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Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008 | Metro columnist Gerry Braun is leading the latest exodus from The San Diego Union-Tribune, as the local newspaper continues to fight its shrinking circulation by cutting its staff.

Multiple sources confirmed Monday that Braun had left the paper; the popular columnist’s voicemail says his number is no longer active. In addition, 20 other newsroom staffers have accepted a buyout offer that will pay them two weeks’ salary for each year they’ve worked at the paper. They depart Sept. 30.

Sources confirmed that those include medical reporter Cheryl Clark, readers representative Carol Goodhue, environmental reporter Terry Rodgers, East County reporter Liz Neely, religion reporter Sandi Dolbee, three copy editors and two columnists including Braun’s wife, Ruth McKinnie Braun, who wrote “Just Fix It.” It’s unclear if Gerry Braun took the buyout offer; he did not return a call Monday.

The newspaper had targeted 32 in the newsroom and 78 companywide with its latest effort to alleviate what the company described earlier this year as “dramatic” revenue losses. The last time it did not meet buyout targets the paper laid off several employees. It is unknown how many elsewhere in the company took the buyout; a spokesman did not return a call for comment.

The departures come with the Union-Tribune up for sale and mark the latest reduction for a staff that has shrunk significantly since winning a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for exposing the Randy “Duke” Cunningham bribery scandal. The two reporters who led that coverage — Jerry Kammer and Marcus Stern — left in 2007, part of the steady exodus of talent that has left an indelible impact on the newspaper.

As a metro columnist, Gerry Braun had one of the paper’s most well-recognized remaining bylines, known as much for his wry humor as for his excoriating columns that focused attention on such things as sexism allegations among Southwest Airlines flight attendants.

Braun, a longtime political reporter, introduced himself to readers Feb. 21, 2007 with these words: “Now I’ve been asked to write a twice-weekly column from which readers will learn more about me than they gleaned from my earlier reporting, even from such timeless pieces as ‘Candidates outline some major positions’ and ‘Escondido brochure probe rejected.’

“You see, good reporters are like medieval nuns. They reveal almost nothing. Columnists, as I understand the trade, are like aging strippers. They reveal themselves slowly, and you’re thankful for the slowness.”

Since the newspaper first cut its staff in late 2006, at least 53 newsroom staff positions have been eliminated through buyouts and layoffs — not including reporters who have quit, such as Alex Roth, Phil LaVelle and, more recently, business reporter Bruce Bigelow. Those losses come from a newsroom currently estimated at around 280. The newspaper’s print circulation has fallen since 2006, losing 35,000 of 390,000 Sunday subscribers.

Before cuts began in 2006, the Union-Tribune was the flagship paper of a robust newspaper company with holdings across the country. Today, it is the sole daily owned by the Copley Press, which has divested eight daily and eight weekly papers. The company’s Copley News Service, which boasted bureaus from Mexico City to Springfield, Ill., has also been sold. Only the Union-Tribune and bi-weekly Borrego Sun remain under owner David Copley’s control.

Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University, described the newspaper as being on “death watch” and suggested its management was tightening the noose.

“If I were a staff member, I’d be wondering about my future,” Nelson said. “How much longer can you keep trimming your staff and your news hole until it’s just no longer relevant? My sense is that you can only do that so long and then nobody picks it up anymore.”

Nelson said the newspaper is still producing relevant local journalism, pointing to its recent investigation exposing the city of San Diego’s expensive post-wildfire debris cleanup. And he noted that other papers across the country have been cutting their staffs, part of a years-long reduction in the size of newspapers nationwide.

The paper is gambling that it can continue reducing its staff and stay relevant enough that people will want to read it, Nelson said. The Union-Tribune appears to be cutting its bottom line for the sake of its sale, Nelson said, not for the sake of its journalism.

“I think you’ve made it clear that your purpose is no longer to create great journalism,” Nelson said of the paper’s ownership. “I don’t know how you could read that any other way.”

John Morton, a Maryland-based newspaper analyst, said newspapers like the Union-Tribune are unlikely to disappear any time soon — unless they’re mired in debt. The Union-Tribune is a private company, so its finances remain secret.

“[Newspapers] remain in almost every environment an advertising vehicle,” Morton said. “These are still good-sized businesses, but they’re going to be diminished in their quality and standards.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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