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Publications Adjust to Changing Times

[ This is an updated version of the column from the one appearing in the print edition. ] February was a tough month in the newspaper industry. The Tribune Co. announced staff cuts at its newspapers that may end up costing 50 editorial jobs at the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times will eliminate as many as 100 newsroom jobs. The Ventura County Star for the first time ever had to make layoffs, although they were made in non-editorial departments. Here in the San Fernando Valley, the Daily News was scheduled to let go 22 reporters and managers on Feb. 29. The cuts bring to 100 the number of Newspaper Guild members and management remaining in that paper’s Valley newsroom. “What hurts for me is to watch all the work we put into this fall apart because of decisions that are out of our control,” said Brent Hopkins, a Daily News reporter and one of two union stewards. [ Note: Hopkins announced on Feb. 29 after the business journal had already gone to press that he was taking a buyout. ] Editor Ron Kaye would not comment and referred calls to publisher Doug Hanes. Fewer employees means a need for less space, which is what the Daily News will find itself in later this year when it moves to the Warner Gateway Center on Burbank Boulevard near Topanga. “We expect to move the second week of September,” Hanes said. “This building wasn’t meant to house a newspaper when Jack Kent Cooke bought it.” The paper moves from a 117,000-square-foot, concrete tilt-up, converted warehouse on Oxnard Street to 53,000-square feet of commercial office space in a business park. “There are a lot of tenant improvements. We’ll have windows all around,” Hanes said. “We spent a lot of time on this design and we think it looks real strong.” The publisher said the new facility will house 300 editorial and advertising staff in a wall-less room, with other employees being relocated to Los Angeles Newspaper Group (LANG) facilities in Valencia and the San Gabriel Valley. The newspaper will also benefit from signage on the 101 Freeway, Hanes said. Hanes had no comment on the staff cuts. Previous Cuts The last time the Daily News made cuts of this sort was October 2006 in the midst of consolidations within LANG to streamline operations. Four newsroom positions were cut then, along with the directors of circulation, human resources and finance and then-publisher Tracy Rafter. This time around a weak economy is to blame for the Daily News job losses and those at other papers. Advertising revenues continue to drop, not helped by the mortgage meltdown, the credit crunch and high gas prices. At the Ventura County Star, advertising revenues fell by 15 percent in 2007 as compared to 2006, Publisher George H. Cogswell III was quoted as saying in a story about the paper’s layoffs. “There’s been a trickle-down effect from a pretty devastating real estate market,” Cogswell said. The message from the 2006 cuts was of the paper and all of LANG tightening up and moving forward while now the message is one of cutting of legs of the newsroom and expecting it to continue to run, Hopkins said. “They are not telling us we failed, ‘You’re getting beat by other papers; you can’t keep up with the Times,'” Hopkins said. “It’s ‘Well, the economy is bad and we have to cut somewhere, so see you later.'” While the latest cuts don’t quite bring the news gathering operation down to a skeleton crew yet, they hamper the ability to cover the news in the wide geographic area served by the Daily News. Having to do with less is never easy, and Kaye and managing editor Melissa Lalum are musing on effective ways to do that while maintaining the news coverage readers expect. “I think there will be some realization that we cannot cover things that we used to; whether that means we are more selective in the beats we cover,” Hopkins said. “With the shrunken staff you can’t produce the same amount and quality of journalism that we have been doing.” LA Observed website editor Kevin Roderick called the staff cuts bad news for the Los Angeles news consumer because it makes weaker a publication that was not strong to begin with (as compared to the Times and some television and radio stations). One strength, however, of the Daily News has been its enterprise reporting, which Roderick described as more ambitious when compared with other papers owned by Dean Singleton and MediaNews Group. That coverage now will suffer as the remaining reporters use their time on the usual stories (government, sports, features, etc.) that readers want. “The ambition of the special projects will have to change,” Roderick said. The cuts could have been worse. The cost reduction plans for the Daily News originally called for 32 reporters to be axed but Singleton reduced the number by 10. Rife With Rumors Rumors circulated for weeks that layoffs were coming but not until a Feb. 27 newsroom meeting did management confirm it. That gave staffers a day to consider taking a voluntary buyout and two days before ending their Daily News careers. That newsroom meeting left staffers emotionally drained. Kaye broke down while giving his speech, Hopkins wrote in his blog, thenutgraph.blogspot.com. From some staffers, tears flowed, Roderick wrote at his site. From the newsroom perspective, Kaye and Lalum did the best they could in the situation because of their stake in the product and respecting the reporters as people and not just easily eliminated numbers, Hopkins said. The front office, on the other hand, badly handled the situation, which is why Hopkins and co-union steward Kerry Cavanaugh requested a newsroom meeting with publisher Hanes. Even in the face of what he described as the worst day ever at the paper, Hopkins said he’s encouraged fellow staffers to believe in their jobs and believe in the Daily News. It is thoughts like those that led Roderick to call Hopkins an “unjustified optimist” as he did in a posting at LA Observed. Hopkins remains optimistic these recent cuts satisfy shedding costs at the paper. “You always want to think this is the last. I would say this probably is it for the meantime,” Hopkins said. “If you are looking at history as a guide they are always looking at ways to get tighter and tighter.” Staff Reporter Mark Madler can be reached at (818) 316-3126 or by e-mail at mmadler@sfvbj.com . Senior Reporter James Hames contributed to this column.

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