Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In latest job cuts, Gannett is still a layoff novice

I worked for Gannett newspapers more than 20 years in Little Rock, Boise, Louisville and (for USA Today) in San Francisco. But with the exception of the 700-employee layoff when GCI closed The Arkansas Gazette in 1991, I can't recall ever hearing about layoffs in the company. Keep that lack of experience in mind as the big newspaper division layoff unfolds in earnest, Dec. 3.

Gannett always staffed lean. I don't know whether the term "dark time'' is used any more. But that meant leaving jobs unfilled (hence: dark, unoccupied offices) -- jobs that could be offered up to avert a layoff. So, I'm not surprised to hear that top editor Ken Paulson told USA Today newsroom employees yesterday that he had never laid off anyone before. And he's worked for Gannett -- with sizable breaks -- since the 1980s.

Barring a big change in the revenue and earnings trend, Gannett is likely to demand more layoffs in the future. How could it improve the process? Please post replies in the comments section, below. E-mail confidentially via gannettblog[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.

Earlier: We're building a paper-by-paper list of layoffs and job cuts; just three papers are listed so far, however. Will yours be included?


  1. We still leave positions 'dark'.

    Those poor darkies, they're always the first to go when the axeman commeth.

  2. Anon 7:37's comment makes me squirm, so early this morning ...
    RE: Dark Time
    They still do it and anyone who has been with Gannett more than five years has either used the term, been "hired" at some future date because of it or heard about it.
    RE: Staffing Lean
    Gannett papers, in my experience have fatter staffing the larger they get. More writers, more editors, more managers. Coming up from smaller G papers, I was always amazed how many people it took for larger papers to do the same work small papers did with a third or half the employees. A wealth of resources, unappreciated until they are taken away (or stunted by dark time).
    There was a time at Gannett papers when we always, ALWAYS, had more written stories in the cue that there was room to publish.
    After the December Decimation, I doubt that will be a problem.

    ... had more written stories in the cue THAN we had room to publish.

    ... had more written stories in the QUEUE than we had room to publish.

  5. Lowlights of Monday's USAT layoff meeting:

    - Ken and HR's inability or lack of willingness to answer a question about whether volunteers for layoffs would be eligible for unemployment benefits. Not only did they not have an answer but they failed to understand the importance of that issue. On one hand Ken was practically pleading for volunteers but on the other hand a question central to providing incentive for volunteering almost seemed like an annoyance. HR was particularly cold and lawyerly.

    - Ken started the meeting by saying the meeting would go as long as it needed to be, but then promptly cut off the meeting while two other people had their hands up wanting to ask questions. Did anyone happen to notice how late he and the MEs stayed to answer questions after the meeting, as they said they would?

    - We found out that the international edition loses $2 million a year, yet shutting it down was never considered as an option for saving a few jobs. What else wasn't considered. If every job is so valuable, as Ken stated, why wasn't more done to save those jobs?

    - Ken said he/they went over everything during this process over the last few weeks. Asked lots of questions and looked at every angle in terms of trying to ease these layoffs or at least present what's going to happen in a thoughtful manner. Yet several times during the meeting he admitted to having not thought of something raised by one of the staffers. So there was a lot of "we thought of everything" followed by "we didn't think of that." The people at the top rarely have all the answers, but more importantly, they don't seem to have all the questions either.

    - We learned that the people at the very top, above Ken, are about as cold as they come. According to Ken, this isn't about dollars so much as it is about number of positions/names. It's 20 positions/name, period. Doesn't matter what current positions are unfilled. The people at the top want names, regardless of how much money the cuts would save or what the salaries of those people are. You can speculate for yourself why that is.

    - The meeting wasn't confrontational, yet did anyone else notice how many security people were stationed outside the auditorium?

