Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006 | Copley Press Inc., the parent company of the San Diego Union-Tribune, announced plans Tuesday to explore the sale of seven Midwestern newspapers, reigniting speculation about the local newspaper’s future amid newsroom fears about layoffs or buyouts.

The news, which was simultaneously announced at the seven papers in Illinois and Ohio, was greeted with “stunned silence” at one Illinois paper. Its reverberations were felt in San Diego, where some Union-Tribune reporters are reportedly concerned about their futures in a newsroom under a hiring freeze since April. And it raised questions about whether Copley Press’ corporate office in La Jolla will be needed if the company slims down to only one newspaper.

Two former Union-Tribune employees described “panic” among some reporters in an organization that had already begun downsizing earlier this year. At a recent newsroom meeting, three sources confirmed, Editor Karin Winner told employees that no layoffs were planned, but said all options were on the table. A Copley Press spokesman did not return a call for comment.

“Everybody there has been waiting for the ax to drop,” said one former Union-Tribune reporter, who spoke with colleagues Tuesday. “Now they’re really freaked out.”

Copley’s announcement comes as the country’s major newspapers have cut staff and newsroom costs while coping with an industry-wide readership decline. Nationwide, daily newspaper readership dropped 2.8 percent during a six-month period ending in September. Sunday readership declined 3.4 percent in the same time.

The Union-Tribune has seen similar drops, despite winning a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. The paper’s Sunday circulation dropped 12 percent in the last year, losing 52,000 Sunday subscribers. Its daily circulation dropped 10.5 percent, losing about 36,000 subscribers.

And the paper’s readership is aging: 50 percent of daily subscribers are at least 55 years old, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The company said Tuesday that the Illinois and Ohio papers would be sold or merged to help pay estate taxes resulting from the 2004 death of Helen Copley, who ran the family organization between 1973 and her 2001 retirement.

Seven papers are up for grabs: The (Peoria) Journal Star, The (Galesburg) Register-Mail, The (Lincoln) Courier, The (Springfield) State Journal-Register, The (Canton) Repository, The (Dover-New Philadelphia) Times-Reporter and The (Massillon) Independent.

In a prepared statement reported by the Associated Press, Copley CEO David C. Copley said: “The newspaper business has been very good to my family and me for over a century. The flagship remains San Diego and the moves we are announcing secure our ability to keep The San Diego Union-Tribune as an independent, locally owned newspaper for many years into the future.”

That justification was not cited when the company announced plans in June to sell three Los Angeles-based newspapers. The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that MediaNews Group Inc., a Denver-based media conglomerate, is believed to be close to buying at least one of Copley’s Los Angeles papers, The (Torrance) Daily Breeze.

Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University, said selling the Midwest papers makes sense for Copley Press, but is a strange move because Copley – a privately held company – doesn’t have shareholders forcing the decision.

“I understand the thinking that this insulates the Union-Tribune a little more,” Nelson said. “But if I were a Union-Tribune staffer, I’d be very nervous.”

Copley Press recently cut its operations closer to home. In early September, the company said it would merge Today’s Local News, a San Marcos-based community newspaper, into the Union-Tribune. Twenty-six employees were laid off.

Put together, the three announcements have concerned some employees. The former reporter said the company has unsuccessfully tried to cut newsroom costs through attrition. Two sources said the Union-Tribune in April released several reporters who were hired to temporarily fill in for other employees. But the paper may have room to release more employees, the former reporter said.

“There’s a lot of dead weight there,” the source said. “They don’t fire or lay off anyone.”

Another former Union-Tribune editor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said employees are worried about layoffs or buyouts. Some employees are looking for jobs outside the newsroom, the former editor said. At the same time, the source said, some veteran newsroom employees aren’t concerned.

“But I think anybody who’s in their late 20s or early 30s is wondering what the hell they’re doing at this newspaper,” the source said. “People who want to stay in San Diego with young families are apprehensive and wondering: Where do I go from here?”

The former editor believes the news portends the sale of the Union-Tribune – a long rumored possibility, particularly after David Copley replaced Helen Copley, his mother.

“I think they’re putting it up on the block,” the former editor said, “and they have to get rid of the fat.”

But Nelson said it’s premature to jump to that conclusion. The paper’s sale has been rumored for 20 years, he said, and it’s still in Copley family hands.

“I would not necessarily think that this is the beginning of the end for Copley selling the Union-Tribune,” Nelson said. “They’re doing some things with their company that make them look desperate, but I don’t think they are.”

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