Layoffs, buyouts cut PMN newsroom jobs

Posted: March 15, 2012

Philadelphia Media Network Inc. will lay off 19 unionized workers in its three newsrooms - four full-timers and 15 part-timers - and 21 additional newsroom employees have been approved for voluntary buyouts.

The layoffs of reporters, copy editors, multimedia content producers, and others at The Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com would occur March 31. Five nonunion employees from the three newsrooms, including three from The Inquirer, also were laid off, bringing the total number of jobs being lost to 45.

In a statement, PMN said the layoffs and buyouts were a response to "the unfortunate economic conditions that continue to impact" the newspaper industry.

"We believe that one employee receiving a layoff notification is too many and regret having to make such a difficult decision relative to the future of any PMN employee," the company's statement reads.

"Our hope was that a voluntary buyout offering would have limited the need to implement any employee layoffs, but the reality is that was not achieved and those employees receiving layoff notification will depart at the end of March."

PMN spokesman Mark Block would not discuss details of the financial condition of the company, citing its status as a privately held corporation. "The kind of revenue we have been generating has not been enough to sustain the personnel we have," he said.

"We're no different from any other media company, public or private" that has had to reduce its workforce, Block said. "It's very prevalent in the industry at the moment."

A bulletin sent by Newspaper Guild Local 10, which represents editorial, advertising, and circulation employees at PMN, said the union intends to challenge the company's layoff plans and considers them "unnecessary."

"It is our position that between the significant savings of the salaries of the members who volunteered to leave, and the concessionary contract in 2010 that gave the new owners $6 million in cost cuts from our union, that enough is enough," the Guild statement reads.

In the statement, the Guild took aim at PMN chief executive officer Greg Osberg for "creating a poorly launched tablet" product last fall and "trying to be seen as some sort of a digital visionary."

"Whether Osberg wants to admit it or not, the print editions of The Inquirer and Daily News, which he offensively labels 'legacy products,' are responsible for generating more than 90 percent of the revenue," the Guild said in its statement.

In an interview, Block said PMN would not debate its differences with the Guild in the media. However, he defended the current ownership's investment of "multi-millions of dollars on state-of-the-art technology" to enable the newsrooms to be more competitive.

"To take some kind of negative approach to digital and technology is not a recipe for success," Block said.

The Guild disclosed that 21 of its members had applied for and received approval for voluntary separation by the March 14 deadline.

Inquirer Editor Stan Wischnowski called it a "painful day" for the newsroom.

"The cold reality of all this is that it's all about economics and no reflection whatsoever on the quality of work of these outstanding journalists," Wischnowski said. "But our work continues, and the only way we can honor those who are no longer with us is to keep producing high-caliber journalism that our readers expect and deserve."

In mid-February, the parent company of the two newspapers and their related website said it would cut the number of newsroom positions by 37. It had hoped to do so through voluntary buyouts. Because the proposed layoffs include part-time as well as full-time employees, the number of people affected is greater than the original 37 sought.

Before those voluntary buyouts, the Guild represented about 220 newsroom employees at The Inquirer, 100 at the Daily News, and 40 at Philly.com.

This latest workforce reduction comes just a few months after eight newsroom employees accepted voluntary buyouts and 14 computer operators, library staff, and salespeople were laid off, according to Guild statistics. Five nonunion employees in The Inquirer newsroom also were let go last fall.

In November, PMN had announced plans to combine the three newsrooms of its media properties in conjunction with the relocation of its offices as of July 1. The three newsroom editors have been implementing plans to merge the functions of the copy desks, metro desks, and sports and features departments.

The Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com have been preparing to leave their longtime home - the iconic office tower at 400 N. Broad St. where about 740 PMN employees worked as of mid-November - for 125,000 square feet of space on a single floor in the former Strawbridge & Clothier department store at Eighth and Market Streets. Plans call for about 600 employees to work from the new site.

The changes are occurring as the hedge funds and other financial entities that own PMN have been trying to sell the company to a group of local investors headed by businessman Lewis Katz and philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest. People close to the process indicated last week that this group, which also includes philanthropist Raymond G. Perelman and Democratic leader George E. Norcross III, has the exclusive right to negotiate a possible purchase.

PMN management did not want to comment on any individual employees who were leaving. But the papers did announce that the work of Signe Wilkinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Daily News since 1985, would not only continue in the Daily News every day but also appear in The Inquirer on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. Her first cartoon will appear in The Inquirer April 8.

Last week, Inquirer cartoonist Tony Auth announced he would resign as of March31. Auth, a Pulitzer Prize winner who joined the newspaper in 1971, will join WHYY's NewsWorks.org.

Contact Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com, or @PhillyInc on Twitter.

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