    - Ken made it clear that this was going to be an elimination of jobs that the managing editors felt they could do without. Yet I suspect that this is going to be a cutting of jobs of the least popular people. If there isn't any questioning or oversight from the top of who the MEs chop, some proven logic and reasoning, then they could make some decisions that lean more towards personal than professional. We could lose important jobs done by decent people just because they fell out of favor with their editor at some point. I hope that doesn't happen, but it could without oversight and without these editors having to explain to Ken or John why these folks were chosen for layoffs.

    - Does anyone believe online isn't exempt? Ken claimed all jobs are in play, unlike last year when online was exempt.

    In all, it was a fairly depressing day. It struck me odd that Ken said this was one of the most difficult things he's ever had to do, yet he seemed somewhat light during the meeting. Not like man carry a heavy burden or someone who was bruised and bloodied from fighting the good fight to defend us. Ditto on the managing editors. Nothing in their body language or words that seemed all that worried.

    We'll know by the end of next week whose lives are going to be disrupted in a profound way because someone at the top felt USAT needed sacrifice bodies like the smaller papers have even though USAT still makes a ton of money. This is a perception thing more than a dollars thing. There is no longer any prestige or sense of accomplishment, let alone security, working at the flagship. I can recall a day when folks came from the smaller Gannett papers feeling proud to have made it to USAT. Those days are over.

    Ken and others like to use the economy to lessen the sting. But there is a big difference between USA TODAY and Citigroup or GM. We are profitable. They aren't. That fact rarely seems to be mentioned in these gloom and doom meetings. This isn't just about the economy.

  6. USATODAY.com had some layoffs in 2002, not long after we moved to Tysons. IIRC, we lost four people from editorial, one voluntary and three involuntary. Not sure about other departments that were considered "dotcom" at the time.

    FWIW, when I first heard about the layoffs, I heard the number "30" kicked around. Not sure if that was inaccurate or if someone managed to argue to keep 10 jobs.

  7. The official word is that there are no buyouts this time because the newsroom had a buyout round last year. That's not accurate.
    Only part of the newsroom had the option of a buyout offer in 2007. Certain jobs, depending on the department -- among others, dot-com staff, travel staff, bureau chiefs, copy editors, columnists -- were exempt from the buyout. In addition, a staffer had to have at least 15 years of service with Gannett to be eligible. There were at least three people who wanted to take the buyout last year and were told it was not an option for them -- they were in exempt jobs. Even though a limited number of staffers were offered a buyout last year, all are ineligible to take one this year.
    However, all are eligible to be laid off.

  8. Yes, I think the fact that some of us who wanted to take the USAT buyout last year, but couldn't either because we were just a little short on time served or in one of the many exempt positions, are pretty upset that we now might be laid off. That whole part of the discussion yesterday was infuriating. Makes it clear who and what we are working for. I hope their isn't as much light-hearted laughter next week when people are escorted from the building as there was in that meeting Monday. This is a highly unfair and tragic situation, and I don't blame the economy for all of it. By Ken doing that yesterday, he seemed to be distancing himself and others from taking responsibility for what appears to most of us to be unjust layoffs.

  9. What in God's good earth is "unjust" about these layoffs. If it is so great, where are the Pulitzer Prizes? Circulation is off, and ad revenue is declining very sharply at the pace of 30 percent currently. Drive over to Tyson's Corner and look at the empty spaces in the parking lots there and you will see what is happening. The layoffs are hardly unjust. The layoffs are not unfair. They are part of the business cycle, and if some people made more effort to win prizes, perhaps they might be on the indispensible list, instead of being on the dispensible list.

  10. 12:47, what the hell does winning prizes have to do with anything? A prize somehow makes you a great journalist? I have five words for you: Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke.

    I would prefer not to be in the company of "journalists" like that, thank you very much.

  11. So, it's all about trophies?

  12. 1:23 - you forgot Pulitzer finalist Jack Kelley

  13. Anyone know what's happening in the broadcast division? I've heard rumblings in my newsroom about some of the less profitable stations, especially those below top-50.

  14. Awards translate into nothing for Gannettoids, unless they're Gannett "awards". If they gave me a ring, I'd try to sell it on Craigslist or Ebay, to pay my bills.

