After almost nine years of McClatchy Co. ownership, each of the remaining employees at The Kansas City Star must feel like he or she is carrying a donkey, not riding one.
Since 2008 — two years after McClatchy bought The Star and the other 31 daily papers in the KnightRidder chain — the employees have seen at least one buyout and several rounds of layoffs.
Six weeks ago, The Star laid off or offered retirement to four editorial employees, including ace energy reporter Steve Everly, and art critic Alice Thorson.
Then today, or possibly yesterday, editor Mike Fannin put out a memo saying The Star was having a round of buyouts, with those taking the package getting a maximum of six months pay.
Here’s how Fannin’s memo began:
“Regrettably, I have some difficult news to share this morning. Given the economic pressures we’re facing at the start of 2015, we have to cut costs in the newsroom. This is not a failure of our terrific journalism, just a financial reality.
“We are all familiar with those realities. While we are seeing growth in key areas like digital revenue and digital readership — and while this will be a year of energetic change for the news division as I outlined recently — other areas are still hurting.
“So, for the first time since 2009, The Star is offering a voluntary severance program to fulltime employees in the newsroom. This plan is similar to other programs we have offered in the past and is not a reflection of the value of anyone’s work or personal contribution to the organization. We are also in the process of trimming other newsroom expenses, including freelance, travel, etc.
“Employees who elect will be eligible for two weeks of severance for every year of service, capped at 26 weeks. They will also be eligible for company subsidized COBRA (continuation of health insurance) for three months after leaving the company.”
Eligible employees who wish to take advantage of the offer must announce their intentions by next Monday.
Fannin’s memo doesn’t say what the qualifications are, but I presume it turns on some “magic” number — such as 70, 75, 80, 85 — that combines age and years of employment, or maybe a minimum number of service years plus an age minimum.
This offer could take out a lot of good editorial employees, and the quality of the paper — still pretty good — could suffer dramatically.
On the other hand, this is probably a day of rejoicing for the employees who qualify for the buyout. With The Star’s plummeting fortunes, along with those of many other metropolitan dailies, a lot of long-time employees have been waiting and hoping for a buyout, and now that they’re got the opportunity, I think they will jump on it.
Besides the overall decline of daily newspapers, another big problem for The Star is that McClatchy paid way too much for the KnightRidder properties — $4.5 billion. The company’s debt still stands at $1 billion, even after reducing debt by $523 million in the fourth quarter of 2014 by selling Apartments.com, Cars.com and the Anchorage Daily News.
At random and off the top of my head, I’m going to throw out some names of staff members who may qualify for the buyout.
I’m sure I will miss some obvious people who will qualify, and, as I said, I’m just speculating on eligibility. (Feel free to suggest additions to the list of potential candidates.)
In any event…
Political reporter and columnist Dave Helling; courts reporter Mark Morris; general assignment reporters Eric Adler and Rick Montgomery; general assignment reporter and former columnist Mike Hendricks; police reporters Glenn Rice and Tony Rizzo; general assignment reporter Matt Campbell; education reporters Mara Rose Williams and Joe Robertson; assistant metro editors, Jesse Barker, Elaine Adams and Donna McGuire; feature and celebrity writer Lisa Gutierrez; features editor Sharon Hoffmann; photographers Keith Myers and John Sleezer; copy editor and “Monday morning poet” Don Munday; columnist Mary Sanchez; all three business reporters, Diane Stafford, Joyce Smith and Mark Davis; all three business editors, Greg Hack, Steve Rosen and Keith Chrostowski; and all four editorial board members, Lewis Diuguid, Yael Abouhalkah, Barb Shelly and Steve Paul. (If all editorial board members left, I guess Publisher Mi-Ai Parrish would write the editorials in addition to overseeing the entire newspaper operation…Nose to the grindstone there, Mi-Ai!)
The desk that would get off easiest would be sports, which is nicely stocked with a bunch of young reporters and relatively new columnists Vahe Gregorian and Sam Mellinger — both standouts.
Before I retired from The Star in 2006 — at age 60 and with almost 37 years of service — I had been hoping for a KnightRidder buyout. And then along came McClatchy. I remember vividly when then-CEO and president Gary Pruitt came into the newsroom to talk to us about his vision of The Star under McClatchy ownership.
Naturally, he saw panoramic horizons and clear blue skies. When he finished his spiel, he asked if anyone had any questions. I raised my hand.
“Mr. Pruitt,” I said, “are you planning on any buyouts?”
Many in the crowded newsroom laughed because they knew what I was thinking, and some of them were hoping for the same thing.
“Why, no,” Pruitt said, with a puzzled expression on his face. “When we buy properties, we plan on growing them…adding staff.”
Then, he smiled and said, “Why, were you hoping for something?”
…At that moment, I knew that I had to make my own plans and could not hang around and wait for money to fall out of the sky.
So, a few weeks later, I gave my notice, and three days after the McClatchy purchase closed (June 27, 2007), I walked out of The Star for the last time.
I worked with a lot of the editorial employees who are still at the paper. I like a great many of them, and I’m happy that some of them will get to “retire” before being shown the door.
Naturally, I worry what’s going to happen with my beloved newspaper, but whatever happens, we’ll keep getting our news somewhere. Not in the quality and quantity we used to get it…or even the current, diminished quality and quantity. But we will get it, and The Star will continue to muddle along.