By Matt Hudson
When word comes down the line that one-fifth of a newsroom has to be cut, keeping a poker face in front of more than 100 journalists can prove a challenge for even a veteran of the industry.
In late August 2013, a small group of managers in Utah had to discuss changing the lives of 19 co-workers. Terry Orme, the editor and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune, was part of that group.
“From a newsroom management standpoint, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done because you’re dealing with people’s lives,” Orme said. “So every decision was agonizing because bottom line, you were cutting very good people.”
Orme was a managing editor during three rounds of layoffs. It started with nine jobs in mid-2012, then another four in July 2013. One month later, news hit that the Tribune would have to reduce its staff by nearly 20 percent.
“We knew there were some hazards in our industry and the landscape was a little rocky out there, but it was a surprise to us when we were asked to cut as much as we did,” Orme said.
Their strategy was to deliberate and carry out the cuts as quickly as possible to avoid a prolonged crisis. In September 2013, the paper let go of 17 full-time employees and two part-timers. The call came from the top of the business chain. Digital First Media, the New York-based firm that owns the Tribune’s parent company, set the bottom line. Then the Tribune’s managers had to determine how to meet that line.
Orme and three other editors spent several days deliberating where to cut, a painstaking process.
In the newsroom, people began asking questions. Orme wanted to be honest, but he couldn’t be specific, and he only revealed they were having budget cuts.
“That might seem like you’re keeping information from people, and I guess you are, but the reason you do it that way is because you’re trying to minimize the upset that you’re about to cause,” he said.
The news hit hard, even with other metro news outlets. A writer for an alt-weekly in Salt Lake, City Weekly, offered drinks to laid-off Tribune workers the day of the announcement.
So far in Montana, newspapers have managed to avoid large-scale cutbacks that plague bigger markets. But the state’s newspapers were hit hard during the recent recession. In 2008, 30 full-time positions were cut across regional newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises, including the Missoulian, Billings Gazette, and Helena Independent Record.
Months later, the Great Falls Tribune laid off six full-time employees as part of a larger plan by the paper’s parent company, Gannett Co., to eliminate 10 percent of its workforce.
Jim Strauss, publisher and editor of the Great Falls Tribune, said the paper avoided mass layoffs partially because it has retained a large portion of its print circulation. But the paper has still cut nine staffers since 2007.
Like Orme, Strauss dealt with questions from the newsroom while the paper carried out cuts imposed by its parent company. In an interview, he avoided commenting on specific events, but said the whole building was curious about the restructuring process.
“I’m as honest as I can be,” he said. “If layoffs are necessary, then we really analyze how we need to be structured going forward to serve the needs of our readers.”
Those needs are analyzed behind closed doors, and in an industry that still hasn’t found its foothold, a newsroom can never know when the next desk will be emptied.
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