Tough times at CNHI’s local newspapers

eagletribune_20091218In reporting on downsizing woes at local newspapers, it sometimes seems as though the Boston Globe and GateHouse Media are the only two players in Eastern Massachusetts. But they’re not alone.

Among the more significant is CNHI, a huge national chain that competes with GateHouse on the North Shore and in the Merrimack Valley, owning the Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, the Daily News of Newburyport, the Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times.

This week, staff members received an e-mail from Al Getler, publisher of the Eagle-Tribune, the Gloucester paper and several smaller publications, announcing some holiday uncheer: a company-wide day off without pay that must be taken by Dec. 26. Media Nation received a copy of Getler’s e-mail earlier today.

“Folks, I know what a tough year it has been and please know how much I appreciate all of your hard work and dedication. I am seeing signs that things are slowly beginning to get better. My hope is that, in the second half of 2010, this is all a distant memory,” Getler wrote.

CNHI, based in Birmingham, Ala., is an investment for the Retired Alabama Teachers Association, whose members presumably are less than concerned about the quality of local news coverage north of Boston.

The Media Nation family subscribes to the Salem News, which does a remarkably good job despite a succession of furloughs and cutbacks. (Disclosure: Mrs. Media Nation is a former Salem News photographer.) This latest cut, though, seems like cruel and unnecessary punishment. The full text of Getler’s holiday message follows.

Dear Team,

Today I received an email from Donna Barrett, CEO of CNHI.

You have often heard me speak about the commitments we have to people that invest in our company. Donna described a critical financial target that is necessary for us to hit before the end of the year.

Unfortunately, hitting this target means we will take one additional day off without pay between today and December 26, 2009.

The requirements are this:

All hourly employees must take off eight hours without pay between now and December 26.  It is expected that no work will be done during this time. This applies to full- and part-time employees. Part-time employees’ work schedules will be reduced on a prorated basis.

A reduced schedule will also be implemented for salaried employees with a corresponding pay reduction.  Salaried employees must take off one day between now and December 26.

The way the North of Boston Media Group management team has decided to do this is as follows:

All newspaper offices will be closed for business on Christmas Eve. This means for many who were scheduled to work, this will become your unpaid day. If you planned to take that day off as a vacation day already, you now have to reschedule that vacation day.

Editorial, production and circulation will work on a minimized schedule for Christmas Eve. The schedule will be announced as soon as possible.

There will be no in bound telephone classified ads processed on Christmas Eve.

There is one less day to process ads as all salespeople are included in this additional day off. Plan accordingly and watch for production deadline changes.

Ads will be produced to announce this change in policy.

Please note that we will not have employee withholdings for benefits on our December 31 paychecks, which will help mitigate the impact on take home pay. This applies to those that have benefits deducted.

Folks, I know what a tough year it has been and please know how much I appreciate all of your hard work and dedication. I am seeing signs that things are slowly beginning to get better. My hope is that, in the second half of 2010, this is all a distant memory.

Please see your supervisor, manager or director with any questions you may have. And as always, feel free to contact me.

Best,

Al Getler

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19 thoughts on “Tough times at CNHI’s local newspapers

  1. Joey

    Um, ‘hitting a critical financial target’ sounds to me like these guys are up to their eyeballs in debt or a loan covenant of some kind, and need immediate cash to meet a note payment or else face some severe consequence– higher interest rates, dilution of stock value, or even bankruptcy. Any immediate need for capital should send up every red flag you can find.

    If I were you, Dan, I’d start paying my Salem News subscription weekly or monthly, so you won’t lose too much cash when they go belly up in 2010.

  2. Joey

    Or, come to think of it, the publishers might have their own target to hit for more compensation, and are screwing the staff to get it. Unseemly, but not uncommon in the executive suite.

  3. Lucy the Dog

    “It is expected that no work will be done during this time.”

    Having worked for these cretins, I’m sure it’s also expected that the eight hours of work that WOULD have been done during that time will still get done. You’ll just have to find a way to do it prior to your unpaid day off. Maybe with some good ol’ unpaid, undocumented overtime! What a deal!

  4. Hiltzenwrath

    Dear E-T staffers, Salem Newsers and others,

    Sorry about the unpaid day off and the impending layoffs, which will likely come next. And when you’re packing your bags to walk out into the cold Merrimack Valley winter, wondering if you’ll ever get another job writing about planting gardens at elementary schools, high school football, prom dresses, or zoning changes in North Andover, maybe then you’ll think to yourself, “I probably should’ve voted for the union?”

    At least they would’ve had to buy you out. I believe they call this the chickens coming home to roost.

    Pop!

  5. LFNeilson

    Smart dog, Lucy. Make the help roll over and play dead. Fetch the paper! Good dog! Sorry, no cookie.

    We don’t know all the numbers, but corporate ownership of newspapers sure ain’t like the old days. The Eagle-Trib plant in North Andover was the beacon of modern newspaper technology, the first daily in the area to go offset.
    Great editorial staff, too, winning the Pulitzer prize.

    Nice Christmas message, Albenezer.

  6. SVG

    Another reminder that the Rogers’ decision to buy the North Shore papers — the debt for which ultimately led them to sell the whole operation to CNHI — was just about the biggest mistake imaginable. Nothing remotely good came of that acquisition.

