Thursday, May 13, 2010

Newspaper layoffs ebb but don't end

Last week, The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City laid off 57 employees paper-wide, including an undisclosed number in the newsroom.

The Kansas City Star did likewise, laying off 12, eliminating 12 open positions, and telling everyone else they must take an unpaid week-long furlough this summer.

It was the second layoff since January at the Star; earlier, a dozen workers also were let go. At the Oklahoman, the cuts were about a third the size of the last round of layoffs in October 2008.

At each paper, the publisher blamed the layoffs on soft advertising due to a still-weak national economy. Stated the Oklahoman's David Thompson, "Like most media companies, we are trying to adjust to our environment.”

But economic indicators are pointing up and surveys say the average American is feeling better about the economy -- even if the official government group that dates recessions hasn't ruled yet that the Great Recession is over.

So what gives at newspapers? After two years of brutal personnel cuts, aren't publishers awfully close to the bone by now?

Paper Cuts, the blog run by a St. Louis newspaper designer that keeps a running tally of layoffs, says the industry lost at least 1,726 jobs in the first quarter this year. That compares to at least 970 in Q1 last year (heavier layoffs occurred in the second and third quarters of 2009) and 1,984 in Q1 2008.

Scroll through the blog and you'll see an indication of one new tack that seems to be gaining momentum: consolidation. At Media General, all of the copy editing and designing functions for the chain's weekly and daily papers are moving to just a few newsrooms; it's happening, too, at Tribune Co. and at E.W. ScrippsBooth Newspapers is consolidating printing while outsourcing ad production work.

One bright ray in all this, though, may be the U.S. Department of Labor's mass layoff report. On Wednesday, the agency noted an improvement in numbers for the first quarter: Big whacks at payrolls by employers (50 or more jobs) were down significantly from the record highs reported a year earlier.

The numbers, also tracked monthly, cover 18 industry sectors, from manufacturing and mining to retail and health care. The government said 12 of the sectors reported record declines in the number of announcements -- called "events" that put workers out of jobs for at least 31 days -- in the January-March quarter vs. last year.

The industry sector that includes newspapers (and a bunch of other information publishers like magazines, broadcasters, software and directories) reported 44 mass layoffs in the quarter, according to the government, down from 98 in Q1 last year and 62 in the final quarter of 2009. The number of affected workers, 6,290, was less than half of a year ago (14,688) and the fourth quarter (12,264).

But before we all breathe a sigh of relief, remember this: A massive layoff may be in the offing -- as many as 500 workers -- as the daily newspapers in Honolulu combine. And there could be some change in staffing this year at newspapers that just came out of bankruptcy reorganization with new owners in Philadelphia and in Orange County, California.

UPDATE: Officials now say combining the Honolulu papers will cost nearly 400 jobs.

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