Thursday, April 09, 2009

Times Union busters

Think of the conflict that must have raged somewhere inside Jim Odato’s mind when he wrote about the state layoffs proposed by Governor David Paterson in Wednesday’s Times Union. While the longtime state Capitol reporter was penning a story about the governor exempting non-union state workers from the looming 8,900 layoffs, his own union was battling behind the scenes to save jobs among the TU’s senior writers –jobs like his own.

The bell tolls this morning for the Capital Region’s largest and most respected daily publication. And when it does, close to a quarter of the paper’s staffers could be wandering onto the unemployment line. If the parent Hearst Corporation has its druthers, many of these layoffs could come from the paper’s senior employees once the Albany Newspaper Guild’s contract is cancelled today. The alternative and equally dismal scenario has the guild picketing against the union-breaking policies the company recently exacted on some of its other workers, such as the staff at the San Francisco Chronicle.

This story starts when the original contract between Hearst and the guild –the local union representing about 280 workers at the paper –expired last summer. Negotiations between the sides continued through the fall and winter, with little progress. Then in February, George Hearst III was appointed publisher of the newspaper.

Hearst, a descendant of William Randolph Hearst, was the chief negotiator for his company on behalf of the Times Union. The move was initially met with cautious optimism, but soon became a harbinger of ominous times ahead. One after another, Hearst-owned papers began to see layoffs and even threats of closure. Less than a month after taking the helm, “Mr. Publisher” announced he needed to cut costs by more than 20 percent at the Times Union, meaning layoffs were imminent.

Of course, layoffs under the rolling contract meant only the newest hires at the paper would be affected. And these employees typically make a fraction of what senior workers make. That’s why Hearst brazenly told guild members last month of his intention to terminate their contract as of this morning.

Though legal, Hearst’s move was a highly unorthodox way of forcing union concessions. The main concession his company is seeking is the ability to can whoever they deem necessary. Deductive reasoning suggests these workers would be many of the veteran employee soaking up large benefit packages and relatively fat paychecks for a job that could be easily pawned off on a pimple-faced Columbia grad more than eager to find a way to start paying back $80,000 worth of tuition loans.

From an anti-labor perspective, threatening to terminate the contract is nothing short of genius. Tell the guild leaders to screw off, assure them their contract will be canceled and that the layoffs will be flowing like spring runoff into the Hudson once it is. Don’t bring them to the drawing table, force them to it. Once their sitting down, nail them to the chair; don’t let ‘em up until they’re broken; shatter the fuckers. Split the goddamn union right down the center of its cerebral cortex. And the best way to do this is eliminate the very union leaders that refuse to make concessions on their contract.

But this is no ordinary union. This is the union representing press. More specifically, this is the only press in the Capital Region that has remained somewhat insulated from the failures of print journalism and news media on a whole. Certainly, the Times Union isn’t perfect. But it’s about as perfect as they come in the tri-city and northern region, considering the thread-bare newsrooms extending from Poughkeepsie to Plattsburgh.

Now Hearst is proposing to cut indiscriminately the workers that allowed the Times Union to adapt into what it is today. The cuts come despite a number of guild concessions, including a 5 percent across-the-board pay reduction among its members.

For what it’s worth, the guild isn’t exactly a pushover either. They’ve already voiced their intention to seek support among Albany’s other unions and to wage aggressive campaigns against the Times Union’s advertisers. They could also strike, which would nail a stake through the heart of everything the newspaper has achieved in this modern era of journalism.

Already, the failed negotiations and the company’s slash-and-burn tactics have taken a noticeable toll on the paper. The guild has chronicled the debacle on a public blog, which features comments from a number of its members regarding a precipitous decline in morale.

“I don’t have words to express the breach of trust I — and I’m sure other members — feel right now,” wrote one veteran TU reporter on the guild’s blog. “One of the bitterest aspects of this is the apparent lack of interest in either appreciating or considering any of the Guild’s good-faith efforts to contribute to a solution. That is: help save our newspaper without destroying its quality entirely.”

And it shows, too. The quality of the paper’s regionally renowned Web site has also diminished over the last few months, although it’s unclear whether this is attributable to the change in publisher or the union negotiations or both.

True, this is a tough time for the news industry and one that’s only bound to get tougher in this economy. Unions must exhibit flexibility during this storm, or face a grizzly demise amid its bluster. But what Hearst is doing to the guild –and the Times Union by extension –is placing in jeopardy basic rights guaranteed under the Constitution. Perhaps “Mr. Publisher” should think about this when he returns to the negotiating table this morning. The fate of the region’s news lies in the balance.

24 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Horatio,

Do you have a link to the "public blog" you mentioned?

7:05 AM  
Blogger Horatio Alger said...

Try this link.

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

500 f'ing workers at the TU? Is that a misprint?

500 people to get a paper out the door?

I think the problem here is rather obvious....

..and fixable.

10:17 AM  
Anonymous PlanetAlbany said...

Good post (despite wooly idealism at end). I too have encountered some upset TU people. I don't know what's happening with negotiations today, which could be do-or-die day, but am on the union's side.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Horatio Alger said...