    Here's another take: Follow the stories at the top about how Sam Zell doesn't care about Pulitzer prizes at the papers he hijacked:

  15. Advice regarding future layoffs: If they're going to tell us weeks in advance to expect cuts, they should tell us as soon as possible what departments are targeted and the specific number we can expect. I want to know exactly how and when the cuts are coming.

    I want employees to be treated with respect. It's shameful the way the layoffs are carried out, as if those picked are suddenly trespassing on company property.

  16. Winning prizes? What an idiot.
    The top prize should be your job (like in supporting your family)
    Prizes are for chumps.... and corporate wannabes. The way Gannett managed their editorial staffs it is easy to lop off 20-40%.

  17. Prizes are a yardstick for excellence, so their absence speaks volume of how USAT measures up. I am sick of Kenny's attaboy missives, congratulating people for great coverage of the stock market collapse, when it really was a struggling effort and made worse by management decisions earlier to curtail business coverage.

  18. not all prizes are created equal.

    pre-gannett, indy had won two, and a smattering of other major awards.

    since 2001, there have been many intra-gannett awards, but not much anybody outside gannett would care about except for photo awards. small wonder, since gannett drove out some outstanding people over the years. the layoffs are just the most dramatic in a seemingly endless string of losses.

  19. Gannett awards mean nothing. I know several ring winners (including multiple ring and chairman's ring) who have been laid off.

    It is all about dollars and the perception of dollars.

  20. The Gannet Ring program was a joke!
    I know of several examples of ring winners that had poor statistical performance and still won. There were token winners and 7-8 time ring winners that really didn't have any significant performance improvements during those 7 years. They were simply at the larger properties. As a former OC member, I can tell you that politics played a role.

  21. I would have to agree with the prior comment about the current status associated with winning a President's Ring. I gotta tell you, it wasn't like that "in the old days". Back when it started, it really meant something. You were proud because it was voted on the up-and-up and a level of respect came along with the win. It's funny how the evolution of the "Ring Program" is kind of a microcosm of the entire company as we know it today. There was a time, believe it or not, when you were very proud to be at a national convention and say that you were from Gannett. It was a source of pride and you held your head high. Now... I don't even recognize the company.

  22. 9:40 am does a pretty good job reporting on the USAT meeting but then starts insinuating opinion: "We learned that the people at the very top, above Ken, are about as cold as they come." (We did? Ken spoke highly of publisher Craig Moon's efforts to protect the newsroom and its resources.) "According to Ken, this isn't about dollars so much as it is about number of positions/names." (Ken didn't say that.) "It's 20 positions/name, period. Doesn't matter what current positions are unfilled." (Ken said unfilled slots also got erased. Had there been none, the layoff might be bigger.) "The people at the top want names, regardless of how much money the cuts would save or what the salaries of those people are." (Ken didn't say that either. The mandate for 20 may have come from the knowledge of the average salary and a judgment that about 20 times that would be enough.) "You can speculate for yourself why that is." (Do you think it's a corporate beatdown to teach uppity USAT folks who's boss? My clearly labeled speculation: You're trying to demonize to whip up the crowd, and you're putting words in Ken's mouth.)

  23. Talking about the rings. I know an AD director who go one I think it was in 2006. She is about useless and she did not deserve it. Her department got revenue then from Hurricane Katrina and that is why she got the ring. That was free revenue they did not have to work for. Now her department is running the paper in the ground because they are lazy and don't know how to sell ads. She is nothing but a trouble maker and they should lay her off and save some hard working person's job. (or probably 3 or 4 people for what she is paid!)

  24. 11:26...I was at the Paulson meeting and don't think 9:40 is that off base on some things that you apparently take exception to.
    For instance, Ken didn't have to point-blank say the people at the top were inflexible. He did say that they wanted 20 positions and strongly implied there was no room for negotiation. What would you call that? I don't think calling it "cold" is that far off base. And I am not even sure 9:40 was implying that Moon was cold or behind the cuts. But there is someone at the top, maybe in corporate, who sees us as numbers rather than people. That is clear to me.

