A Pre-emptive Times Strike

Blethen knows best. Probably.

Just as we reported last week on his pessimistic year-end memo to Seattle Times employees, publisher Frank Blethen apparently knew that the board of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild was due to meet on Tuesday. So what better day to pre-emptively announce how he'd carve $21 million out of the paper's budget? Just to, you know, help focus the minds of union reps on the task at hand. Was the guild surprised at the timing of the memo? "Not really," says spokesperson Liz Brown, reasoning that "it helped us, because it boosted turnout at the meeting." The guild intends to meet with Times management on Jan. 24 to discuss planned layoffs, which, thus far, won't affect the newsroom. Let's review Blethen's math. His December memo said management had identified "reductions of about $21 million. We still need another $6 million to ensure stability next year [2008]. But, even a $27 million cost reduction leaves a significant gap with the revenue losses." This is to offset print revenue losses that he estimated at $33 million for 2007 and 2008. So the first shoe ($21 million) has dropped months before the Times contract with the guild expires in July. The second shoe ($6 million) may then fall before new negotiations even begin. As Brown has admitted, old-timers are leaving the newsroom already, without buyout packages. But Blethen's "gap" may not stop there. Nor would further cuts. The Times is a private company and can do its accounting any way it likes. Brown says it has previously shown the guild at least some of its books—one reason the union agreed to a two-year wage freeze in 2006. In the past, however, its joint-operating-agreement partner, Hearst (which owns the Post-Intelligencer), has accused Blethen of cooking the books to keep the company in the red—that being a strategy to escape the JOA. Even though the JOA has been extended to 2016, Blethen can continue to shed unionized staff through flat wages and attrition, while hiring more on the nonunion side of Seattle Times Co., including its successful Web site, NWsource. Times spokesperson Jill Mackie declined to comment on whether the paper was adding more or less ad reps on the unionized print side of the paper compared to the NWsource side. Either way, by running his business just under the profit line, Blethen can deny Hearst its 40 percent of revenues mandated by the JOA. And here's the unkindest cut of all: The Times will follow the example of several other papers by reducing its trim size by an inch in 2009. Meaning at least one certain benefit to readers: more elbow room on the bus.

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