Real-life Trolley Problem, Advance Publications-style: Sacrificing some to save others

Note: This post has been corrected, as indicated by underline and strike-through below.

The guild representing newsroom employees of Times-Picayune sister paper, pd_thumbThe Plain Dealer of Cleveland, is living a real-life Trolley Problem, Advance Publications-style.

In a meeting in a cafeteria dining room at the newspaper this afternoon, the bargaining unit of Local 1 of the Newspaper Guild apparently laid out a tough proposal to their members: accept 60 layoffs in exchange for a guarantee of no more large-scale cuts through 2019. Or, fight on, and 80 or more newsroom employees will lose their jobs when the current contract expires Jan. 31, 2013.

With a total of 168 newsroom jobs, the guild must either accept a reduction in newsroom ranks by nearly 36%, or endure a 48% or greater reduction if it fights on past the Jan. 31, 2013 expiration of its current contract, which prohibits layoffs.

“The loss of any of The Plain Dealer‘s journalists – whether it’s one-third or one-half the staff – will be a severe blow to the community,” read a post added late Thursday afternoon to the “Save The Plain Dealer” Facebook page.

Backed organizationally and financially by its local and a grant from the Communications Workers of America, Plain Dealer employees several weeks ago unleashed an advertising and PR campaign aimed at dissuading newspaper owner Advance Publications from making the same draconian changes there that it has at 13 of its 34 newspapers across the country.

“Launche03dealer-blog480d with a full-page ad in the Sunday, Nov. 12 paper and media stories on NPR, WKYC, and other outlets, the committee’s Don Quixote effort has also plastered the city with ads and produced a television commercial,” alternative weekly Cleveland Scene‘s Vince Grzegorek reported in a Dec. 5 cover story  titled “Can The Plain Dealer Be Saved?” “Its Facebook page has over 3,900 likes; the petition at has over 5,900 signatures. ‘Hot in Cleveland’ star Valerie Bertinelli lent her star power to the cause, and local leaders like Councilman Joe Cimperman have taken up the flag as well. Events have sprung up, like a “Save the Plain Dealer” party at Market Garden Brewery and Distillery this week, all aimed at getting Advance to respond to public pressure.” (Any of this sound familiar?)

But as dashTHIRTYdash founder Rebecca Theim expressed to Grzegorek, “You hope and wish that it’s different in Cleveland, but history has shown that if the Newhouses have made up their mind, that’s what’s going to happen.”

The post on the Save The Plain Dealer Facebook page Thursday asserted that the campaign has minimized the severity of the cuts. “While the forced departure of one-third of our journalists will cause deep, lasting harm to the work of news-gathering, we believe your outpouring of support for the Save The Plain Dealer campaign has helped dissuade the company from making even deeper cuts, and causing even greater community harm, as has happened at the other Advance newspapers,” the post read.

Cuts at Advance Publications Papers = At Least 1,336 Jobs

The Times-Picayune‘s newsroom was cut by 49% effective Oct. 1, although some new employees have been hired since then. (At least 14 employees originally asked to stay when the newspaper announced details about the layoffs in mid-June chose instead to leave, prompting the newspaper to “unfire” about 10 employees it originally had laid off.) About 30% of the newspaper’s total workforce was eliminated, including all of the Marketing Department except for one person, all Special Sections employees, all of the Library staff except for one employee, and the entire Human Resources staff, New Orleans’ alternative weekly Gambit reported.

Advance eliminated the jobs of 550 of its 1,100 employees in Michigan, but has said that more than half of those jobs have been offset by new hires, The Wall Street Journal reported in August.

Another 600 jobs were eliminated Sept. 30 at three Alabama newspapers Advance owns: The Huntsville Times, the Birmingham News and the Press-Register of Mobile, including 55% of the newsroom at the Birmingham paper, Alabama’s largest news organization.

The Post-Standard of Syracuse, N.Y. will shed 115 jobs Jan. 31, out of a total of 386 full-time and 26 part-time employees. The newsroom there will shrink from about 115 to 75, a 40% reduction. At the Patriot News in Harrisburg Pa., 70 of about 285 full-time employees also will be axed Jan. 31, or about 25% of the staff.

Both of those papers will move to a three-day-a-week publishing schedule, like The Times-Picayune and the Alabama papers, Feb. 1.

All told, at least 1,336 jobs have been eliminated at Advance Publication newspapers since this “digital-first” strategy began in 2009 in Michigan Feb. 2 (not including expected Plain Dealer layoffs), according to a compilation of the figures published in news reports about the layoffs. Several of the newspapers, including The Times-Picayune, have hired an undisclosed number of generally younger, less experienced and presumably less expensive employees since then. A June analysis by Poynter news analyst Rick Edmonds showed that the only way The Times-Picayune changes made financial sense was through the purging of experienced, higher-paid employees and replacing them with “young people, more tech-dextrous and a lot cheaper.”

3 thoughts on “Real-life Trolley Problem, Advance Publications-style: Sacrificing some to save others

  1. Thank you for the link to our Media of Birmingham story.

    “Accept 60 layoffs in exchange for a guarantee of no more large-scale cuts through 2019. Or, fight on, and 80 or more newsroom employees will lose their jobs when the current contract expires Jan. 31, 2013.”

    Does anyone actually believe the no big cuts till 2019 promise? Or will Cleveland play out exactly as it has played out in Michigan, New Orleans, Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile, Syracuse and Harrisburg?

    • Wade, another wrinkle here is that the guild apparently agrees that content produced by, which isn’t part of the guild, can now be used in the newspaper. So, what stops the newspaper from never again hiring an employee, and instead doing all of its hiring through the non-unionized

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