    Ken most certainly did say these cuts were about positions. He specifically said it had to be 20 positions, regardless of what those individual salaries were. That removes the possibility of some good souls, making a lot of money, saving the jobs of others by leaving on their own.

    And Paulson also said that none of the current openings, which are also lost positions, count in the 20 new layoffs. He expressed some disappointment with those vacant jobs not being included in the 20 as a way of saving some people. Again, someone at the top being pretty hard line and not seeing the big picture or the damage that will be done next week. Pretty cold.

    I also don't think 9:40 implied this was about a corporate beat down, although it is clear to me that USAT is now being treated more in line with other Gannett papers. Not sure why that is, but it is. Just ask anyone who has been around for 20 years or more. That wasn't always the case, and that might have played a part in these layoffs. Who knows? It's a reasonable opinion, I believe.

    I also think the perceived need to hire more online people is part of the reason for these cuts, but that's just me speculating based on what I saw in the aftermath of the buyouts last year.

    I think the point 9:40 and others have made is that you can't blame the economy on everything. It's just too convenient right now, considering the magnitude, and without Ken providing many specifics about what was done by Moon to save jobs, well...he left it open for us to speculate on how hard they actually fought and what else could have been done to prevent this. Again, the paper is making money. That's the key point and the thing that is causing many newsroom people to feel mistrust for the top dogs on this latest round of layoffs.

    Oh, and the stuff about the international edition losing $2 million a year. That was shocking. Not a single job should be lost until that situation is remedied.

  25. Layoffs create a feeling of mistrust and betrayal, not just in those who are victims, but those left behind. And those feelings create toxic and unproductive workplaces. This is why Gannett and most companies make some effort to "sell" the layoffs. Unfortunately, the devastating financial climate the nation is in makes it easier to sell the need for staff cuts to the average employee. However, there is strong evidence mounting that many layoffs are not really necessary at this point and that some CEOs are taking advantage of this national situation to clear some people out for various other reasons.

    I attended the Ken Paulson meeting at USA TODAY this week and came away without one piece of hard evidence that these cuts at USA TODAY are critical to the health of the company. In my view, Paulson failed to connect the dots. He played upon the negative financial news that dominates our lives and shifted blame to faceless sources. He did not once show us numbers or provide even a clue as to how the loss of 20 jobs makes us any stronger financially. To me, he was just following marching orders.

    Therefore, many of us left that meeting feeling empty and let down. I don't expect protests. I don't condone even passive aggressive behaviors to combat this. But if anyone thinks that we all bought into this and will continue running through walls for this company, well...think again.

    There is an invisible cost to laying people off. If the layoff isn't proven to be justified, the cost can linger for years. The case was NOT made for these cuts and I sincerely hope that whomever is behind this call for firing good people, without even a thought of possibly transfering them or retraining them at another Gannett property, will reconsider while giving thanks tomorrow for their own fortunes.

  26. The journalists at USA TODAY are the greatest and I for one am grateful for that since it makes the BUSINESS of selling the best newspaper in the world a pleasure!
    Sadly we're in the BUSINESS of making money and not just profit, but ideally more profit every year. No business can tolerate or even survive with double digit profit losses. At the very least, we have to stay even every year or get torched by Wall Street.....can you say stock price.
    Gannett is in a world of hurt from declining Ad sales. Down -$200 Million this year. The payroll cuts at Gannett are $200 Million! OUCH.
    We're in better shape at USAT, but just look at the paper count every day and it's easy to see we're hurting for ad $$. I'm guessing we could be down -$50 million in ad revenue this year! That IS the economy. Advertisers are simply not spending for all the reported reasons and it's getting worse every day! Expenses are out of sight and not at all from poor management. Gas prices for distribution across 50 states, newsprint prices up 30%, almost every employee getting a raise are huge drivers.
    The point is we can't run this business profitably if expenses escalate every year and Advertising declines. It's a recipe for disaster and our survival depends on it. If you make 20% less money next year, won't you cut your expense too? It's not cold, heartless people. It's capitalism. Your blessed to not have to deal with the X's and O's every day like those of us on the business side do. When huge changes to expenses rock your world it may be at times difficult to articulate why. It sucks, but it's real world. Even the upcoming single copy price increase can't stem the tide.
    Why didn't Gannett just give Ken and everyone else a dollar amount to save and let him figure out how to get there, and maybe not have so many payroll cuts? I speculate through experience that this serious downturn in advertising forces Gannett and in turn forces USAT to cut money from a very specific area to appease the bottom line and Wall Street. 80% of USAT expenses are people, paper and distribution! Even though we could make cuts in other areas to go along with payroll cuts, the reality is that Gannett knows if they are cutting a few hundred million specifically from payroll, and they need cuts FAST that are easy to identify every day, they tell properties to cut X people.
    To make matters worse, circulation is going to take a revenue hit too with the worsening hotel and travel business and Gannett knows that long before we do. This segment is ugly and getting worse every day. Hotel occupancy is expected to decline over 10% next year and all the major hotel chains are looking at cuts to meet their business and green effort needs. There's a real good chance we could be tinkering around 2 million circulation by the end of 2009.
    It's nowhere close to doom and gloom, but something drastic MUST be done. We're still the best paper in the business, we still "might" net around 50M this year, but if we don't drastically change our BUSINESS model fast (ie cut expenses to offset the likely $50 million dollar reduction in Ad sales next year) then we'll be toast. The irresponsible thing to do would be do nothing. Drastic changes call for drastic measures. I do know that Gannett is really well managed on the business side and after we cycle through this extremely challenging time we'll survive.
    We truly are in survival mode and these drastic cuts have to be made so we even have a chance to come out on the other side.
    I deal with the business every day, and that's the career I've chosen. As journalists, you don't see it as much, but I do hope this helps you to understand things a little better.
    We're counting on you guys!!

  27. Random thoughts;

    1. Publicly held companies, Gannett included, are in business to make shareholders money. Usually, that means showing some kind of profit growth. The fact that we're still profitable isn't the point. Profits are declining and the perception on Wall Street is that they'll continue to decline - hence the slumping stock price.Like most companies in most industries, cost-cutting is a way to at least stem profit declines. Like it or not, reporters and editors are not profit-centers. And this is not a not-for-profit business.

    2. USAT may have lost good people last year, but face it, many of those who took the buyouts were ready to and were compensated handsomely for years of service as they neared retirement. No one pushed them out the door. Even you, Mr. Hopkins. The choice was yours. As a reporter,editor and blogger, you were valued and were not in danger of being pushed out.
    3. Losing an additonal 20 staffers will not hurt this paper. In fact, it may clear out some of the dead wood - particularly the unproductive, highly compensated kind - that have hurt morale and undercut fellow staffers for years. "They'' - and did anyone bother to ask at the staff meeting who "they" were, could ask for 40 cuts. I know that sounds harsh. On a human level, I know its hard for some of you to rationalize. But all things being equal, the USAT cuts should have been the same % as the Gannett papers. Are some people overworked? Sure. Workload? Shift it around and make more on-line people get ACTUAL reporting AND writing experience,at least as much as they can from sitting behind desk. And make on-line training MANDATORY for print people.
    4. Kill the international paper. Losing $2 million a year? What's the justification? While its in the same ballpark as what C.Dub pulls in, it's $2 million that could be applied elsewhere.
    5. Closely examine the purpose and necessity of GNS.
    6. EVERYONE: Stop the self-righteous indignation. Look at virtually every industry and see what's happening these days. Even government is cutting jobs. It's going to get worse. It's the times we live in. Hunker down and quit whining.

    11/28/2008 12:31 AM


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