Imagine sitting in a room the size of a football field

crammed with a battalion of reporters when word begins to circulate: "The

grim reaper is on the move."

Every few minutes a phone rings to inform someone that

management has cut his or her job at The

Indianapolis Star

. Stunned disbelief, tears and even piercing wails follow

as colleagues process the losses.

When the Star laid off 62 people across all its departments last June

— the fourth round of Star

layoffs since 2008 — the event felt like "two hours of hell,"

said Bobby King, a reporter who witnessed the event.

King still reports for the Star and now serves as president of the Indianapolis Newspaper

Guild, the union that represents newsroom employees and the janitorial staff.

Last week, he helped organize a rally outside the Star's downtown headquarters.

"We've never done anything remotely similar to what you

see here," King said. "The energy reflects the frustration in the

newsroom and among the staff about the direction of the paper."

The local newspaper guild represented 219 employees in

January 2008. Layoffs and a hiring freeze have since eliminated 44 percent of

those people. Today, Guild-represented employees number 125. The paper now has

only a dozen photographers, down from 23. The number of copy editors has

dropped from 26 to 15 and editorial writers have been halved from eight to

four.

On top of the layoffs, Star

employees endured unpaid furloughs totaling 4 percent of guild workers' 2009

pay, a 10 percent salary cut in their most recent two-year contract and a

proposal to outsource page design and copy editing jobs to a regional Gannett

hub in Louisville, Ky.

Then, last week, the staff received a memo from Gannett

corporate management in McLean, Va., announcing another round of furloughs. The

unpaid time off would not affect guild members, but the sting was strong enough

to provoke reaction.

Last week dozens of the paper's employees spent their lunch

hour picketing in front of the Star's

downtown headquarters. The chants included calls of "Shame on You!"

"More news, less greed!" and "Save the Star."

After picketing, the crowd rallied around a handful of

speakers.

"I'm proud to be a journalist," said reporter John

Russell

, who was recognized as Indiana Journalist of the Year by the Society of

Professional Journalists for breaking the story of unethical dealings between

Duke Energy and the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.

"I'm proud to be an officer in your guild. But every

week that goes by, I'm a little more ashamed of Gannett and what they're doing

to journalism."

Gannett's Chief Executive Craig Dubow's salary totaled $9.4

million last year — twice as much as the combined salaries of the 125

people the guild represents, according to King. When Dubow

left the company this fall due to disability, his retirement package was

estimated at $37 million.

"Is it fair for the CEO to leave with $37 million while

we take less and less and less?" Russell asked. "We're here to say

that's wrong."

The guild, which has a dues-paying membership of about 80

percent of all the employees it represents — including reporters,

photographers, copy editors, researchers, page designers and custodial staff

— met with Star management

following the rally.

"We're concerned about our families' economic situation

and we're concerned about the future of the newspaper," King said.

"We're not asking for the moon — just the 10 percent back from two

years ago and cost-of-living raises of 3 percent a year."

When asked for comment, Star

Publisher Karen Crotchfelt offered a brief response via email.

"We are currently engaged in the process of collective

bargaining and fully intend to respect and honor that process," Crotchfelt

wrote.

"We also are looking forward to reaching a new contract

with the Union as soon as possible. However, because we are currently engaged in negotiations it would not

be appropriate or proper to discuss in detail our negotiations with the Union."

Guild members worry that the

company's consolidation plans may portend additional cuts to the Indianapolis

newsroom — a fear Gannett's furlough memo did not allay.

Materials accompanying the memo, reviewed by NUVO, note

"as we continue to consolidate some operations to achieve greater

efficiencies there will be some position eliminations as our normal course of

business."

A recent research report from J.P. Morgan analysts helps to

summarize the pressure on Gannett executives to cut newsroom costs, though it

does not mention the disparities between executive and newsroom pay.

"Management reiterated during the (third quarter 2011

earnings) call that it will remain vigilant on costs to help protect

profitability, but despite a good track record of cost containment ... margins of

16 % fell short of our 16.9 % estimate," the analysts wrote, noting

margins were down about 2 percent from the prior year.

"In our view, the newspaper margin miss may indicate

that (Gannett) is finding it increasingly challenging to keep cutting expenses

in line with revenue declines, and heightens concern over the company's ability

to protect profitability in 2012 as there has not yet been any meaningful

improvement in the print outlook."

Companies often use reductions in print advertising to

justify newsroom cutbacks, though some quantitative research now questions the

efficacy of such approaches.

A study authored by professors in the business and

journalism schools at the University of Missouri looked at 10 years of

financial data for papers of small- to medium-sized newspapers with

circulations of 85,000 or less and found that cuts to newsrooms affected news

quality.

"If you lower the amount of money spent in the

newsroom, then pretty soon the news product becomes so bad that you begin to

lose money," said study co-author Esther Thorson, dean of the Missouri

School of Journalism, in an announcement of the study's release.

On the flipside, said Murali Mantrala, a professor in the

business school, "Better news quality drives circulation, and circulation

drives advertising revenues."

In reaction to the cuts sustained at the Star, a group of 15 local religious

leaders, including nine reverends, three rabbis, an imam and a bishop wrote a

letter of concern

to Star executives.

"As leaders in the Indianapolis faith community and

readers of your newspaper, we have watched with great concern the declining

role of The IndianapolisStar as this city's most vital and

primary source of local news," they wrote.

"We are also aware of the challenges facing the

newspaper industry, yet we are deeply troubled by the pattern of local layoffs

and staff pay reductions while executives at Gannett ... received large pay

raises. ... As faith leaders we feel called upon to shine the light of public

inquiry on justice issues such as these in our community."

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