Local Newspaper Group Avoids Layoffs, for Now

By Judith Scherr
Friday March 07, 2008

The menace of layoffs at Bay Area News Group [BANG] newspapers—which now include the Contra Costa Times, the West County Times, the Berkeley Voice, the East Bay Daily News and the Oakland Tribune, among others—has passed for the moment. 

A sufficient number of BANG employees accepted buyouts for management to say that no layoffs would be necessary at this time. 

At around 2 p.m. Thursday, BANG staff got an e-mail from management saying it would accept buyouts from the 107 individuals who had applied. “It doesn’t look like we’re having layoffs right now,” Karl Fisher, West County Times police reporter, told the Planet on Thursday. The buyouts “affect every division and management,” he said. 

Fisher said while he doesn’t know the numbers of cuts in editorial staff, he thinks the buyouts will reduce BANG staffing by about 10 percent.  

Some people taking the buyouts are in key reporting positions, Fisher said, noting there will be shifts in newsroom staffing: “This will have a major effect on how we cover local news,” he said. 

Sara Steffens, a regional reporter at the Walnut Creek newspaper, spoke to the Planet by phone Thursday just minutes before news of the buyouts went out to reporters.  

“It’s been hard on us,” she said. “None of us got into this profession because of money. We are all afraid of what is going to happen in the newsroom. There’s a lot of uncertainty.” 

Over at the Oakland Tribune, Josh Richman, Tribune reporter for a decade and active with the Newspaper Guild, said Wednesday that the Tribune newsroom is already “cut to the bone.”  

He said he feared what would happen to the quality of news coverage after the cuts. 

Newsroom reductions will be devastating to the newspaper consumer, said Linda Jue, president of the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists in a written statement. 

"We aren't simply talking about saving jobs,” she said. “We're talking about how business decisions are narrowing the choices reporters and editors make about which stories to pursue. This is of special concern during an election year, when keeping the public informed about fast-changing economic, political and social issues is essential to the democratic process."  

Meanwhile, there is a union organizing drive going on at the various BANG papers. The Alameda Newspaper Group, the previous owner of the Oakland Tribune, had been affiliated with the Newspaper Guild, but, in 2006, when MediaNews purchased the papers, it decertified the union, saying that the majority of employees—those at the Contra Costa Times papers—were not unionized. 

Walnut Creek reporter Steffens, the mother of a 19-month old, covers a social service beat. “It’s sort of ironic,” she said, explaining that she covered the downturn in the mortgage industry and the layoffs there. 

West County Times’ Fisher and Steffens are active in rallying fellow reporters to sign cards for a “card check,” which entitles workers to unionize by signing cards. (The employer must agree to unionization by cardcheck.)  

“We’re feeling good about the way it’s going. We’ve been gathering support,” Steffens said, noting that after the mid-February announcement of the buyouts and possible layoffs, they put organizing efforts temporarily on hold. 

“People are starting to see why we have to stand up for each other,” Steffens said. “We want to be a voice for quality, for everything that brought us to the profession. It’s such a tough time in the industry.” 

Calls to BANG publisher John Armstrong were not returned before deadline. In a written statement, quoted in Editor and Publisher Feb. 19, Armstrong laid out the reason for asking staff for the buyouts.  

"Almost without exception, real estate forecasters believe the Bay Area will be saddled with a housing slump for 12 to 18 months, and talk of a recession is now commonplace. We have concluded we must reduce our operating expenses quickly, and we cannot get where we need to be without reducing the size of the workforce." 

In his e-mail statement to staff on Thursday, Armstrong wrote: “While I recognize that uncertainty during the buyout period caused anxiety, it pleases me to report that participation in the program was so widespread that we can avoid involuntary layoffs at this time. Given the uncertainties of the marketplace, I cannot make guarantees for the future.  

“These job eliminations through voluntary buyouts no doubt will require shuffling and sharing of work and may result in new assignments and work locations for some employees. We hope all of you will understand and be flexible.