Thursday, May 1, 2008

McCaw hands out pink slips

BY COLBY FRAZIER
DAILY SOUND STAFF WRITER

In an action dubbed a “company wide reorganization,” the Santa Barbara News-Press laid off 10 employees yesterday, two of whom were editors.
An internal memo circulated to News-Press employees said the layoffs were the result of declines in circulation, advertising revenue, and a contentious labor dispute between current and former newsroom staff and the paper’s management.


“Here at the News-Press management has struggled with this national trend [in declining circulation] as well as with the onslaught of tactics used by the Teamsters Union, which represents the newsroom unit of the paper,” the memo said.
The memo cites a campaign by the union and a number of employees over the past two years that asked the paper’s subscribers to cancel subscriptions — an effort designed to pressure on the paper’s owner and co-publisher Wendy McCaw to acknowledge the union and begin bargaining. The memo states that, “thousands” of subscribers canceled as a result.
News-Press attorney Barry Cappello said he did not have a list of those who were laid off, but confirmed Sports Editor Barry Punzal, a 25-year veteran at the paper, and Life Editor Mindy Spar, who had worked there for more than a decade, had been let go.
A source close to the paper said more layoffs are expected to be handed down today.
Punzal became sports editor in mid 2006 and managed to shield much of his staff from the spattering of firings, reprimands, and general chaos that has reportedly dominated the newsroom for the past two years.
Punzal told the Daily Sound yesterday that he has remained at the paper in part because he knows how much the sports section means to the community and didn’t want that to be compromised.
“I’m upset because I’ve been loyal to that newspaper,” he said. “I’ve given 25 years of my life to that newspaper.
“I’ve tried to save the sports section from what’s happening with the rest of the paper. My point was I don’t work for Wendy, I work for the Santa Barbara community, and sports, and that’s why we kept it going.”
Punzal, who worked as a desk editor for more than a decade before covering soccer at UC Santa Barbara and other local schools, said when he was told to “take a walk” with the paper’s human resources director yesterday morning, he was working on the recreation page, which has a sole focus on community sports.
“I was working for the community when this happened,” he said. “The irony is unbelievable.”
Since the layoffs appear to be related to the paper’s financial situation, Punzal said he would have considered taking a pay cut, but that offer was never extended.
Cappello said he doesn’t think 10 people being laid off at the News-Press is extraordinary, since larger layoffs have occurred in recent months at newspapers throughout the country.
“Basically the paper is going through what newspapers across the country are going through,” he said. “A general loss of advertising and circulation due to the downward trend in not only newspapers but in the news business.”
Cappello said he does not know how severe the monetary losses at the News-Press are, but added the paper’s owner, “truly believes that it is very viable. It will survive.”
Recent circulation statistics reported on a local blog cited numbers gathered by the Audit Bureau of Circulation, a firm that monitors newspaper circulation for advertisers, which said weekday circulation at the News-Press has dropped by about 7 percent over the past year, from 37,730 to 35,061. Sunday circulation also dropped by 7 percent.
While many newspapers in the country have seen dips in circulation, the numbers reported on the blog show those at the News-Press are significantly higher than other papers on the Central Coast. The Ventura County Star saw a 1.8 percent jump in weekday circulation, while the Santa Maria Times saw no change, and the San Luis Obispo Tribune’s weekday circulation dropped by 4 percent.
Dawn Hobbs, a former News-Press reporter who is one of eight newsroom employees that were fired in early 2007 for hanging a banner over a freeway overpass that said, “Cancel Your Newspaper Today,” said the paper’s management brought this on.
“This could have all been resolved beginning in July 2006 before we launched the subscription cancellation campaign calling for union recognition, or after our union vote in Sept. 2006, which the company challenged with frivolous objections, or even after the ruling last December when the company was found guilty on 15 unfair labor practice charges, which the company again appealed,” she said.
Hobbs and dozens of other newsroom employees joined a branch of the Teamsters Union after six of the paper’s top editors resigned en-masse on July 6, 2006. Since then droves of employees have either been fired or resigned.
Aside from general trends in the newspaper business, Cappello said costly and “excessive litigation” is also a contributing factor in the layoffs.
Labor charges requiring exhaustive litigation have been filed in court by the union and the paper, but the majority of these cases have fallen in favor of the union and the employees it represents. It has been News-Press management that has filed a string of appeals that have dragged out now for years.
“…It is important to note that they have made the decision to file numerous charges that have been dismissed," Hobbs said. "They have decided to extravagantly fight the union and other perceived adversaries in every available forum, and they have had numerous opportunities to settle this labor dispute, opportunities which are still open to management if it wishes to reconcile.”
The most recent case involved Hobbs and seven other reporters who were fired for engaging in what the paper called “disloyal” activities. The union argued these firings were illegal because the reporters were engaging in protected activities. An administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board sided with the union and ordered the employees to be reinstated.
But the paper appealed the decision and both sides are now awaiting a ruling from a different judge.
When asked whether or not he believes it is the News-Press that has engaged in excessive litigation, Cappello said the paper’s owner is simply defending herself.
“If somebody wrongly sues you and wrongfully makes claims against you are you going to lay down and let it go away or are you going to fight?” he said. “That decision is easy to make for Mrs. McCaw.”
Many of those laid off were not identified as of press time, but one person who did get a pink slip was Robert Klinger, who worked at the paper for three decades in the camera department.
Klinger was reached by phone yesterday afternoon, but said he would not comment because he feared McCaw could sue him.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

For the record, Mindy Spar came to the News-Press as a copy editor after the July 2006 meltdown.

Scott Steepleton appointed her to the Life Editor job.

spitfire squid said...

Some newspapers going through the same financial difficulties as the News-Press are offering their longtime employees severance pay or buyouts.

But then these newspapers have owners who care about their employees.

Or, they have unions.

Agent of tolerance said...

Cappello knows not whereof he speaks, or more accurately, speaks before he thinks. Cappello, as a once and future plaintiffs' lawyer, knows well that the law is there to right wrongs. The process is triggered by egregious wrongs committed by his client and the management team that has been found to be liars. The union brings charges and evidence to the government, and just like a criminal prosecutor, the government investigates, gathers evidence from both sides, decides whether to prosecute, and in most of the important cases the union has brought to the NLRB, decided to prosecute. It is extraordinary, and demonstrates the extremity of the SBNP's wrongful behavior, that the NLRB actually went to federal court to try to put a halt to some of it.

But the excessive litigation, or the "legal vindictiveness" of which the NP likes to accuse others? How about Sue Paterno, who is expected to have Wendy pay her large lawyer bill at the end of her litigation? What about the Indy litigation, which the late Judge Rafeedie found to be wasteful and Wendy's own lawyer admitted was "punitive"? Did Barry forget about the Michael Todd suit, or the wage and hour litigation in which the News-Press has all but admitted it violated labor law? How about the Jerry Roberts litigation?

What about all the wasted money on union-busting ineffectual amoral consultants? And what about the bogus ULP charges (at least 10) against the Union and the frivolous objections to the NLRB election that the SBNP decided to pursue to no avail other than to hike lawyers fees and achieve delay? How about legions of lawyers sitting in the courtroom this past summer, and none of them could get Steepleton to tell a truthful story? Excessive? You bet. But as Cappello is well aware, he and his client may be able to bully the town's shopkeepers and individual employees -- after all, for the NP, a "cease and desist" letter is a form of dialogue -- but the chickens came home to roost when Wendy went berserk in trying to deter her employees from standing up for themselves. She could have avoided every bit of this, and can still turn things around, however. And the paper and this community would be the better for it.

Anonymous said...

Cappello's comment about McCaw only defending herself is somewhat accurate; when one is accused of something the natural response is to defend and blame other. Any counselor will tell you this. McCaw chose Cappello because of his tenacious reputation, which is well deserved. It also means that reputation comes at a price - a 'win at all costs' mentality (I know this because I used to work for him). Unfortunately for the previously critically acclaimed paper and its employees, the "win" is at their cost, and everyone (incl. McCaw) is losing here, except Cappello. Hindsight is 20/20 and you can't always predict the path legal battles will take, but this one had expensive, contentious and nasty written all over it from the start. McCaw intentionally chose her attorney to match her own nastiness, and now this is the consequence. Bad publicity, expensive and excessive legal tactics, and high costs all around. The only way to redeem this paper is for her to sell it.

Greg Knowles said...

After reading the last comment I wonder what actual value the paper has. Would someone pay a reasonable price for a paper that has done what it has done to this community. I'm not sure I would want to be the next owner.

Agent of tolerance said...

Mr, Knowles, it's certainly understandable why anyone would hesitate before stepping into the owner's shoes at the SBNP, especially after Wendy's train wreck. But a person with the right optimistic spirit, dedication to quality, willingness to be independent of the "usual suspects" who hang with the wealthy and expect (and get from Wendy) favors in return, and not least, one who demonstrates some respect for the employees who make the paper happen, could build this paper back up relatively quickly, and regain community support, both in terms of advertisers and subscribers.

Anonymous said...

The decline in newspapers around the country, due more to a technological shift in information media than the economy, suggests that whatever new leadership MIGHT come in, the News-Press is unlikely to regain subscriptions and advertising. There will be no knight in shining armor at this point. It's a pity that the union's "cancel your subscription" has damaged the finest paper in the community with such rapidity, as it might have continued to thrive against the downward trend in the publishing industry for awhile - as Santa Barbara is a fairly self-contained community. For the sake of the community, and those who have worked at the paper for many years, I would ask subscribers to ignore the demands to cancel their subscriptions and continue to support those still putting out an admirable newspaper against the odds.

Anonymous said...

I am someone who loved the News Press and read it faithfully. But, when I realized that the Publisher was tampering with what appeared in the newspaper, I felt compelled to cancel my subscription. Call me old fashioned, but I have to trust my news sources. I pine for the days when I could enjoy our hometown daily over a cup of coffee in the morning. I just don't understand why Wendy doesn't sell it.