Friday, December 01, 2006

Mercury News Reporters Bracing for Layoffs

This is going to be a tense few days for reporters at the Mercury News. Dean Singleton’s Media News, which recently acquired the paper from the McClatchy chain, who bought it from Knight-Ridder, is going to lay off 40 editorial staffers and 60 others in the plant on Monday.

The paper apparently has told everyone to stay at home between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.ion Tuesday Dec. 5. Executive Editor Susan Goldberg will then call those who have been fired.

The East Bay Express has been following the story closely:

“Once the laid-off employees receive the bad news, they will be given a time on Saturday and Sunday December 9 and 10 to come into the office and collect their belongings. But they won’t have access to their computers. Merc managers plan to immediately turn off the laid-off employees’ computers and change their passwords. This plan has prompted dozens of staffers in the past few days to begin downloading or printing out their phone numbers, source lists, and key work they don’t want to lose. “People are e-mailing stuff to their private e-mail accounts or downloading stuff like crazy,” said one Merc source.

Merc executive editor Susan Goldberg told employees that she decided to call people at home instead of doing it at the office to avoid publicly embarrassing the laid-off employees. But her plan has some people wondering whether her real motive is to avoid possible major disruptions at the paper when staffers learn who gets the ax.”

I have lots of friends at the Merc and everyone is in jitters. No one knows what criteria will be used to lay people off. There are reporters who have angered their editors and who now fear they will be penalized for previous fights. There are reporters who applied for earlier buyout offers who wonder if that has branded them as disloyal. There are well-paid reporters who think that they will be fired to cut costs.

This is the first major step in the dissolution of a once-mighty newspaper. Who is to blame? I can think of lots of people – Tony Ridder, who didn’t try hard enough to protect Knight-Ridder from breaking up; the McClatchy board for spurning other suitors and deciding to sell fine papers to a corporation known for its cost-cutting; Knight-Ridder stockholders and other Wall Street investors who regarded anything less than a 20% annual profit level as unacceptable. And of course there's Dean Singleton, who seems to disdain newspapers with depth and content.

Yes, yes, I know there are lots of factors at play in the decline of the newspaper industry – the plethora of options on the Internet, the fact that young people prefer to read their news online, etc. etc. But the dismantling of the Mercury News feels more deliberate than just market forces at work.

It’s just plain greed.

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