The latest round of layoffs at the Star

These new layoffs – the fifth round of layoffs conducted at the Star in the past five years – didn’t cut deeply into the heart of the news operation as have some of the past cuts, didn’t remove layers of coverage as some have before. By and large, it may go unnoticed by readers.

But the layoffs Monday of 11 people still hurts and it once again revives an old fear that had subsided a bit in the two years since the last layoffs – that the knife of force reductions can be brought out with little notice.

Monday’s casualty list – 3 copy editors, 3 clerks, 2 custodians, a part-time photographer, a part-time graphic artist and an assistant calendar editor – were removed from the front lines of the newsgathering process by a layer or more.

Yet there are some things still troubling about Monday’s effort at – how did management characterize it – this “right sizing.”

First, the Star’s copy desk is getting thinner, the protective layers between publication and error prevention just got leaner. This started with deep cuts to the desk two years ago and shows little sign of being turned back. Plans that were in the works to retool the desk had to be scrapped as these new cuts were made.

Second, this right sizing effort seemed to save money for the company by reducing people with some of the smallest salaries – two custodians, three clerks, a calendar editor and a part-time photo editor. In the world of setting priorities for a leaner business, these jobs may seem less important than they once were. But we find it interesting that, while two management positions were cut, people at the bottom continue to be expendable when corners of management that seem superfluous – and where salaries are more robust – still remain intact.

Third, the Star continues to be a less than hospitable place for its most veteran staffers. We’re still gathering data but seven of the nine newsroom staffers let go Monday had more than 30 years experience. This follows issues that other veteran employees have faced in recent months, from the worst evaluations of their careers to demotions. This is a serious matter we will look further into.

Finally, what is it about Summer at the Star? We’ve had layoffs here in August 2008, July 2009, June 2011 and now July 2013. Most often, the layoffs have been corporate ordered reductions that have come at the end of bad revenue figures in the second quarter, as if executives start to worry their year-end bonuses are in jeopardy without a little cost cutting. We know the industry and its ad revenues have been shrinking, but it’s getting to where you want to hold on to your vacation until the summer layoff season passes.

In this instance, this surgical strike seems solely directed by Star Media publisher Karen Crotchfelt, who along with Editor Jeff Taylor, say it reflects our priority of having more boots on the ground. Both deserve credit in the past year for adding back reporters — namely for investigations, business, higher education, breaking news and features. But after they’ve been trying to tell the community we’re evolving, and that our business is transforming instead of dying, moves like Monday’s muddle the message, try as they might to see that the message goes unnoticed. It especially muddles the message for the employees who remain behind, and who are weary of being told by management that “we’re still bullish about our business.” We’ve heard that message through five layoffs now. It’s beginning to wear a little thin.

Here’s a solution: Hire some people who can sell advertising on the internet. Get some folks there who can think creatively enough to generate some new damned revenue streams. And make sure the next person who runs advertising doesn’t show up at the corporate meetings and perform the same happy song and dance routine without some results. That’s wearing a little thin, too.

4 Comments

Filed under General, Layoffs/Buyouts

4 responses to “The latest round of layoffs at the Star

  1. laney

    Maybe Mr. King should try out his super sales skills out if he thinks selling online ads, print ads or ANY ads is an easy gig. My suspicision is that in a job not attached to a salary or a union, he may be just a bit more understanding of the changing business landscape for his line of work. I’m no fan of Ganette or its salesforce, but I’m quite familiar with advertising sales and am always amused when the only “educated” people in the room – the editorialites – think they know more about the sales side of the business. Put your money where your mouth is, Bobby – let’s see how you do on commission!

  2. Selling is pretty hard, and not everyone can do it. I did it for 14 years, and grew to hate it. Saying “if you think it’s so easy, you should do it” is a reductionist argument that never actually fits in any situation — quarterbacking in the NFL, running a company, or [insert difficult job here]. Yes, it’s easier said than done, but no worse than saying “if you think you know how a paper should be run, start one!”

    The bigger problem is not whether people can sell ads, but whether the publication (any publication, not just the Star) is monetizing the most effectively. Online ads are an easy sell when they’re cheap enough; providing enough value to advertisers and readers that you can charge a higher price? That’s the real challenge.

  3. Rebecca

    The issue with copy editors is dire. Publications backed to the wall always seem to believe they are expendable. I do a great deal of work for a Sun-Times newspaper in the Chicago area, and my assignment editor says he is the frontline and the back end of the editing process, meaning more mistakes than we like get through. The reason they hold on to managers in spite of their pay is that they are not subject to overtime. Editors always can do double duty and cover the loss of reporters, whether from illness, vacations or pink slips.

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