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Thursday, May 7, 2009 | Three days after taking The San Diego Union-Tribune’s helm, Beverly Hills-based Platinum Equity gave its most substantive glimpse of what it has in mind for the newspaper’s future.
It’s going to be smaller.
The layoffs had been expected earlier this year under the ownership of David Copley. The newspaper announced in January that it planned to cut its staff as it coped with a 40 percent decline in advertising since 2006. Newsroom employees worried that as many as 50 colleagues would be dismissed. But the feared layoffs didn’t happen — until Thursday.
The newspaper didn’t release the names of employees who were laid off. But familiar names were among them, voiceofsandiego.org confirmed with newsroom sources. At least seven reporters were cut, including Jennifer Vigil, Lola Sherman, Jonathan Sidener, Greg Gross, Ray Huard, Penni Crabtree and Pauline Repard. So were three photographers: Bruce Huff, Nancee Lewis and Crissy Pascual. At least three page designers, five editors, five copy editors and two photo editors were cut, as were family editor Jane Clifford and Lee Grant, a critic.
A newsroom source said 50 newsroom employees had been laid off; the company wouldn’t confirm the number. The employees will work until July 6. Federal and state law requires companies making mass layoffs to give their employees two months’ notice. They’ll be paid two weeks severance plus an additional week for each year they’ve worked at the company, a newsroom source said.
The company also cut all the staff at Today’s Local News, a community paper based in San Marcos, effectively shuttering the publication.
The company, which once employed 1,422, has now shed 572 jobs — about 40 percent of its workforce — since late 2007 through a series of buyouts and layoffs.
The newspaper’s new owners made no secret that cuts were coming. In a Q&A published earlier this week, Louis Samson, the Platinum Equity principal who led the Union-Tribune purchase, said the company would cut the staff.
“[T]he ultimate goal here is to make only those cuts necessary to stabilize the business, and then to focus on growing revenue,” Samson told the Union-Tribune. “The last thing we want to do is chase spiraling revenue downhill through endless cuts.”
The Union-Tribune began trimming its staff in 2006 as it began coping with sagging advertising revenues and declining print circulation. Fewer people are buying the printed newspaper. Since September 2006, it has lost 60,000 Sunday subscribers; 330,000 now buy the Sunday paper.
In that time, the newspaper has closed its Washington, D.C. and Mexico City bureaus and lost some of its most prominent writers, including the reporters who led the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Randy “Duke” Cunningham. The paper did add a Pulitzer this year for the work of editorial cartoonist Steve Breen.
Ken Doctor, a media analyst with Outsell Inc., said it’s no surprise that the newspaper’s new owners cut staff so soon after taking over.
“I wouldn’t expect them to wait,” Doctor said. “They’re saying we have to get this paper on a path to profitability. And that’s plainly what they’re doing.”
Doctor said newspapers across the country are hoping for an economic recovery led by cars, real estate and retail — prime advertisers. Newspaper advertising revenue in the first quarter of this year was down about 25 percent, Doctor said. If papers can control costs in 2009, then 2010 may present better revenue opportunities, he said.
“They’re not under the illusion that it’ll be like the old days. But the idea is that 2010 will look better than 2009,” Doctor said. “If you’re Platinum Equity, you’re trying to reap the reward of recovery — as with all owners and publishers.”
Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University, said he wanted to see the Union-Tribune succeed under its new ownership. But he also said he hoped the new owners knew what they were doing.
“I find it a little disturbing given the quotes from the new owners that they’re going to have a newspaper in the area for a long time, that they’re committed to newspapers,” Nelson said. “It’s hard to take the new owners seriously about their commitment to journalism in San Diego when this is one of the first things they do.”
Drew Schlosberg, the Union-Tribune’s spokesman, said in a prepared statement that the cuts were difficult.
“These are difficult times for the entire newspaper industry, and a time of transition for the Union-Tribune,” he said. “Any decision to reduce staff is painful, as it means saying goodbye to longtime friends and exceptionally talented colleagues.”
Randy Dotinga contributed to this report.