Paper plans 100 - 150 layoffs

The ax that Jeffrey Johnson and Dean Baquet fought to keep from swinging in the Los Angeles Times newsroom is starting to fall.

The L.A. Times said Monday that it plans to cut 100-150 jobs in a cost-cutting move, with about 70 expected to come from the editorial operation. The cuts, mandated by Tribune, the newspaper’s Chicago-based parent company, were fought last year by former publisher Johnson and former editor Baquet, both of whom departed their Spring Street digs after publicly resisting Tribune’s downsizing demands.

The long-delayed rollout of the staff cuts comes as Tribune is in the process of being taken over, and taken private, in an $8.2 billion deal with Chicago real estate magnate Sam Zell.

“The actions being undertaken at our newspapers reflect fundamental changes going on across the media industry,” Tribune spokesman Gary Weitman said in a statement. “We will redeploy our resources to areas where we can best serve the changing needs of our customers and generate growth, such as we are doing in our interactive group … We cannot stand still; as revenues have slowed, our newspapers are scaling expenses accordingly.”

The plan confirmed on Monday promises to generate jitters in the L.A. Times newsroom for weeks to come. According to memos distributed internally by David Hiller, who succeeded Johnson as publisher in October, and Jim O’Shea, who replaced Baquet in November, the first phase of the plan is the “Employee Voluntary Separation Program,” in which the Times is asking for “volunteers,” according to Hiller’s memo, to submit themselves by May 14 for a buyout worth two weeks pay and benefits for every year the employee has worked for the Times.

Hiller’s memo cited the weak first-quarter earnings report Tribune issued last week, in which revenue and profits were down sharply in its publishing group. For the Los Angeles Times and its units, revenue was down 4% for the quarter and cash flow sank 13%, according to Hiller’s memo. Online revenues are growing at a fast clip of 20% for the quarter, Hiller wrote, but are “not yet big enough to offset the decline on the print side of the business.”

According to Hiller’s memo, only certain employees will be allowed to make the ultimate professional sacrifice. Staffers in some departments — including interactive, technology, circulation and security — are not eligible to apply, and staffers whose positions would have to be “back-filled” regardless are not likely to be considered.

Hiller warned that some positions will be eliminated and some open jobs not filled. Those decisions will be made after management gets a handle on how many volunteers in eligible posts are rounded up. The voluntary buyouts are expected to be completed by the end of next month.

Another idea floated in Hiller’s memo is shifting some employees to a four-day work week at 80% of their current salaries and part-time benefits.

According to a report in the L.A. Times on Monday, the newspaper at present has a total of about 2,600 employees, about 950 of them in the editorial operation. Before Tribune took over the newspaper in 2000, the Times’ editorial staff numbered more than 1,000.

A memo sent by editor O’Shea on Monday acknowledged the anger expressed in the newsroom since word spread that top Tribune executives stood to reap millions in bonuses should the Zell deal be completed. Moreover, the Zell deal has heightened the anxiety at the Los Angeles Times and Tribune’s 10 other daily newspapers because it hinges on a complex employee stock ownership provision that some analysts contend could be risky for employees over the long term.

“I cannot — and will not — defend any such bonuses,” O’Shea wrote in his memo. “Frankly, I understand why you are angry about these plans … But this staff reduction is not because of — or about — bonuses. Unfortunately, the business model at newspapers across the nation remains under challenge and we are no exception.”

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