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Ain't no profit high enough

Struggling to "make plan," daily shuffles staff, lays off 9

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It was just another Thursday afternoon in a long line of Thursday afternoons for Missoulian city editor Rod Murphy, except that this particular Thursday afternoon came only days before Murphy was scheduled to depart on vacation. But before he left, the 20-year veteran was called into the office of publisher John VanStrydonck, installed by parent company Lee Enterprises last October. Nobody who was in VanStrydonck’s office last week has said exactly what transpired there, but when the meeting was over, according to observers who requested anonymity, Murphy walked back to his desk, turned off his computer, put on his coat, and walked out without a sound. By the end of the day, unofficial word had filtered through the newsroom, though no official announcement was forthcoming from Missoulian management: Murphy had been laid-off.

Rumors of impending “reorganizations” had circulated for weeks at least—they’re inevitable in newsrooms under new leadership—and Murphy’s sudden departure seemed to indicate some truth to the speculation, but Missoulian brass were tight-lipped. On Friday, editor Mike McInally declined an opportunity to comment, and a spokesperson at Davenport, Iowa-based Lee disclaimed any knowledge whatsoever of layoffs, impending or accomplished. VanStrydonck did not return calls.

Missoulian staff slid into the weekend under a cloud of silence.

Come Monday, the cloud broke at 10 a.m. when the entire staff assembled to hear VanStrydonck announce the layoff. It amounted to nine job cuts, three part-time and six full-time, including Murphy’s, with another four currently empty positions “going dark,” which is to say they won’t be filled. Two full-time positions were cut to half-time.

Many of the cuts, according to sources, targeted veterans, like Murphy, who had been at the paper for a decade or more, and would presumably have been earning near the top end of the pay scale for their positions.

In a Michael Moore-penned article in the Missoulian’s Tuesday edition, VanStrydonck was quoted to the effect that the cuts were made primarily in “support” staff, not amongst the newsroom and advertising staff that interface with the public.

“There aren’t fewer reporters or photographers,” Van Strydonck said. “We’ve got the same number of sales people, the same carrier force. I don’t think this will affect the customers.”

The publisher was also quoted as saying “I don’t intend to ever do this again as long as I am at the Missoulian.”

It is not entirely uncommon for newspapers to lay off staff, but in the relatively small, often tightly knit communities that characterize publishing operations, layoffs are often felt, by those on the inside, out of all proportion to their relative frequency and magnitude.

In the paper’s published account, the usual publishing-business bogeymen were cited: slowed advertising sales, increased compensation costs. “The current shortfall,” the paper wrote, without quantifying what that phrase might mean, “could not be made up in the short term by selling more papers and advertising.”

“The economy is just not there,” VanStrydonck was quoted as saying.

What he did not acknowledge is that relative newcomer Clear Channel Communications, with ownership of six radio stations in Missoula, may be taking a bite out of the Missoulian’s traditional ad sales market.

In either case, what’s unusual lies not in the facts of it, but in the extreme silence surrounding it. Even after the paper’s Tuesday announcement, editor McInally sounded almost apologetic in his inability to comment, at all, on the situation. A Lee spokesperson again directed all queries to VanStrydonck. Multiple phone calls and an on-site visit to Missoulian offices failed to gain an audience with the publisher.

But newspaper people–support staff included–are not often inclined towards silence, and these were no exception. Some called the Independent office anonymously and left messages and tips. Some, apparently, distributed poems of outrage at the Missoulian office. Some even visited in person—not to submit résumés, but more often than not joking about it while they were here.

Remaining Missoulian employees who did speak with the Independent were unstinting in their insistence that no identifying characteristics mark their comments, and it was made to be understood that, in some cases at least, the terms of individual severance packages bound their recipients to silence. In other cases, it was clearly the prospect of a severance package that kept lips sealed.

But if management’s enforced silence was weird—especially for a newspaper—perhaps there was good reason for it, since a conversation might reveal the apparent holes in the layoff logic.

It was just over two weeks ago that Lee Enterprises—which owns 38 daily newspapers, a joint interest in six others, and over 175 weeklies and shoppers and specialty publications—reported earnings growth, chain-wide, of 27.5 percent.

“We had another strong quarter,” Lee CEO Mary Junck declaimed in a press release, “with the largest same property revenue gain since December 2000. Our growth was fueled by continued improvement in advertising revenue, including the first increase in classified in two years, and excellent performance by the 16 newspapers we acquired in 2002. At the same time, our other newspapers continue to get results from our focus on five top priorities—driving revenue, improving readership and circulation, emphasizing strong local news, continuing our online growth, and exercising careful cost controls.”

Although the Missoulian has been generally regarded as amongst the top profit-generators in the Lee chain, earnings numbers from Lee’s individual newspapers are not publicly available.

But Missoulian staffers talk, quietly, of the corporate directive to “make plan”—a standardized profit quota. Thirty-three percent of gross revenue is the number most commonly mentioned.

There’s no way of knowing how badly the Missoulian must have missed that mark, as employees speculate it must have, shy of an unexpected announcement from VanStrydonck. Lee’s toll-free “Open Door” line doesn’t provide that information. But given the overall performance of Lee at large, the Missoulian must have had a very bad quarter indeed to justify such “painful but necessary” layoffs.

Either that, or VanStrydonck has gotten his “five top priorities” backwards, and put “careful cost controls” at the top. Only he and the Lee accountants know for sure.

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