Mercury News Plans to Shrink Newsroom
by 52 Jobs
16% reduction ends week of newspaper industry buyouts and layoffs
Cuts are 'painful,' says editor, but the paper will survive
By Michael Stoll
Grade the News
Saturday, September 24, 2005
The San Jose Mercury News said Friday that it would reduce its
staff by 60, including 52 in the newsroom, first with buyouts
but with layoffs if necessary.
The announcement capped a week of steep newsroom reductions at
major metropolitan daily newspapers across the country, including
500 jobs from the New York Times Company and 100 jobs from the
two Knight Ridder newspapers in Philadelphia. The prior week,
the San Francisco Chronicle accepted 90 resignations through a
disputed buyout program, and will soon cut 30 more jobs, voluntarily
The entire Mercury News staff gathered at 4 p.m. in the newsroom
and on conference call from bureaus to hear Publisher George Riggs
explain that a particularly disappointing third-quarter earnings
statement from Knight Ridder, the paper's parent company, made
swift reductions necessary.
Executive Editor Susan Goldberg told the staff that the newsroom
reduction to 280 people -- the lowest level in at least a decade
-- would require a "reorganization" of the paper's journalism
operations, but that the paper's high standards and core areas
of coverage would survive.
But Luther Jackson, the executive officer of the San Jose Newspaper
Guild, the union representing journalists and other employees,
called the cost-cutting "a stunning blow" to both journalists
and the community.
"It's a tragedy for our members and it's a tragedy for the
readers who will get less in the paper," Mr. Jackson told
Grade the News. "And ultimately it's a tragedy for the shareholders."
The mood in the Mercury News newsroom was somber on Friday, said
Griff Palmer, the paper's database editor, who is also secretary
and treasurer of the Guild. "It's going to mean that journalism
is going to be practiced very differently at this newspaper,"
The newspaper whose newsroom topped 400 people at the height
of the dot-com economic boom in Silicon Valley could not avoid
downsizing to reflect a local economy that never recovered. But
the larger problem, Mr. Palmer said, is that the stock market
offers no slack to news organizations in less profitable years.
"It's not just in journalism," he said. "Wall
Street is demanding the same kinds of sacrifices throughout the
American economy -- the insatiable demand for ever-greater profits
irrespective of economic conditions. A lot of it is that there
are market forces at work."
The announcement of staff cutbacks was the second in a week for
Knight Ridder. On Tuesday it announced that it would offer buyout
incentives to 75 employees at the Philadelphia Inquirer and 25
at the Philadelphia Daily News.
Later that day, the New York Times Company announced it would
shed 500 jobs through buyouts and layoffs; newsroom losses will
include 45 at the Times and 35 at the Boston Globe, which the
Two weeks ago, the publicly traded Knight Ridder, the nation's
second-largest newspaper chain, announced that earnings per share
would fall 20%, which it attributed to higher paper costs and
health insurance premiums.
After the cuts were announced in Philadelphia, Walker Lundy,
the former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, told National
Public Radio that newspaper companies "are eating their seed
"I fear for their future because you just can't save your
way into profit increases every year," he said. "If
you're running a steak house, you still have to serve them steak."
Mr. Jackson, the San Jose union officer, echoed Mr. Lundy's critique:
"Any company can cut into its R&D to achieve a one-time
dividend, but it's not a great long-term strategy."
But Ms. Goldberg, a former reporter and USA Today editor, said
executives at the Mercury News realized that "we have to
operate in the economic reality of our time."
"None of us wanted to do this, but we are at a painful place
in our business," she said. "We held off making this
announcement for five years, trying through attrition and deep
sending cuts to avoid this. Our only option is to reorganize in
the very best way that we can to continue to put out an excellent
"Realistically there are going to be some things we can't
do anymore," she said. "We have been getting smaller
over a number of years. This will cause us to really look again
at what our priorities are. The coin of the realm is exclusive
local coverage. Specifically, as it relates to technology, and
covering the diverse segments of our community."
Management has been sending out notes to Mercury News employees
for months urging them to trim costs by conserving office supplies.
Yet Knight Ridder has invested a significant amount of money
on experiments in Bay Area journalism this year. In February it
purchased the free tabloid Palo Alto Daily News and its four sibling
publications for an undisclosed sum, and in May launched an East
Then this summer the Mercury News orchestrated a thorough redesign,
folding the local news section into the main news section. But
that effort lasted only a few weeks, as readers who liked the
paper the way it was threatened to cancel their subscriptions.
The Mercury News is offering departing employees a severance
package of two weeks' pay for every year of service up to 44 weeks'
worth; that's in addition to two weeks for every year up to 60
weeks' worth. Extended health benefits range from six months for
junior employees to two years' full coverage, or five years' partial
coverage, for early retirees.
The buyout offers will come on Monday. Employees have until Nov.
10 to apply.
The Guild said in a memo on its Web site, that the recent cuts
are only the latest in a series over the last five years that
will harm its members and journalism. In 2001 the paper bought
out 38 employees.
This time, it may be more difficult, some employees said.
"It's just sad to see the Mercury News shrink," said
Lynne Dennis, a copy editor and past president of the Guild. "It
was a really impressive place when I came to work here 14 years
ago and it still has some great people. I don't think they'll
find 52 people who want to bail out of here."