Dramatic Losses Force Union-Tribune to Lay Off Employees

Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008 | The San Diego Union-Tribune laid off 27 employees Tuesday afternoon, including at least five newsroom staffers, the latest cut in a company that has reduced its workforce by 10 percent in the past month.

On top of the layoffs, the Union-Tribune has bought out 76 employees since late December, laid off an additional 14 press room workers and told 18 advertising artists their positions would be outsourced later this year.

The layoffs mark a seminal moment for the local newspaper: visceral evidence of the extent of the company’s financial struggles. While the newspaper has previously acknowledged the challenges posed by an industry-wide financial downturn, it has addressed them through less painful methods, either by enticing employees to leave with voluntary buyouts or by not filling vacant positions.

In a memo to employees, Gene Bell, president and CEO of Copley Press, the La Jolla-based company that owns the Union-Tribune, said the company needed to transform into “a new media company that will regain its footing as an independent and powerful force in the future of our region.”

“Not since the merger of the Union and Tribune over 15 years ago have we faced such wrenching changes,” he wrote. “At the same time, never in our history have we faced revenue losses as dramatic as those of the last 12 months.”

Bell did not say how large the losses were. Those figures are not public because Copley Press is privately held. If the company fails to bring its costs in line with revenues, “we face a slippery slope of ever more difficult measures,” Bell wrote. “Our goal is to avoid sliding down that slope and, instead, to convert our many competitive strengths into new strategies. … [W]e cannot succeed without conserving and redirecting our resources.”

Three current or former newsroom staffers confirmed the layoffs include film critic David Elliott, reporter David Washburn, director of photography Andy Hayt, photographer Sean DuFrene and assistant sports editor Michael Rosenthal.

Their layoffs come after the newspaper failed to meet its goals for employee buyouts in December. It aimed to cut 83 positions, but 76 employees took the offer, which included as much as a year’s salary for the most veteran workers.

Copley Press has made cuts throughout its newspaper holdings in the last two years. Citing the burden of estate taxes from company matriarch Helen Copley’s 2004 death, her son, David Copley, sold off smaller newspapers in Ohio, Illinois and the Los Angeles area in 2006. The company began trimming staff at the Union-Tribune in late 2006, when it bought out 45 of its most senior employees.

In total, the Union-Tribune‘s newsroom, once estimated at about 360 employees, has lost at least 51 staffers from the layoffs and two rounds of buyouts. Copley Press’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 former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. That coverage won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

The cuts have come as the Union-Tribune has continued to struggle to stabilize its plummeting print circulation. The newspaper has lost 19 percent of its Sunday subscribers since 2004.

“Many of us are fortunate to have grown up in a marvelously stable and consistently profitable business,” Bell told employees in the memo. “Unfortunately, all communications media now face destructive competitive forces seldom seen before. Newspapers are not immune.”

Drew Schlosberg, a Union-Tribune spokesman, wrote in a statement that the layoffs marked “difficult times” at the newspaper.

“Any decision to reduce staff is painful,” he wrote, “especially at a family owned business where it means saying goodbye to longtime friends and exceptionally talented colleagues.”

(Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the company had failed to acknowledge the buyouts or layoffs in its news pages. We regret the error.)

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