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
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
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
"I'm proud to be a journalist," said reporter John Russell
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
letter of concernto 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."