Cuts Redux

In recent years, MediaNews Group head Dean Singleton, whose company owns 57 dailies, including the Denver Post, has been much more upbeat about the future of newspapers than the majority of media-industry observers, and, he says, "I'm still very optimistic. The message I'm trying to provide is that the business is changing, and that's not all bad. In fact, long-term, it's very good." Nevertheless, he acknowledges, "There'll be some choppy waters maneuvering from our old business model to the new business model, and it won't be a smooth transition," adding, "It's been choppier than I envisioned it would be."

True enough. In 2001, around the time the Post's business operations were coupled with those of the Rocky Mountain News in a joint operating agreement, Singleton pledged to supplement the broadsheet's newsroom with a hundred new employees. Since then, he says, the Post has added approximately 75 folks, and while this figure is disputed in some quarters, there's no doubt that the paper is currently moving in the opposite direction. In April 2006, the Post put forward "voluntary separation agreements" (a fancy name for buyouts) with the aim of slicing 25 folks off the payroll. When only thirteen people took the deal, Post execs sought further reductions by attrition, and editor Greg Moore says they surpassed their original goal. Between buyouts and departing staffers whose positions weren't filled, he reckons the roster is forty names shorter than it once was, bringing the number of newsroom employees to 268.

But that still isn't enough. On April 23, the Post formally presented a new buyout package at a pair of meetings in the hope of cutting 25 individuals operating under Denver Newspaper Guild-negotiated contracts, and another dozen who are Guild-exempt. The offer, which is the same for union and non-union types, improves on the previous Post proposal and is a bit sweeter than the buyout sent to select Rocky veterans in March. Full-time employees age fifty or older who sign on will receive two weeks' pay per year of service, or a year's worth if they've been on the job for more than twenty years. Moreover, anyone eligible who's been toiling for at least a decade will get paid medical insurance for two years, or half that span if they've been punching a clock for under ten years.

If 37 people take the buyout, the newsroom workforce will be smaller than it was pre-JOA, using Singleton's statistics -- and Moore makes it clear that a potential shortfall would be handled very differently than it was in 2006. "This time we know we can't wait for attrition," he says. "We have to make our moves now. So if we don't hit the number, there will be layoffs."

Moore sees layoffs as a situation to be avoided, in part because the Guild pact calls for employees with the least seniority to be sent packing first. "I don't want to lose anyone," he maintains. "But I certainly don't want to lose anyone we've recruited in the last two or three years. We've hired some really good people -- which isn't to say new people are carrying the paper. Everyone who's here right now is really humping. If you're down forty people and are still able to maintain a relatively good product, that means people are working their ass off."

The word "relatively" in this last sentence is apt to worry Tracy Simmons, an administrative officer with the Guild. In reference to reductions at both the Post and the Rocky, she says, "We're concerned that the owners are cutting staffing to a point where the journalistic product is going to suffer. They're expecting the people who are left to do more than is possible to maintain quality."

Simmons's point was echoed by Jeff Leib, a Post transportation writer, in a question he put to Singleton at the first of the April 23 meetings. (Singleton says he attended the sessions to share his views about the industry with employees, and not because of the buyout pitch.) "The mandate of the JOA was to serve the community with two editorial voices and, presumably, two vigorous newspapers," notes Leib, 59, who's also a Guild officer at the paper -- but he stresses that he spoke only as a reporter. "So I asked, 'If the newspapers are being hollowed out by buyouts, can two papers perform that mission, or would it be better to have just one paper that's robust enough to really serve the community?'"

The topic of whether one of Denver's two dailies will have to die for the other to survive is ticklish, and Singleton addresses it cautiously. "There aren't many cities with two newspapers competing editorially," he allows. "Denver is fortunate, and I hope we have two for a long, long time. But there's never been a guarantee that there will always be two newspapers in Denver. There'll be two as long as the business model justifies two."

Although ending the publication of one daily would seem to violate the JOA, he says, "It depends on what you call two newspapers. Newspapers aren't just print on paper anymore, and online is a major component."

This comment suggests that, in Singleton's opinion, one print product supported by two independent websites might pass muster with any court considering JOA-related matters -- but he argues otherwise. "That's not what I said," he insists. "All I said is that the definition of a newspaper today is more than print on paper."

Singleton sounds far sunnier when discussing the Post's digital side. At present, he says, "Seven to eight percent of our total revenue comes from online, but it accounts for 22 percent of our profit. And our business model for MediaNews predicts that by the year 2011, half of our profit will come from the web, on something north of 20 percent of total revenue."

Reaching this happy day won't be easy, and Singleton suspects that 2007 and 2008 are likely to continue the downward fiscal trend seen in 2006. Hence he's looking for other ways to trim expenses, such as de-emphasizing so-called third-party sales: newspapers paid for by advertisers that are delivered to non-subscribing residents who live in desirable demographic areas. He says that "as you move away from third-party and marginal circulation, you don't usually lose a lot of readership, because those categories of circulation weren't read to the same extent that customer-paid circulation is read" -- a view that directly contradicts the position voiced for years by the Denver Newspaper Agency.

There's no backpedaling on other issues, however. Far from bemoaning the millions spent on a new headquarters building and press facility for the dailies, Singleton expresses confidence these investments will pay off, and he scoffs at pundits foretelling the imminent extinction of physical newspapers: "Print advertising is still more than 90 percent of our ad revenue, and it will be the major part of our ad revenue probably for the next two decades, if not beyond." No wonder he has trouble getting sentimental about buyouts and downsizing.

"I don't know that I would call it sad," he says. "Building a great new business online isn't a sad experience; it's an exciting experience. And you could call the continued automation of the auto industry sad, because it takes fewer people to run an auto plant. But for the consumer, the quality of autos has never been better, and that's not sad, either. It's just change. And change is inevitable."

Hello, I must be going: Meanwhile, over at the Rocky, a list of seventeen employees interested in taking a buyout began making the rounds in mid-April. Several of those on the roll are mighty prominent -- especially what are arguably the two biggest names in the Spotlight section. Problem is, this pair and others contacted by Westword say they haven't made a final decision -- and nothing will be official until the end of May.

If that's the case, why was the equivalent of a going-away party staged at the Denver Press Club on April 20? "It felt awkward," concedes Rocky scribe John Ensslin, who helped stage the shindig. "So I made a point of saying, 'To my colleagues who haven't decided, this doesn't mean we're trying to nudge you out the door. We're just happy to let you know how we feel about you whether you come back to work for a week, a month or years to come.'"

Think of it as a long goodbye.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts