"The vote wasn't unanimous, but it was decisive," says Memphis Newspaper Guild president Mark Watson.
On November 22nd, the union decided to accept The Commercial Appeal's proposal to offer buyout packages to 170 employees age 50 or over with a minimum 15 years of service. Watson predicted the vote's outcome a day earlier, saying, "There have been a lot of layoffs, and I imagine most [CA employees] think some money is better than no money at all."
It's been a bad year for people in the newspaper business. Circulation continues to decline, and although daily newspapers are still moneymakers, average stock prices have dropped. Shareholders aren't happy with 20 percent profits, and publishers haven't found the magic bullet for reversing circulation trends, resulting in a reported loss of more than 19,000 jobs in 2005. As one commentator satirically pointed out at industry Web site Poynter.org, "[Since] Google has figured out a way to wrap fish over the Internet, [it's] increasingly difficult for [newspapers] to maintain our 30 percent profit margin and keep Wall Street happy."
For employees at the CA, job uncertainty is nothing new. On November 8, 2004, the Newspaper Guild staged a lunchtime walkout to protest as-of-yet unresolved contract disputes and to show solidarity with employees who were laid off before the holidays. There were more layoffs in 2005, and although the CA's newest proposal has come with the promise that the paper doesn't have a specific minimum number of jobs to cut, employees aren't taking chances.
"There are no minimums, but there are also no guarantees," says Samantha Norton, a guild employee who finds it hard to believe that the CA doesn't have some rough idea of how many jobs they want to eliminate.
"We hoped [the CA] would extend its age requirements," Watson says. "There are a lot of 45-year-olds who've got 20 more years to work who would probably take the buyouts. ... $50,000 and six-months paid health insurance means more to [someone in their 40s] than to [someone nearing retirement.]" According to Watson, the CA didn't want to negotiate age limits.
While eliminating older employees (those who have reached the top of the pay scale and whose health insurance is presumably more costly than their younger colleagues) may have a positive effect on the bottom line, it's difficult to see how it can do anything to help the more serious issue of declining circulation. In recent columns and interviews, CA editor Chris Peck has expressed optimism that the paper can do more with less. Watson is less certain.
"When you're looking to get rid of employees who are over 50 and who have been with the paper for a long time, that's a lot of [collective] memory," says Watson. "When you're looking to eliminate your most experienced journalists, the community is the big loser." -- by Chris Davis