s largest industrial employer… We’re losing a 13-time state sportswriter of the year.”
The Daily Press also lost its librarian — a position Gregory describes as “the guardian of our history.”
At Allentown’s Morning Call, Guild unit leader Michelle Merlin said roughly 17 percent of the newsroom is gone or leaving soon. Six newsroom workers were taking buyouts, she said, and four others in management left last week, including Morning Call editor-in-chief Terry Rang.
Among those departing are news reporters Riley Yates and Nicole Radzievich, editorial assistant Jessica Johnson, sports reporter Stephen Miller and music critic John Moser. A sixth is taking a buyout, “but will stay on a little longer,” Merlin said.
“Together, they’re taking decades of experience and institutional knowledge with them,” she said. “It’s really disappointing to see Tribune ushering all this talent out the door after they gave $65 million in cash dividends to shareholders last year.
“Tribune has said they won’t be replacing people who took a buyout, but we hope they decide to do the right thing by their employees and the community by investing in local news.”
Of those remaining, she said, “We’re dedicated to doing our jobs and doing them well.” The best way to ensure that, Merlin added, “is by getting a contract.”
Deciding to stay
The Hartford Courant’s newsroom lost six people to the buyouts, four of them union. Another employee recently left without a buyout. The paper is left with 61 newsroom employees, a reduction of roughly 10 percent.
“In the end, a lot of people in our newsroom who were considering taking buyouts decided to stay,” said Guild unit leader Rebecca Lurye. “It just points to how misguided the company is, thinking it’s such a generous offer.”
Working as newspaper journalists, she added, is “not something we’re trying to escape from. It’s something we’re trying to do better. We’re happy that people stayed.”
NewsGuild units took to social media to condemn the buyouts:
Today we mark the departures of more than a dozen colleagues, both in and out of the Guild, across all Chicago-area Tribune Publishing newsrooms, who have chosen to take the most recent round of buyouts. We wish them the best in this new era for their careers and their lives.
— Chicago Tribune Guild (@CTGuild) February 7, 2020
We are devastated today to lose 13 of our guild colleagues to buyouts, people who have combined experience of about 360 years serving our communities. We want to celebrate the amazing work they’ve done over the years.
Here are just a few examples:
— Tidewater Media Guild (@TidewaterGuild) February 7, 2020
Demanding ‘a commitment to journalism’
The buyouts have inspired action — both spontaneous and coordinated — from news workers throughout the Tribune chain. (NewsGuild members at Alden’s MNG newspapers, formerly known as Digital First Media, similarly united more than four years ago to fight for better contracts and demand that Alden invest in its newsrooms or sell its papers to responsible, local owners.)
This week, six NewsGuild units at Tribune papers put together an annotated version of a Feb. 3 Tribune press release about its “management transition” that includes the departure of CEO Tim Knight.
The Tribune announcement quoted Knight saying, “This past year we have been focused on stabilizing Tribune financially so that we can continue to invest in quality, local journalism, which is the key to the company’s long-term success.”
The six units’ response reads:
Tribune saved $18.1 million in employee compensation costs in 2018 and laid off/bought out 840 workers.
It doesn’t appear much if any of that savings went toward continuing to “invest in quality, local journalism,” since, instead, the company paid out cash dividends to shareholders totaling $65 million and has balked at its unions’ attempts to better working conditions including raises at newspapers where there haven’t been any in years.
It is also once again offering buyouts to its staff under the threat of future layoffs if they don’t get enough volunteers. Quality, local journalism is the result of more staff with years of experience, not fewer.
The Tribune press release concludes with: “We have a shared belief that solid journalism enhances shareholder value. That will continue to be our driving principle.”
To which the six units replied:
Do you, though? We proposed a shareholder resolution to the company that would have required it to prove its commitment to journalism, but Tribune is challenging it.
Here’s what they don’t want to do and what we asked for: “Shareholders request that the Board of Directors prepare an annual ‘journalism report’ detailing the company’s commitment to its core product — news. Available to investors, this report should be prepared at reasonable cost, omitting proprietary information, and consider the relative benefits and drawbacks of the Company’s approach to journalistic integrity as determined at the judgment and discretion of the Board of Directors and management.”
The annotated letter was signed by “the guilds of Tribune Publishing: Baltimore Sun Guild, Chesapeake News Guild, Chicago Tribune Guild, Hartford Courant Guild, The Morning Call Guild and Tidewater Media Guild.”
Top Chicago Tribune investigative reporters David Jackson and Gary Marx took the unprecedented step of speaking out in a recent New York Times op-ed that ended with a call for responsible owners to buy the paper before Alden destroys it.
“Alden’s strategy of acquiring struggling local newsrooms and stripping them of assets has built the personal wealth of the hedge fund’s investors,” the reporters wrote.
As Marx later told CNN: “We believe that Alden is an existential threat, not just to this newspaper but to every newspaper in the chain.”