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More cutbacks at Star Tribune

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Strib headquarters
Rumors of layoffs escalated last week, when the Star Tribune asked some of its columnists if they'd be willing to take reporter jobs.
MPR Photo/Rick Foy

The paper says it plans to eliminate most of the positions through buyouts. In the newsroom, the job reductions will shrink a staff of 375 by about 13 percent.

The  cuts come shortly after a smaller round of buyouts. Those departures were tied, not to cost-cutting, but to the recent sale of the Star Tribune to Avista Capital Partners.  Twenty-four newsroom writers, editors, and support staff took that buyout offer when the sale closed in March.  

Chris Serres, a Star Tribune reporter and a vice chair of the Newspaper Guild,  which represents newsroom workers, says if the paper pulls another 50 people out of the newsroom, as planned, the product is going to suffer.

"You can't fake quality in Minneapolis and St. Paul," he says.  "The readers are too educated. You can't fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal."

But Star Tribune editor Nancy Barnes says the paper is going to reorganize its newsroom to ensure a high-quality product, with a focus on local material. 

"Even with these changes, we'll be putting more resources into local daily reporting, as well as in-depth reporting. And we're putting more resources into online. Those will be our three priorities," she says.  "And there are some other things that we'll be giving up in order to make that happen."

Barnes declined to say what those "other things" might include.  She says she has not yet spoken to the staff who might be affected.

The paper has already been seeking ways to shift some resources around.  Last week, the paper asked columnists if they wanted to be reporters.

The paper's gossip columnist, Cheryl Johnson, who writes under the name C.J., says managers broached the idea with her. 

"They said they were curious if I had any interest in doing something else at the paper.  No.  I'm happy doing this job," she says.

Johnson says editors informed her they would make a decision in the next couple of weeks about whether to keep her in her current position.  She says she doesn't have a backup plan in case she's let go.  But she says she has a loyal readership and believes she's an asset to the paper.

But if employees are thinking about the value they add to the paper, the Star Tribune management is looking at what the paper is losing.

In a memo sent to staff, publisher Par Ridder emphasized that the paper's first-quarter performance was "much worse" than anticipated and that overall profits have dropped "substantially" the past few years. 

Ridder says revenues have declined since 2004, and the company has to bring costs into line. He says workers are the biggest expense.

Industry-wide, newspapers still make a lot of money despite declining ad revenues.  Publicly held newspaper companies had an average pre-tax profit margin of 17 percent last year, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.  

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Poynter Institute, says just the same, papers have to be realistic about the bottom line. Job cuts are often a way to address financial pressures.

"As for profits, though they're still reasonably high, the trend's going pretty negative pretty fast," he says.  "So I don't think it would be prudent to let nature take its course."  

Edmonds says by the scale of the staff reductions at the Star Tribune is comparable to what other major papers have done lately.

For now, the Star Tribune's announcement settles little.  Before presenting the buyout offer to employees, the paper has to hash out the details with the Newspaper Guild.  The current plan gives two weeks pay for every year served up to 52 weeks, plus six months of medical benefits.

The Guild's Chris Serres says that won't be enough to persuade many workers to give up their careers at the Star Tribune.   "I think they've underestimated the level of passion people here feel about their work and about the jobs they do," he says.  "That they think potentially up to 50 people will potentially walk out the door for 52 weeks of pay, at the most, is not going to happen."

Serres says the union won't accept the paper's buyout proposal as it's written and will attempt to negotiate for more.

If the paper can't get enough volunteers for the buyouts, it says it will have to rely on lay-offs.

Given industry trends and a recent change of ownership, many Star Tribune staffers have been expecting this move. But with so many details remaining to be worked out, the announcement does little to clarify the future.