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July 15, 2009

Paper cuts

Following another round of layoffs, The Courier-Journal’s future is uncertain

Standing outside the back door of the City Café last Thursday afternoon, engulfed by the looming physical edifice of The Courier-Journal (and courier-journal.com), the anxiety was palpable. C-J employees walked to the smoking area in small groups, their minds invariably occupied by another round of workforce reductions playing out this very day. No one lingered. And no one really knew what was afoot inside, beyond dribs and drabs that hit close. That’s how these things are at a large company with multiple departments working multiple shifts.

By the time the smoke cleared, after countless Twitter and Facebook posts by employees and others in the know, running the gamut from philosophical to fatalistic (with much gallows humor and a little survivor’s guilt), 44 positions had been eliminated, bringing the current staff total to 575.

The paper reported those numbers the following day in its business section. The brief story gave scant details beyond that, and failed to mention that the cuts were part of an estimated 1,400 nationwide as Gannett Co. — the nation’s largest newspaper chain and owner of the C-J — continues trying to fend off the extremely unfavorable economic circumstances that are eating the newspaper industry as a whole.

The cuts were the third round since August 2008. Since then, according to estimates by Gannett Blog, The Courier-Journal has shed more than 100 employees and the company more than 4,500 through attrition, buyouts and layoffs. Gannett employees have also taken mandated furloughs — one unpaid week in each of the first two quarters of 2009.

There is, of course, no way to know what comes next, nor is there any plausible reason to believe this is the last round of right-sizing. Some insiders expect wage cuts next, followed by more reductions.

Many expressed relief that the news side wasn’t hammered — none of the C-J’s senior reporters were impacted. The paper has lost a lot in recent years, they acknowledge — the special projects department, which shepherded investigative reporting, closed, as did most of the state bureaus — and a lean staff spreads everyone too thin. But they argue vehemently that the paper still does good work and covers important stories, and predict that when the dust settles on the brave new media world, the C-J (and courier-journal.com) will be there as the city’s preeminent source of news and information.

What they can’t predict, though, is when that will be, or what it will look like, or how the fortunes of the parent company, which is carrying massive debt, will impact its own. The C-J makes money, but that may not matter if Gannett continues taking on water.

People speak of Bingham DNA that lives on in the old building at Sixth and Broadway. Some of those on last week’s list were long-timers — heartbreaking stories circulated about a pressman with 40 years and a married couple with 40 and 23 years. But many old-timers remain, for now, including several on the news side who were hired by the Binghams, who sold the paper to Gannett in 1986.

Two prominent names are still on the job.

Managing Editor Ben Post acknowledged he is considering retirement, but said it won’t be part of any restructuring. “If you ask any member of the staff, they will tell you I have been talking seriously about retirement since early last year,” Post said via e-mail. “I’m in my 39th year at the C-J, I just turned 64 in June and I want to spend more time with my wife, my grandchild, my dogs, my garden and on the stream fishing.”

Editorial Director David Hawpe acknowledged similar feelings, but said he has made “no irrevocable decisions about my own future” — and with customary curmudgeonly charm, added that if he does, he’ll announce it in his own damn column. (Some expected to read Hawpe’s farewell in Sunday’s Forum section, but he instead took the unprecedented step of turning his space over to a guest columnist.)

The most prominent byline in the latest round belongs to Judith Egerton, a senior arts critic who had volunteered for early retirement in December. On Friday, she said she’s sad about leaving, but thinks it’s time after spending half of her 58 years with the company.

“As much as I love the arts and care about covering that community, I felt like I was ready to move on to a new phase in my own life,” she said. “I have a few things to look forward to — I’m a painter and I have other hobbies. I have six grandchildren. I’m excited about some things outside the deadline world.”

In a May speech to the Downtown Rotary Club, C-J Publisher Arnold Garson insisted rumors of the paper’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Through an assistant, Garson declined comment to LEO Weekly.

Some insiders praise him for fighting for the news department, and said he, unlike predecessor Denise Ivey, genuinely appreciates the Bingham DNA. In the speech, Garson promised the C-J “will publish my obituary and yours, but not its own.”

Some say he’s simply whistling past the graveyard and has no way of predicting the outcome of a media revolution that is leaving plenty of blood in its wake. At one time, observers say, the C-J employed about 1,300 people. The biggest problem, it seems, is that the ills plaguing the industry show no signs of letting up, nor is there any consensus on how to collectively staunch the bleeding.

The barbarians are at the gate — and they won’t go away quietly. 

Courier-Journal’s future

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