10:17,

That is a bit of a misprint. I've since been told they employ about 450 altogether. About 280 of those are in the guild. I'll make the correction.

1:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Save a good reporter like Odato and can the partisan hack Irene Liu.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

450 people to get a paper out the door?

My point remains....

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

HO:

You say Hearst "is placing in jeopardy basic rights guaranteed under the Constitution."

What would those rights be? The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, but it always has been the owners, not the workers, who are in control of the press.

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

450 people to put out a paper that goes to nearly 100,000 people a day? To produce a Web site that gets more than 20 million hits a month? That produces handfuls of specialty publications, sells pages and pages of advertising, takes hundreds of photographs and delivers to thousands of homes?

Oh, wait, I'm sure you must be an executive with a successful corporation commenting anonymously on an obscure blog. Thanks for the insight, sir.

6:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alternately, the attempt to not can all employees under the age of 40 could be an effort on the company's part to try to keep at least a few people in the building who know a blog from a classified ad. Especially when the print news industry is rapidly dying.

10:21 PM  
Blogger Horatio Alger said...

6:42,

"Some obscure blog..." Ouch!

True, iSaratoga ain't no Fark or Daily Kos. But it does get a fair amount of daily traffic. As of this writing, there were about 200 visitors. Usually between 350 and 600 readers lurk by over the course the day. They come from a wide variety of places, such as the state Legislature, city hall, many local colleges and newspapers, and even judicial chambers at times. Since the counting began about a year and a half ago, the site has seen about 137,000 unique visitors. Small? Certainly. But obscure? Hardly.

5:38,

True indeed. But the bleeding-heart liberal inside me always tints the way I regard newspapers. They are more than just a business; they are a public service. And that is why I get fairly pissed-off when publishers run them explicitly like a business and without regard for the service to the First Amendment they provide. After all, a press won't run unless there's someone to feed it copy.

3:58,

Certainly, their are a lot of people working for the Times Union. But to produce a quality publication, you need those people. Without reporters, there is no news. Without ad reps, there is no revenue. Without circulation workers, there is no distribution. Newspapers take a lot of energy to produce, which is something most people don't take into consideration when they pick one up in the morning. The sheer magnitude of producing a publication once a day is Herculean to say the least.

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back to the "it takes 450 people? ..." point I made (and stick to):

No, I am not a newspaper executive; never worked in one. But I have a brohter who does, if that helps. And I think I am a pretty good business person, although now retired (but getting the itch to become un-retired). So, I will offer these observations nontheless:

Glancing thru today's TU, I would estimate that 50+% of the paper's content is fed by newswires (AP, etc). So how many people does the shop need to copy & paste that info? You are correct if you said either "one" or "two", I would think. There; one-half the paper is done and we just cut the fat of about 15-25 people.

OK--how many people do you need to staff an adequate (make it top-flight) local newsroom operation filling in the other half? 30? 50? Heck, let's give them 80! That would make for the biggest newsroom in this region, i would thing (just make sure they are out in the filed doing real reporting; not administrative workers).

Sales people..let's staff that with ten people, that should do it. Hell, make it 20! Fire the lowest-performing 5 each year and hire replacements.

That gets us to....102. Now how do we get from 102 to 450, I ask?

Remember: the news delivery labor tends to be mostly contractors (paperboys, rural deliveries), so they dont count.

And--we do have this thing called technology kicking in, that streamlines the production process: page layout, ad design, etc.

The problem IS union labor. I will give two examples:

- In the old days, taking and developing photographs was, in fact, a specialty skill requiring specialty equipment and people. Nowadays, everyone has a digital camera. So why not let a reporter snap a few photos of the story he/she is covering? The highest quality stuff might not be needed for each and every shot that gets put in the paper. If it's decent, put it in! But, the old union rules prohibit such. The union classifieds photographer needs to be assisgned to snap a stupid photo that 9 out of 10 people could take on their own. Wasteful.

Now let's talk about the "press". A lot of union people assigned there, I would wager.

Fact: your typical newsprint press sits idle the majority of the day and night.

So, why not pool a single press (and the press costs) among all the local newspapers? Share, share.

Answer: because the unions would scream like little babies, that's why!

From the ashes, an online model will arise that fills the void of these old-school, fat and failed business models that will die off (unless they radically change) .

And those new models won't be burdened by the greed from both sides of the union-labor divide that their historic predecessors died from.

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Kyle York said...

11:31 "450? FEH!"-

"But I have a brohter who does, if that helps."

You and your "brohter" have a lot to learn about the newspaper business. And spelinkk.

The failures of the "old-school, fat and failed business models" may well be legion. But the TU's Business reporters offer an accurate and unbiased alternative to your "single press" rosy future. Shut 'em up!--

FACT-
AMD has committed not one penny to LFTP*. That's a fact. The TU gets it...

...while your investigative mind "sits idle the majority of day and night."

