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Troubles mount for papers

By   /   Friday, November 14th, 2008  /   Comments Off on Troubles mount for papers

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In another sign the region is not immune to the deep problems weighing on the daily newspaper industry, the Ventura County Star is cutting 44 jobs and the National Labor Relations Board is filing new charges against the Santa Barbara News-Press.

The Star announced its latest and deepest cuts on Nov. 6. At the News-Press, where owner Wendy McCaw is involved in a long-running dispute over unionization, NLRB officials filed an unfair labor practices complaint on Nov. 4, alleging the company hired temporary employees to perform union work, among other charges.

Across the nation, newspapers are shedding thousands of jobs amid plunging print advertising revenues. Here’s a closer look at problems in the Tri-Counties:

George Cogswell III, the Star’s publisher and president, announced the newspaper will eliminate 44 positions. With about 83,100 in paid weekday circulation, the Star is the Tri-Counties’ largest daily newspaper.

Cogswell said although most departments will feel the cuts, there will be no reduction in the number of news reporters, according to a release from the Star’s Web site.

“We streamlined the organization to counteract the effects of the current economic downturn and its impact on our advertising revenue,” Cogswell said in the release.

In the days after the reduction, however, independent reports filtered through that 17 of the 44 positions eliminated came from the Star’s newsroom.

In an interview with the Business Times, Cogswell confirmed the 17 newsroom cuts and that there was no contradiction with the Star’s initial announcement. “That was absolutely the design – to make sure that we have no less coverage of Ventura County in our news pages and no fewer news reporters.”

The Star’s cuts foreshadowed a dismal third-quarter earnings report Nov. 7 from its parent company, E.W. Scripps Co. The media company posted a net loss of $16.8 million, a swing from the $88.4 million profit it posted a year earlier. At $230 million, revenue was down 9 percent.

The company said it will shed 400 jobs nationwide because of declining advertising revenue. The cuts are expected to generate a savings about $15 million a year, the company said.

The third quarter report sent E.W. Scripps’ shares tumbling to a 12-year low of $3.40 in mid-day trading Nov. 11.

News-Press charged

The Los Angeles-based regional director of the National Labor Relations Board filed unfair labor practices charges against the News-Press on Nov. 4. With about 32,500 in weekday circulation, the News-Press is the region’s third-largest daily newspaper.

Among other charges, the NLRB alleged the News-Press hired temporary employees to do union work and refused to bargain with the newsroom union over those workers’ employment terms.

The allegations stem from complaints filed by union officials nearly a year ago. The union charged that the News-Press had begun hiring temporary employees to perform newsroom work in an effort to undermine the union.

Ira Gottlieb, Teamsters’ union attorney representing the newsroom, said employees who do union work should be included in the bargaining unit so the union can work to better their situation.

“We don’t have a problem with the people – they need to work,” Gottlieb said. “But there are people who are, in everything but name, doing bargaining-unit work, and those people should be in the unit.”

“The government has accepted everything the Teamsters said lock, stock and barrel,” said Barry Cappello, attorney for the News-Press, responding to the complaint. “They’ve literally done no investigation themselves, and we are very familiar with the claims they’ve made. We are fully prepared to defend against them in court.”

The National Labor Relations Board complaint also alleges the News-Press has bargained in bad faith by demanding unilateral control over many terms of employment for union members.

But Cappello said the News-Press has bargained in good faith and has taken “very standard positions by management.”

“The union’s position is that we must allow the final decision of termination of an employee to go to binding arbitration,” Cappello said. “There’s absolutely nothing currently in the country, in law, that says that management has to give up that final decision.”

Gottlieb disputed that characterization.

“It is standard in almost every collective bargaining agreement in the country for there to be binding arbitration,” Gottlieb said. “The point is, it’s pretty absurd for any contracting party to try to have the final say on whether they themselves have violated the contract. But that’s what [the News-Press] is asking for.”

Troubles elsewhere

The parent companies of other Tri-Counties newspapers are also struggling from falling revenue:

• Lee Enterprises, which owns the Santa Maria Times and other publications, said Oct. 30 it would suspend dividend payments to shareholders and start paying higher interest rates to its debtors to avoid exceeding its permitted leverage ratios.

• McClatchy Co., which owns the San Luis Obispo Tribune, saw its credit issuer default rating lowered from B+ to B- by Fitch Ratings on Oct. 23. The company announced total cuts of more than 2,500, or about 18 percent of its work force, in June and September.

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