Death by a thousand cuts: Newsroom staffing at Virginia’s biggest papers cut nearly in half since 2010

By: - September 17, 2018 6:05 am
The Richmond Times-Dispatch's downtown office building. (Ned Oliver/Virginia-Mercury)

The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s downtown office building. (Ned Oliver/Virginia-Mercury)

The Richmond Times-Dispatch quietly laid off another eight employees at the beginning of September, the paper’s second round of layoffs this year and just the latest in a string of reductions that have nearly cut newsroom staffing in half since 2010.

The move comes less than two months after the Times-Dispatch’s owner, Warren Buffett’s BH Media Group, which owns nine other Virginia newspapers, handed over day-to-day operations of the company to an Iowa-based chain known for its cutthroat management.

“What’s kind of sad here is that when Warren Buffett came into Virginia and started buying up papers, there was so much optimism; people were thinking of him as a kind of savior, someone with deep pockets … who would give them some breathing room,” said Jeff South, a journalism professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I guess while Mr. Buffett’s heart was in the right place, he didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be.”

Though it’s been hit hardest, the Times-Dispatch is hardly alone: Overall staffing in the state’s three biggest newsrooms — the Times-Dispatch, The Virginian-Pilot and The Roanoke Times — show similar reductions so far this decade.

Newsrooms around the state gutted

The Times-Dispatch went from 42 news and sports reporters to 26, cut its staff of photographers from nine to six and cut the number of editors from 20 to 13. (Disclosure: I worked at the Times-Dispatch as a reporter from 2015 until earlier this year when I left for the Mercury.)

Among the high profile beats the newspaper no longer has dedicated reporters covering: higher education, the environment and energy. A local government team that in 2012 had four reporters covering Chesterfield and Henrico counties has been reduced to two reporters who are also expected to cover a third locality, Hanover County.

The Pilot (recently purchased by Tronc, which has its own problems) has shrunk about 45 percent. The number of reporters dropped from 67 to 33, the number of editors dropped from 25 to 22 and the number of photographers dropped from eight to five.

The Roanoke Times, the second largest BH Media property in the state, saw its newsroom staff drop about 35 percent. The newsroom now operates with 25 reporters, 11 editors and three photojournalists.

These numbers are based on archived online staff directories. They don’t include copy editors or page designers because in 2010 none of the papers listed those employees on their websites. Both are critical newsroom functions, and both have been decimated by layoffs and downsizing at all three papers, most notably at the Virginian-Pilot, which outsourced most of its design staff earlier this year.

Overall, the Virginia numbers are on par with a 45 percent drop in newspaper newsroom employment nationally over the past 10 years as print ad revenue has continued to evaporate and newsrooms have struggled to make up for the losses online.

Buffett outsources management of his newspapers

Buffett was initially optimistic about the future of the regional newspapers he purchased around the country beginning in 2011, including 10 in Virginia.

But in comments earlier this year he soured on their prospects, saying he thinks only the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have a future.

In June, he announced BH Media would pay Iowa-based Lee Enterprises $5 million plus a percentage of any profits to manage his portfolio of 31 daily newspapers.

Lee publishes 46 daily papers and is known for aggressive cost-cutting and layoffs. Their management practices can come across as unusually ruthless: Just last week the company shut down a Montana alt-weekly overnight, informing the staff by email and telling them that they needed to schedule an appointment to pick up their belongings.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at Poynter, theorized that Buffett might be trying to get the papers in a better financial position in preparation for a sale.

“Mr. Buffett said when he was putting BH Media together that he really liked the regional news business and he thought, particularly, mid-sized papers had a future. This year, he tells an investment group, ‘You know, I kind of changed my mind. I don’t think in the long run these papers are going to make it.’

“And since he’s a long-term investor, that’s fairly damning.”

T-D initially keeps layoffs quiet

In a departure from past practice, the Times-Dispatch did not initially announce or report on their latest round of layoffs, which took place Sept. 5.

In the past, the paper has published stories about layoffs the day after they are announced internally.

The paper also refused to respond to questions about the cutbacks, the impacted positions or reports that two currently vacant reporting positions will go unfilled.

“We have no comment,” wrote the paper’s editor, Paige Mudd, in an email.

Three days later (and 11 days after the layoff), the paper ran a four-paragraph staff report on the Saturday business page acknowledging that positions had been cut “as a result of the continued declines in print advertising revenue.”

The story followed pushback from the union that represents newsroom employees, the Richmond Newspapers Professional Association, which publicly confirmed the layoffs before the company’s announcement.

“Our readers have a right to know what’s going on at the newspaper,” said union president Holly Prestidge, a longtime features writer at the paper. “It’s in the public interest.”

Among those laid off were the paper’s design editor, the longtime newsroom manager and two editorial assistants who Prestidge said had a combined 58-years of service.

Rank-and-file increasingly speaking up

Newsroom employees are increasingly speaking up amid growing layoffs.

At the Pilot and The (Newport News) Daily Press, reporters announced Friday that Tronc had voluntarily recognized their newly formed union, the Tidewater Media Guild, which now formally represents more than 100 journalists in the Hampton Roads area.

The organizing effort followed Tronc’s acquisition of the Pilot earlier this year, which generated concerns about layoffs and a potential merger between the Pilot and the Daily Press.

The new owners are already considering selling the Pilot’s historic downtown Norfolk headquarters.

And after Tronc laid off half of the staff at the New York Daily News in July, reports surfaced that more layoffs at other properties would follow. Other well-known properties owned by the companies include The Baltimore Sun and the Chicago Tribune, which reported that the company is in the early stages of negotiations to sell the papers to newspaper chain McClatchy.

In addition to new union drives popping up at big and small papers around the country, Edmonds, the business analyst at Poynter, said he’s seen “existing unions getting more militant about pressing their cases.”

But where that leads remains to be seen. As Edmonds notes, unions can be effective in pushes for better pay and benefits, but have little power or influence when it comes to heading off layoffs.

Meanwhile, there is still no clear model for metro and community newspapers to make up for the loss of all that ad money to digital giants like Google and Facebook.

South, the VCU professor, said that while digital subscriptions have been successful at national outlets, it’s a tougher sell at the regional and community level.

“The paper has to really show what value you get for your money,” he said. And when you keep shrinking, “that’s really hard to do.”

“I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the cost cutting, even though at some point, can you even put out the paper with a staff of 10?”

(Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of Virginian-Pilot employees impacted by a decision to outsource page design. Most, not all, page designers were laid off.)

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.