Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2006 | Forty-five veteran employees of The San Diego Union-Tribune have accepted voluntary early retirement offers, as the newspaper cuts payroll costs to cope with industry-wide trend of declining print.

Nineteen of the retiring employees worked in the newsroom; thirty-two newsroom employees had been eligible, said a newsroom source who requested anonymity. Sixty-seven employees were eligible company-wide.

Many of the departing newsroom employees have familiar bylines. They include readers’ representative Gina Lubrano, arts writer Preston Turegano, TV critic Robert Laurence, business reporter Frank Green, obituary writer Jack Williams and long-time columnist Don Freeman. Also leaving is legal affairs editor Bill Callahan, who contributed to two of the paper’s Pulitzer Prizes, as well as staff photographers Tony Doubek and Jerry Windle. Several employees who are editors, copy editors, librarians and secretaries are also leaving.

Most worked their last day Friday; a going-away party was held at a reporter’s house Saturday. Monday was the final day for employees to accept the buyout. They have seven days to change their minds.

In return for leaving the paper, the employees receive a year-and-a-half’s salary, a full year of health benefits and partial health coverage beyond that initial period.

Not everyone was enticed. Roger Showley, a real estate reporter, considered taking the buyout but said he was concerned about leaving his job without another one waiting.

“I’m too young to retire, and I have kids in school, and college waits for them,” said the 36-year veteran. “I didn’t think that was a good thing for my family. It wasn’t that hard to say no thanks.”

The buyouts come as Copley Press, the Union-Tribune‘s parent company, has been seeking to sell its other newspaper holdings. On Friday, Hearst Corp. bought The (Torrance) Daily Breeze, Copley’s Los Angeles-area daily paper.

Copley announced plans in late October to sell seven Midwestern newspapers in an attempt to insulate the Union-Tribune from the financial impacts of circulation drops and the burden of estate taxes from company matriarch Helen Copley’s 2004 death. Copley, a private La Jolla-based company run by Helen Copley’s son, David, also consolidated Today’s Local News with the Union-Tribune‘s operations in September. Twenty-six employees were laid off at the San Marcos-based community newspaper serving North County.

If the Ohio and Illinois papers are sold, it would leave Copley Press with the Union-Tribune as its sole paper, which has raised questions about the closure of Copley’s corporate offices in La Jolla and the future of Copley News Service. News service reporters based in Washington D.C. played a major role in the chain’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of disgraced former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s illicit dealings.

The Union-Tribune‘s circulation has been dropping since 2004, when its Sunday circulation was 442,000. In Sept. 2006, the paper’s Sunday readership had dropped to 390,000 – a loss of more than 50,000 print readers.

The retirements and consolidation could mark a cultural turning point for the newspaper, which lost at least 600 years of institutional knowledge with the buyouts. Freeman had been with the paper at least 55 years. Current Union-Tribune reporters say they – like their colleagues across the country – are coping with the uncertainty of a changing industry.

Nearly all major papers have trimmed – sometimes, cleaved – staff this year. The Dallas Morning News bought out 110 employees earlier this year. At The Washington Post, 70 newsroom employees took an early retirement in the summer. The New York Times bought out 45 newsroom staffers this year.

“The cuts have been a lot bigger and deeper and more dramatic elsewhere,” said Tim Wulfemeyer, a San Diego State University communications professor. “If this is as far as [the Union-Tribune has] to go, the news-consuming public doesn’t have much to worry about. If this is the first wave of the storm, then perhaps we do have something to worry about as news consumers in San Diego.”

Not everyone who took the Union-Tribune‘s buyout left on good terms. Preston Turegano, the paper’s long-time arts writer, had his final column spiked. Turegano said in an e-mail to voiceofsandiego.org that he had previously clashed with editors over investigative projects he’d written about the arts community.

Regular, anchored columnists such as Lubrano were given the opportunity to write farewells. That did not include Turegano, Union-Tribune spokesman Drew Schlosberg said in a prepared statement.

“We thank Preston – and all employees who chose to accept the offer – for their years of service and for all that they have contributed to make the Union-Tribune a successful newspaper,” the statement said.

Reporters remain unsure about whether future cuts will be coming to the newsroom of approximately 350 people. When the buyouts were announced in early November, the company told employees it would not rule out layoffs. But some reporters said yesterday that they hoped the buyouts – along with the newsroom’s nearly 30 unfilled jobs – would prevent deeper cuts.

“The problem now is that we have this big institutional memory loss,” said Showley, the real-estate reporter. “That will take a while to make up.”

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