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Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2008 | Newsroom morale is suffering. Some employees are pondering whether they should find new jobs. Freelance writers, less expensive than staff employees, are being used more frequently. Reporters who are now covering multiple beats have been promised a grand vision for the future, but so far they say nothing has materialized.
Two weeks have passed since The San Diego Union-Tribune laid off 27 employees, culminating a round of buyouts and layoffs that eliminated 10 percent of the local newspaper’s workforce of about 1,400. And as the newspaper’s employees look for direction about the company’s slimmer future, they say they have been largely greeted with silence.
The Union-Tribune‘s situation is not unique. Across the country, newspapers have reduced their staffs through buyouts and layoffs as they struggle with a declining print readership. Many began making cuts before the Union-Tribune did — a process that started there with a 2006 round of buyouts.
But current and former staffers, speaking on condition of anonymity — some former employees had signed non-disclosure agreements, current employees feared for their jobs — said they were particularly concerned about the Union-Tribune‘s future amid the changing media landscape.
“It’s not like everyone else in the country has figured this out and the U-T hasn’t,” said one former staffer. “The whole herd is sick. But the U-T is a weak member of the herd.”
The interviews paint a picture of a media company that has struggled with divisions among its senior leadership and that doesn’t communicate well internally. The paper’s editor and website leader don’t get along, staff says. Employees have watched some of the news pages’ most prominent names pack up and leave, without being briefed about what comes next.
Karin Winner, the Union-Tribune‘s editor since 1995, said the newspaper is currently plotting a strategy that soon will be shared with employees.
“The roles are going to shake out as we move forward here,” she said. “We’re in the process as a company of looking at what we want to be as we move forward. … Clearly we’ll have to let go of some things.”
As that happens, employees said a basic complication falls directly between the paper’s past, its print product, and the future, its website. Since the company’s website began, it has operated separately from the newspaper. The company essentially has two separate enterprises: The Union-Tribune and SignOnSanDiego.com. Each has a different leader.
Six current and former employees said a well-known rift exists between those two leaders: Winner, and the newspaper’s vice president of Internet operations, Chris Jennewein, who oversees SignOnSanDiego.com.
Winner and Jennewein “don’t like each other, they undermine each other — and it’s one company for God’s sakes,” said a former employee. “I don’t understand the philosophy of allowing them to do this.”
Said another current staffer: “If you can’t solve that most basic problem, how are you going to solve the Herculean problems that are facing this industry?”
A reporter who attended a 2007 newsroom strategy meeting in which Winner laid out ideas for the company’s future said the editor closed the session with this request: Don’t tell the workers at SignOnSanDiego.com about what was discussed.
Winner said she did not recall making the comment. If she did say it, Winner said she was probably joking. Her relationship with Jennewein “is not a personal relationship that matters,” she said. What does matter, she said, is the connection between employees of the newsroom and Internet site. The two function as separate companies, though several Internet employees recently moved into the newsroom to coordinate online content production.
“Little by little, we have come much closer,” Winner said. “The relationship’s never been better. … There’s no secret that I’d like us to have a closer relationship.”
Jennewein, who has directed Internet operations since 2001, denied any rift. “All I can say is that from my perspective, we are all on the same team,” he said. “We’ve all been on the same team.”
Most newspapers have merged their newsroom and Internet operations, though a few newspapers, including The Washington Post, follow the Union-Tribune‘s separate structure, said John Morton, a Silver Spring, Md.-based industry analyst.
Keeping the Internet site as a separate business “just doesn’t make sense,” Morton said. “It’s not good to have that rivalry between operations. Everybody at the newspaper is in the same boat, and they ought to be using the same oars.”
Complicating the relationship: The Union-Tribune lacks a content management system, common in newspapers across the country, that allows what’s written and edited in the newsroom to be easily posted to the web.
“They haven’t moved into the last quarter of the 20th century,” a current staffer said, “let alone the first quarter of the 21st century.”
Jennewein acknowledged the newspaper’s internal system was not ideal. “It goes with the territory,” he said. “Sometimes legacy systems are still there when you’d like to replace them.”
As the company looks to the future after the layoffs and buyouts, three current employees said the newspaper’s senior leadership had not met with them to discuss the cuts, to explain the reasons behind the decisions or to elucidate how the newspaper aims to function with a smaller staff.
“They’ve never articulated any game plan, and there’s no reason to believe they ever had one,” a newsroom employee said.
Winner said she e-mailed the staff within the last two weeks to address the issue. She plans to meet with employees soon to discuss a blueprint for the future — a way to move from “print operation to media company,” she said. While Winner said that blueprint had already been rolled out, she declined to discuss specifics, saying she wanted to first do so with her staff.
As the company looks to the future, some say it has reason to be optimistic. Jennewein said he is a “big optimist” about the opportunities offered by presenting the news online.
While the newspaper has been losing print subscribers, its website is “an area of significant new growth,” Jennewein said. A September audit showed the site had 3.5 million unique monthly visitors — a 40 percent increase from October 2006. The newspaper has lost 19 percent of its Sunday subscribers since 2004.
But the site does not generate enough money to supplant declining revenue on the print side. “When the industry looks at the Internet, it’s not so much about replacing the revenue as it is creating strong profit growth,” Jennewein said.
Dean Nelson, director of Point Loma Nazarene University’s journalism program, said it’s hard to be satisfied by a product that’s in transition.
“Journalism is a way for understanding the world we live in, so there’s always going to be a call for it,” Nelson said. “Whether it’s going to be this method is the question — not is journalism itself going by the wayside. I would think the best thing we could do is be patient. You can’t predict that we’re all going to drown just because it’s raining today.”