  7. mike_b1

    The question I have is whether employees have shared the profits through bonuses, etc., when times are good. If so, it’s unseemly to complain about sharing (in this case, modestly) the pain when times are rough.

  8. SVG

    mike_b1:

    The E-T used to have a profit-sharing plan when the Rogers family owned the company. I believe that plan was discontinued when CNHI bought the company, and the money employees had accrued in it was rolled into a 401K.

  9. Newsguy

    Not unseemly considering that all CNHI employees have already had two weeks of unpaid furlough in 2009. To have this drop out of the blue on Dec. 14 is underhanded, at best.

  10. mike_b1

    Newsguy, I disagree. Companies that don’t earn profits don’t stay in business. My company has had layoffs too, and my guess is if management had polled the employees as to whether they would prefer unpaid holidays or being fired, *almost* 100% would have taken the unpaid holidays.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @mike_b1: Here’s the problem at many newspaper companies — fundamentally healthy newspapers that are “losing money” because of the corporate debt laid on top of them in the course of putting together chains. Employees are then forced to sacrifice not because their papers are losing money, but because loan payments must be made. I do not know the specifics of CNHI’s finances, but that’s the way it is throughout the industry, from Tribune to GateHouse to McClatchy.

  11. mike_b1

    Dan, I don’t disagree as to the cause. The rub is in determining the solution. There’s no easy fix, and again, a business that isn’t profitable isn’t going to survive, which for its employees would mean a lot more than one unpaid holiday.

    What some are implying is that because the owners made “mistakes,” the owners should be the ones who pay. And that line of thinking ignores that owners have over time also made (many) good decisions that allowed the business to develop and earn profits.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @mike_b1: In general, your philosophy is correct. These particular owners have done zippo for the health of the Eagle-Tribune papers. It’s all about the Alabama teachers’ pension fund.

  12. amused

    Hiltzenwrath hits the nail on the head. In a union shop, not only do layoffs generally require payment of some sort of severance; imposing furloughs, whether for two weeks, a day or an hour, are mandatory subjects of collective bargaining, the harm the company toadies did to their fellow workers is clear and deep and will be long-lasting — and ironic that it’s at a company owned by a retirement plan established through the benefits negotiated by unions.

    The quality of the group’s papers has declined. The E-T was forever reluctant to cover “process” stories, with the result that it missed a lot until the mud had already hit the fan, but the paper was willing to get its teeth into things that weren’t necessarily sexy. Now, however, the papers in the chain have the manpower to cover little more than quick and dirty police blotter stories and public pronouncements of politicians. To the detriment of the product, beats seem to be covered by an assortment of people

    Scariest is the clear breakdown behind the scenes, in the editing process. Stories often have questions left unanswered when they should be addressed before the story sees the light of day, a sign that a) the copy is needed NOW due to production schedules mandated by cost cutting or b) the reporter is overworked and off on something else so th at the story either can’t be kicked back to fill in gaps. The gaps may exist because was no time for the reporter to chase down loose ends because s/he is off on another journalistic adventure. Follow-ups are rare. Many folos are the product of editors looking at stories from a step back, but when editors each have to worry about content, copy-editing and layout, something gets lost — and what gets lost isn’t going to be layout, since words and fotos are needed on the page; it isn’t going to be rudimentary copy editing, since avoiding embarassment is vital in a lean newsroom; what is lost is attention to content.

    The people who work there, however, clearly work against increasingly difficult corporate obstacles to get a paper out, even if they don’t seem to have time to develop stories and sources. Increasingly it seems “the paper” is the product of a production line on which journalism is sacrificed.

  13. newsguy

    Amused is right on target. Cost-cutting via layoffs and leaving positions vacant has so decimated the copy desks of all CNHI’s Massachusetts publications that they’re little more than page-assembly stops in the production pipeline.

    Copy editors have been rendered pretty much powerless to make any meaningful changes, and there’s often just one or two of them building an entire edition. So there’s no one left to call bullshit when the proposed front-page centerpiece is on drivel like a lost dog or some kids’ cute school project — stuff that wouldn’t have made it onto the front page of one of the group’s weeklies a few years ago.

    The incessant dilution of product quality in the name of meeting the chain’s debt-service payments is incomprehensible considering the high education and income demographics of the local markets, particularly the Eagle-Tribune’s.

    Heartbreaking, in fact, when you consider the quality of the reporting and writing that won the paper’s second Pulitzer for spot news less than a decade ago. Staffing is so skeletal at this point that pulling off an effort like that would be pretty much impossible.

    While putting out a just-good-enough product filled with utterly inane stories and unrewritten press releases might satisfy advertisers and readers at some remote CNHI outpost like East Mousebutt, Oklahoma, I’d say that the ET’s constantly falling numbers indicate that it’s not working to hold readers here.

    And though they’re putting more and more resources into web features like slideshows and videos, the conceptual quality of that content is no higher, so I can’t see how it’s going to make up for the print slide.

    It’s hard to see where it’s going to end. Every time it looks like the bottom has been reached, they come up with something like this latest furlough move and lower it a couple more rungs.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @newsguy: We’re Salem News readers, and I give the news staff credit for doing a good job under trying circumstances. What I don’t like are right-wing opinion pieces foisted on a liberal North Shore readership. That may fly in the Merrimack Valley, but not here.

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