Thursday, December 16, 2010

"On the first day of unemployment . . . "

Posted By on 12.16.10 at 08:30 AM

Downsizing CEOs need to get together and demand Christmas be rescheduled to some time that doesn't make those end-of-the-year budget adjustments so awkward.

Consider Pioneer Press, where the decision's been made to close seven weeklies on December 23. Sun-Times Media CEO Jeremy Halbreich told Crain's Chicago Business earlier this month that no decision had been made about layoffs. But now I've heard from a reporter at one of the doomed weeklies who says group publisher John Barron told the Pioneer staff during a conference call that there will be layoffs, and the reporter expects to be one of them.

"Nobody talks much about it," this reporter e-mailed me after I'd asked how the holiday season was shaping up. "Everybody kind of looks around to see who the likely candidates are. Editors try to act as if nothing’s different. It’s like being on the Titanic trying to ignore the water seeping up from steerage while you try to ignore the gurgles of the drowning third-class passengers and crew. But it’s hard to ignore the fact you may be jobless by Christmas Eve. Or perhaps New Year’s Eve. They’re not saying when the axes are going to fall, but Barron himself made no bones about the fact they will fall. After all, if you can’t believe the publisher, who can you believe?"

The seven papers are the Grayslake, Gurnee, Antioch, and Lake Villa-Lindenhurst Reviews, all in Lake County, Illinois, and the Proviso Herald, Edison-Norwood Times Review, and Doings Elmhurst. Pioneer reporter Lynne Stiefel, who's president of the Chicago Newspaper Guild, says she isn't certain editorial layoffs are inevitable because there are so many open spots to move reporters into. For instance, "there's no Winnetka reporter, no Niles reporter, no Oak Brook reporter," she says. "There are a lot of holes, or people doing a lot of doubling up."

Barron tells me an eighth paper, the Doings Weekly, is also in the mix. Published for Burr Ridge, Darien, and Willowbrook, in the future it'll focus on Burr Ridge. About 13,000 subscribers are affected by the cutback, says Barron, including the ones the Doings Weekly won't be providing for any longer. But, he continues, Sun-Times Media hopes to "migrate" the 5,000 or so Lake County readers to an enhanced weekend edition of the daily Lake County News-Sun. (At last count, that weekend edition, published on Saturday, had a circulation of about 16,700.) "We'll up our coverage of news and sports," says Barron.

As for layoffs, "we'll let the dust settle and then make determinations." Pioneer Press has a little more than 100 editorial employees, Barron says, Sun-Times Media in its entirety more than 400, and when Pioneer shrinks from 39 titles to 32, "we may be able to redeploy these forces a little bit." I take this to mean that Pioneer employees who don't lose their jobs when their papers fold could wind up anywhere in Sun-Times Media.

And as for those uncovered suburbs, Barron tells me Pioneer is "experimenting with a freelancer/stringer model" in Niles. In Winnetka and Oak Brook, he was pretty sure they had somebody assigned.

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