Shrinking Union-Tribune: ‘Doing Less With Less’

Monday, Jan. 7, 2008 | Twenty-nine newsroom employees at The San Diego Union-Tribune have taken the company’s buyout offer, further cementing cutbacks that have trimmed the paper’s news staff at least 10 percent in the last year.

In total, 76 company employees took the offer, which provides a maximum year’s salary and six months of health insurance. Most worked their last day Dec. 28.

Eleven news reporters took the buyout, including some of the paper’s best known writers. Two arts critics accepted the offer, as did four editors, two photographers, two food writers and a travel writer. A newsroom source who accepted the buyout provided the list to voiceofsandiego.org. A company spokesman refused to confirm its accuracy.

The cuts leave the Union-Tribune with two reporters covering immigration issues as well as Tijuana — down from five. Gone are border reporter Anna Cearley and Mexico business reporter Diane Lindquist. Lynne Walker, a Copley News Service reporter based in Mexico City, has also left.

Two years ago, the Union-Tribune was the flagship paper of the Copley Press, the largest of nine newspapers owned by David Copley. Today, it is Copley’s sole daily newspaper, and its staff has steadily shrunk. Buyouts in late 2006 eliminated 19 of the newspaper’s most senior journalists. Copley’s 10-member Washington, D.C. office has been cut in half, losing reporter Marcus Stern, who broke news of the scandal that led to the resignation and jailing of disgraced Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. That coverage won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

Taken in totality, the cuts are a “huge loss,” said Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University.

“That’s not to say that this is the end of the world as we know it,” he said. “But it’s like the Yankees getting rid of their star players and deciding to build from the ground up. They’re saying to their fans that you’ll have to trust us that we’ll be good again.”

The cuts mark the second time the newspaper has reduced its newsroom staff in the last year and signal that it is continuing to struggle with the financial repercussions of its declining print circulation. The Union-Tribune has lost 19 percent of its Sunday subscribers since 2004. Similar circulation drops and staff cutbacks have happened at newspapers across the country.

The staff reductions leave the newspaper looking much different than when it won that Pulitzer Prize. While the newspaper branded itself as the community’s watchdog in the months following that incident, some reporters said readers should expect less in-depth coverage.

“Clearly some beats aren’t going to be covered, you’re not going to have the investigative pieces you had in the past, and everyone will be scrambling around doing a job-and-a-half or two jobs,” said Mark Sauer, a general assignment reporter who accepted the buyout offer. “They’re doing less with less. That’s clear to anybody that picks it up. I don’t think any creative enterprise can take that kind of hit and not feel it and have it be noticeable in the product.”

A company spokesman dismissed those concerns.

“I don’t think we’re going to see any decline in the quality of the newspaper at all,” spokesman Drew Schlosberg said. With the newspaper industry transforming and the company adding new features and online portals for readers, “I think it’s going to make our media company very, very strong.”

Some inside and outside the newspaper said they were surprised that a few well-known reporters were allowed to leave.

“If you’re going to downsize your reporting staff you don’t take a (federal law enforcement reporter) Kelly Thornton or Mark Sauer out of the mix,” said one newsroom employee who accepted the offer. The staffer had signed a non-disclosure agreement and agreed to speak anonymously. “Those are the people you want to keep. To keep people interested in the paper, they take things away? It’s all business driven at this point.”

Nelson also pointed to Thornton as a key loss, saying he was “stunned” she wasn’t begged to stay. Early in 2007, she helped break news that U.S. Attorney Carol Lam was being forced by the Bush Administration to resign — before Lam had even announced the news. Her reporting in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks deeply detailed the lives of three hijackers who had trained and lived in San Diego.

“She’s probably the most respected, reviled and feared reporter in San Diego,” Nelson said. “And they’re letting her go? That would be like The Washington Post letting Bob Woodward go.”

The newspaper had targeted 43 newsroom cuts and fell short of that goal, raising concerns among some employees about whether layoffs will follow. Schlosberg would not say whether the company intended to lay off any employees.

“What we are going to continue to do is evaluate where we are, see how we’re doing revenue-wise and always make an evaluation,” he said. “If we have to make more adjustments we’ll do so.”

Schlosberg would not say whether veteran reporters would be replaced with younger, less expensive staff, or whether the vacated beats — utilities, federal law enforcement, obituaries — would be left open.

The newspaper has not acknowledged the buyouts in its news pages. Food writer Maureen Clancy penned a final column Jan. 2 noting that “the time has come to toss in my oven mitts.” But she did not say why.

The staffer who took the buyout said employees had been required to sign a nondisclosure agreement. If asked about their separation from the newspaper, the staffer said they were obligated to respond: “The issues have been amicably resolved.”

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Copley Press’ holdings. The company also owns the Borrego Sun and Today’s Local News. We regret the error.

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