Two-dozen employees grab Star Tribune buyout

Most of the departing employees work behind the scenes as copy editors and support staff. But about 10 of the paper's writers took buyouts as well.

Star Tribune restaurant critic Jeremy Iggers says his 22 years at the paper came into sharp focus as time ticked away last Friday. The deadline to accept the buyout by the end of the day was nigh, and he hadn't quite made up his mind what to do. Iggers had job prospects elsewhere, and he was demoralized by the overall downturn in the newspaper industry over the past several years.

"I finally went for a walk with a colleague and thought about these issues one last time, and realized the future looked brighter outside of the Star Tribune," Iggers said.

Just before the deadline, Iggers tendered his resignation to an editor he describes as "poker faced."

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But at age 55, Iggers says he's not ending his journalism career. The brighter future he sees is at the Twin Cities Daily Planet, a community newswire and syndication service. Iggers is a founder of the organization that runs the service.

While he's sad to leave the Star Tribune, Iggers says there are good reasons for leaving now. He says there are worries that the Star Tribune's new owner, Avista Capital Partners, could cut staff. And Iggers felt it might be better to stay a few steps ahead of the hatchet.

"It was very much a consideration," he said. "It meant the time is now. The future at the Star Tribune is very uncertain. I think a lot of people suspect there are more layoffs or buyouts in the works. So it certainly did help prompt a decision."

Iggers was joined by other well established writers at the paper, including food columnist Al Sicherman, Capitol reporter Dane Smith, reporter Robert Franklin, and courts reporter Margaret Zack.

Under the terms of the current union contract, buyouts became an option with the sale of the Star Tribune to Avista Capital Partners March 5th. Employees had five days to take a buyout. It provides two weeks pay for every year of service up to 40 weeks.

Star Tribune managing editor Scott Gillespie says the number of buyouts was within expectations. He says managers will be looking at whether some of the remaining staff can be shuffled around to make up for the people who are leaving, and whether certain positions even need to be refilled. In spite of employee concerns that job cuts are in the offing, Gillespie says it's too soon to tell.

"We don't know what our budget's going to be, and what we're going to be faced with. The newspaper business right now is extremely unpredictable from a revenue standpoint," he said.

Gillespie says he's in discussions with the paper's new editor, Nancy Barnes, and the paper's new publisher, Par Ridder, about those staffing decisions. And he says they're taking input from Avista. The buyouts will reduce the newspaper's operating expenses, but it's not clear how those cost cuts line up with Avista's financial goals. An Avista spokeswoman could not be reached for comment.

"The big question, of course, is always: Will an owner make, what I think is the wrong decision, which is to cut talent?" said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. She says when newspapers cut staff, they often compromise the quality of their product.

And she says it's too soon to tell what Avista's ambitions are, especially since this is the first newspaper the group has owned. Kirtley and other observers wonder if Avista wants to resell the paper quickly.

"If that's their main goal, and it remains to be seen if it is, then it could suggest that cutting costs now or in the short term will be their goal, so they'll have a more appealing package to offer to investors," she said.

In the meantime, Star Tribune reporter and union representative Chris Serres says it's hard enough just dealing with the departures of the employees who took the buyouts.

"Many of them were copy editors, graphic designers, the backbone of this newsroom. There is right now and there's going to be a high degree of concern about who's going to do these jobs," Serres said.

The employees taking buyouts make up about 7 percent of the newsroom's 361 employees.