Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Nearing the bone

Now that editor Dean Baquet of the Los Angeles Times has been ousted for refusing to cut his staff, his replacement appears likely to inherit the task of streamlining the newsroom.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Dean's tenure was forcibly ended when he refused to agee to the publisher's request to eliminate "50 to 75 jobs."

While we don’t know how far incoming editor James O’Shea will be asked to go, a reduction of up to 165 journalists is theoretically possible, based on generally accepted industry staffing standards.

If the newsroom of the Times were manned at the widely prevailing ratio of one editorial employee for every 1,000 copies of daily circulation, then the staff would be honed to 775, a reduction of 17.5% from the present 940.

Daily circulation at the Times, the nation's fourth largest paper, is 775,766. Because Sunday circulation of 1.17 million is substantially greater than the daily run, it is is conceivable that management could justify a somewhat larger staff than indicated by daily circulation alone.

Although the worst-case cuts may not be in prospect in Los Angeles, dramatic reductions are starting to appear. In but two recent examples, deep staff reductions are planned at one former Knight Ridder newspaper and feared at another.

The San Jose Mercury lost 52 journalists in the fall of 2005 as Knight Ridder commenced the belt-tightening process that preceded the sale of the company early this year. Last month, the paper’s new owner, MediaNews Group, said it plans to eliminate another 40 newsroom jobs.

If MediaNews implements the announced cuts, the newspaper’s staff will have been reduced in less than two years by 47.7% to 240 journalists. The Mercury’s circulation is 225,677 daily and 249,113 on Sunday.

The publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer said this week that he may have to eliminate as many as 150 of its 425 newsroom positions, depending on the extent of concessions managagement gains in the intense contract negotiations under way between the paper and its unions.

Knight Ridder chopped the Inky newsroom by 90 people in the fall of 2005 to the present 425. If an additional 150 positions indeed were eliminated, the Inquirer’s staff would fall to 275, a decline of 53% from its strength before KRI made its cuts in 2005. The circulation of the paper is 335,723 daily and 682,214 on Sunday.

Against this backdrop, Amanda Bennett, the Inky's top editor, was repalced today by Bill Marimow, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning Inky journalist who most recently headed the news operation at National Public Radio. Meeting his new staff for the first time in his new role, Bill warned that "painful" cuts lie ahead."We have to figure out how to thrive in an era of reduced resources," he added.

Although heavy staff cutting at these high-profile metros may have garnered the biggest headlines, hundreds of other positions have been eliminated in dozens of newsrooms since the fall of 2005, when publishers began aggressively trimming headcount in the hopes of bolstering their profitability and improving the performance of their swooning shares.

So far, it hasn’t worked too well.