-Kyle York
* See "S'Toga Biz Jrnl," April 2009

9:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear smart ass who has a brother who works for a newspaper. What paper the troy record?? For your infomation you forgot the production department it takes 100 craft workers to produce the fastest and most productive newspaper in the business. Read presstime or editor and publisher. Also we are staffed at about 50 percent of the rest of the country. Furthermore, smart ass, your numbers on the newsroom are stupid. For you to run a newspaper as good as the tu does, you need good reporting and good editing. To have as much advertising as the TU does you need good service reps and good circulation people. I think that would get your number up to about 400.

7:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A question, then, for all of you old-school apologists:

Then why ain't it working?

"..100 craft workers..."? WFT world are you living in: a Charles Dickens novel? Pal, the days of single character block type disappeared many, many decades ago.

As to Mr York (aka the "New Bronner"):

Saratoga Business Journal? Tell ya what: go ask Mr B how big a staff he needs to get his paper out the door each issue. Multiply it from there to get to a daily publication with its added sections.

450? It still sounds like a fat, bloated bureaucracy to me.

Notice how these clowns can't even absorb the points I was making. I believe my #'s were actually INCREASING the news room size! If they weren't, let's give it to them.

Thank goodness the software and internet industries aren't burdened by that cancer called unionization. For if it were, this economy wouldn't have grown an inch since the first PC hit the market in the late 70's.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

again,smart ass,let me remind you the printing trade went out years ago.the production workers i'm talking about are needed today to insert the ads ,the tu has many.but you wouldn't understand because your caught up with your own stupidity.you think you know about newspapers but you don't.if your comparing the saratoga journal with the timesunion then i know you know nothing about newspapers.oh,by the way the internet is next to be organized by the unions

7:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

then we might as well hang a sign on this country that says:

"Dead Zone"

7:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jimmy Hoffa said:

"...i'm talking about are needed today to insert the ads ,the tu has many.."

That's exactly my point, Jimbo. It has MANY!"

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Kyle York said...

Dear Smart Brohter of a Media Mogul-

"You think you know about newspapers"...YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE NEWSPAPERS! Friend, my point is that you GET what you PAY for. In place of name-calling and sweeping generalities, I'll be specific--

Given the front-page "Foundry JobFair Frenzy" around here, the value of a professional reporter shines through. Specifically, the reporting of TU's Larry Rulison.

Back when all the world... maybe even your brohter... when they were doing the Hamster Dance about the AMD "DONE DEAL!" at the announcement in June 2006, Mr. Rulison's TU coverage included a key phrase--

"AMD's agreement with the state is nonbinding, an AMD spokeswoman said in a statement, meaning the company can change its mind about the project."

http://www.e2tac.org/News/index.cfm?InstanceID=841&NewsID=111&step=show_detail

Mr. Rulison has continued to publish the occasional reminder that despite the daily AMD Press Release, AMD/ATIC/GlobalFoundries can WALK AWAY at ZERO COST between now and the County's JULY 2009 go/no-go deadline.

That kind of intelligent writing ain't cheap. The lack of such good reporting has encouraged a$touding inve$tment$ by Counties and States and Towns and Individuals believing the FAB BOOM is a DONE DEAL.

Reporters of intellect and integrity know better. Ask your brohter.

-Kyle York
JM 76. AMD 0.

11:23 AM  
Anonymous Bill C said...

Not wanting to fire the flames in this little war here (I actually lean towards the pro-union camp on this; but that is immaterial) but the 'AMD' issue was really brought to light not by a TU reporter but by the Tech Times newspaper that used to cover these subjects a few years back.

I believe they have since ceased publishing a paper issue and are now an electronic version of a newsletter. Not sure.

If my recollection is accurate, I think it simply highlights the value of having BOTH traditional and next wave media voices in this (and any) market.

6:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone who reads the TU regularly sees there are writers who work hard and who have many bylines, and others who occasionally re-write press releases and do little else. Getting rid of the latter won't hurt the paper much, and it should spur others who are somewhere in between to earn their pay.

5:49 PM  
Anonymous Kyle York said...

Bill C-

Your interest is to be commended, your civility all-too-rare... even if you are a voice in the wilderness. But in the interest of accuracy, "Tech Times" was light years behind the California Industry blogs. The REAL inside reporters can tell you about the "secret" provisions of INTEL/AMD's two cross-licensing agreements from 1976 and 2001. Tech Times didn't even catch the softball about INTEL's X86 Ace in the Hole.

But hey-
AMD made an ANNOUNCEMENT today about being ALMOST READY to sign a BINDING AGREEMENT! REALLY!!

ANY DAY NOW!!!
Any day.
Really.

-Kyle York
NOT a Chip Chump

10:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice spirited argument, but somehow you guys seemed to have missed the point. Doesn't matter whether you have 450 or 45 people turning out the TU. The truth is that nobody under the age of 40 is reading it. If you think the circulation numbers are bad now, just wait 'til the baby boom generation starts dying off!!

People who want thoughtful commentary will be reading magazines and those who want breaking stories will rely on the internet or television news. Newspapers will be squeezed out.

9:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

9:05 hit the nail squarely.

8:24 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home


View My Stats