Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007 | A year after buying out 19 of its most senior newsroom employees, The San Diego Union-Tribune is again reducing its news staff. This time, the cuts are deeper.

The newspaper aims to cut 43 employees in a newsroom of approximately 360 people, a 12 percent reduction in reporters, editors and photographers. Forty employees from other departments are also being targeted in a company of 1,422.

In a Monday memo to employees, the newspaper outlined a menu of staff cuts its management wants to make: nine metro reporters (from a pool that one newsroom source estimated at 75), three columnists, three critics, two photographers and 12 editors or supervisors. If voluntary buyouts are not successful, the memo said the paper would take an “involuntary” approach — layoffs.

The cuts come as the local newspaper’s print circulation has dropped precipitously, echoing a nationwide trend. As people grow more comfortable reading newspapers online, they’re canceling their print subscriptions. Since 2004, the paper has lost 19 percent of its Sunday subscribers, despite aggressively marketing the product, offering two Sunday papers for the price of one.

“This is obviously an organization that is fighting for survival,” said Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. “We’ve all watched papers become fractions of themselves and send themselves into irrelevance. That’s the risk. Will there be a paper? Yeah. Will there be a good paper? That’s the question.”

Cuts have touched nearly every facet of the company. 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 last year.

Since then, Copley Press’s 10-member Washington, D.C. staff has shrunk, losing at least six of its 10 staffers. Two key reporters who contributed to the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of disgraced former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham have left the Washington bureau.

The company could cut more reporters and editors. In the memo to employees, the newspaper said it had only outlined the “minimum” number of reductions it will make.

“As you know, we have taken a number of cost-cutting steps in response to the economic challenges facing our industry,” the memo to employees states. “… Still, it is clear that we must cut costs further. The [buyout program] is one of the several steps we will take to reach that goal.”

Employees can begin submitting applications for the first-come, first-serve buyouts on Wednesday morning. They’ll receive 2.5 weeks of pay for every year they’ve worked — with a maximum of a year’s salary and six months of health benefits. The 19 veteran employees who left last year got a richer severance package, which included 18 months of pay and a full year of health benefits.

“We must make significant changes in our business and aggressively move to bring our organization in line with the needs of the future,” Drew Schlosberg, a company spokesman, said in a written statement. “The voluntary separation program is part of this effort.”

Some employees are not eligible for the buyouts, an indication of the newspaper’s core strategy for future news coverage. Its environment and politics reporters, breaking news team, computer-assisted reporting specialists, sports columnists, copy editors and editorial cartoonist cannot take the buyout. Nor can employees of its Internet site, SignOnSanDiego.com.

“You can see what they’re saying they still value,” Nelson said. “And they’re obviously saying we can no longer be covering all things about this town. The fact that SignOn is protected I think says a lot. Because that’s where the future is.”

The reductions underscore a paradox that is common among newspapers today: They are cutting quality but hoping to improve their bottom line. Tim Wulfemeyer, a journalism and media studies professor at San Diego State University, said the Union-Tribune was taking a risk with that approach.

“If it continues to damage the quality of the product, it may end up in worse shape,” Wulfemeyer said. “When it all comes down to it, quality, credibility, believability and image is about 90 percent of what journalism has to sell to the public. When that starts to erode, people start to turn to other sources for their information.”

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