On the morning of August 28, unwelcome news began circulating through the newsroom at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: layoffs were imminent. By the end of that day, five editors — two with almost 30 years of service at the daily — were asked to collect their belongings and leave the building on North Tucker Boulevard.
"Unreal," "eerie," "bad, bad, bad," was how several reporters described the chain of events.
In a subsequent telephone interview with Riverfront Times, Post-Dispatch executive editor Arnie Robbins refuses to rule out further editorial staff reductions.
"Will there be more layoffs? I sure hope not," says Robbins. "But in this day and age, no editor or publisher or company can promise anything to anybody anymore."
In recent years, metropolitan newsrooms across the United States have become unsettling places to punch a clock. Advertising revenues for print editions have plummeted, and online ad sales are lagging. Circulation at most major dailies is, at best, stagnant. Newsprint costs nearly twice as much per ton as it did five years ago. Decreased profit margins have caused some of the most venerable papers in journalism — Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post — to slash staff and shed news pages.
But the Post-Dispatch's parent company, Lee Enterprises, is weathering the storm better than most media firms, says media analyst John Morton. "Because most of their newspapers are in smaller markets, with the exception of the Post-Dispatch, of course, the company's overall advertising performance has been hit much less severely than the other publicly owned companies," says Morton.
Lee, based in Davenport, Iowa, owns 50 dailies and more than 300 weeklies in 23 states. Although the company does not break out financials by newspaper, Post-Dispatch staffers, including Robbins, say they've been assured by Lee that the St. Louis daily is profitable.
"That's what's really upsetting to me and to just about everybody who works at the paper," complains Shannon Duffy, the business representative for the St. Louis Newspaper Guild, which represents some 400 of the paper's employees. "They're laying people off, and yet we know the Post-Dispatch is not losing money."
Robbins demurs on the question of why layoffs are necessary. "Because everybody [in the newspaper business] is traded on Wall Street, and you need strong year-over-year results," he says. "It may be fair, it may be unfair, but [layoffs] are the reality."
Last week, Lee's stock price was trading at $3.47. In June 2005, when Lee purchased the Post-Dispatch from Pulitzer Inc. for $1.46 billion, the stock price was a robust $42 a share.
Since the acquisition Lee has continually shrunk the newspaper. More than 120 employees took a buyout offer in the second half of 2005. A second buyout in late 2007 cost the paper another 60 employees, two-thirds of them in the editorial department.
In March of this year, the Post laid off 31 employees, including some Guild members. And the latest round of job slashing affected thirteen HR and production staffers and five editors (none of whom belonged to the union): Dale Singer, online news editor; Courtney Barrett, chief of the copy desk; Carl Green, night city editor; Sid Hastings, photo editor; and Rick Pierce, chief of the Illinois bureau.
"It's an inexcusable thing," laments Florence Shinkle, a retired reporter who wrote for the Post for 30 years. "I'm a subscriber; I love the paper. I think [investigative reporter] Jeremy Kohler is doing amazing stories and [Metro columnist] Bill McClellan is a fantastic writer.
"But I feel like with these layoffs they've breached some critical boundaries for the health and stability of the newspaper. The big tanks are at the door."
Walking a tightrope between its online and dead-tree editions, the Post-Dispatch last month made its most substantial reductions yet to the print edition. For one, the paper halted its zoned editions in St. Charles and the Metro East. Now every subscriber in the metro area receives the same newspaper.
Beginning on August 25, numerous other changes took effect: The Metro section was condensed into the "A" section on Mondays. Several features sections were also condensed, and the floundering "Everyday" section was reduced to four pages — nearly all of which contain comics. The daily also eliminated its TV grids, much to the dismay of subscribers.
"I love the P-D's business plan," commented one reader on stltoday.com. "Costs are high and revenue low, so cut out features that readers really want but are expensive (i.e. TV listings, comics, and real, hard-hitting local news). Watch subscriptions plummet, which in turn reduces ad revenue, leading to more cuts. The quality of the Post-Dispatch has deteriorated severely since its glory years, and there is very little reason to read it anymore."
Executive editor Robbins doesn't believe the quality of coverage has suffered. "Over the last year in particular we've done a good job focusing on public service, watchdog journalism, and as I've said over the last week, if I have to eliminate TV grids to keep our watchdog journalism up, I can live with that."
Many of Robbins' staff members disagree. Said one longtime reporter: "There's no doubt that we're giving people less of a newspaper than we were previously, and every employee of the newspaper is very sorry about that."
Media analyst John Morton says layoffs and page reductions could spell disaster. "A lot of the steps that companies are taking now are the very wrong steps to take," Morton cautions. "You're cutting news staff and the news hole, you're making the paper smaller and thinner and covering less, and that affects the two major assets that newspapers have: brand name and standing. They're the two things that newspapers will have to use to try to succeed on the Internet, and they're undermining themselves at every step."
The guild's contract with Lee does not expire until June 5, 2009, but business rep Duffy worries more layoffs are around the corner. On August 24, the union voted unanimously to enter into early bargaining with Lee. Both the guild and Lee will bring five or six issues to the table, with job security being the guild's number-one concern.
Negotiations are expected to begin soon and could last several weeks. It is the first union contract to be negotiated since Lee took control of the newspaper. If no agreement is reached, says Duffy, the parties will start from scratch next spring.
As to the current mood in the newsroom, several staffers sum it up as "resigned." Says Bill McClellan: "I think the changes are all kind of shortsighted, but all I can say in our defense is they're happening everywhere."