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Media: P-G offering buyouts; layoffs looming 

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette news staffers seemed almost philosophical as they spoke about the contract buyouts management is about to offer -- and the layoffs that may follow.

"Like any rational person, our families are taking stock of the future and trying to figure out what our options are," says columnist and editorial writer Tony Norman. As a 20-year veteran, Norman doesn't have as much to fear as freelancers, part-timers and the staff's fresher full-timers, who would be the first to be forced out under union rules. Still, he adds, "that doesn't make me at all complacent."

Representatives of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which speaks for the news staff, and the other unions that act on behalf of the paper's 1,000 employees, were meeting with the paper's ownership on Sept. 29 to hammer out details. How many people's salaries and benefits will have to be cut to make up for the paper's declining revenues? How generous will the buyout offer be -- and how deep will layoffs reach if enough staffers don't leave voluntarily?

The Guild's post-meeting e-mail to staff was vaguely reassuring. "Many ideas were exchanged today, and the Guild has requested more information from the company before we meet again," wrote Guild President R.J. Hufnagel. He added that he is hopeful the buyout agreement will mean "that only those who choose to leave the Post-Gazette will do so."

Norman says this first meeting was "sort of what I expected. It's still early on. Folks are looking over their portfolios and wondering if it's time to move on" or to depend on seniority to save their positions, since the Guild contract's seniority provisions follow a "last hired/first fired" approach. On a day when the stock market dropped almost 750 points, "old-timers know it's not time to step out" in search of other work, he added. "I don't hear people talking like they'll volunteer to go."

The P-G's slump in advertising is a nationwide phenomenon, and a staff-wide e-mail from editor David Shribman on Sept. 19 noted that "the revenue situation is requiring us to do what almost every other newspaper has done in this environment: cut staff throughout the company. The news department is not exempt. [...] We are looking at all of our employees, union and non-union." No other specifics were offered, and Shribman did not return a call requesting comment.

Newspaper staffers around the country have faced similar situations in the past few years. One reporters' group, Unity, counted 910 announced newspaper buyouts and layoffs, from Los Angeles to Hartford, in a single month this summer. Larger papers are threatening to lay off more than 1,000 employees at a time.

An earlier Guild e-mail to the newsroom announcing the impending buyout talks noted that the P-G has been "one of the few newspapers in the country the past few years to avoid layoffs, and the Guild has worked hard and will continue to work hard to keep it that way." The Guild's last contract with the P-G, signed in early 2007, cut some jobs. But according to both sides, ad revenues have continued to slide since then.

Norman says he is "absolutely" concerned for the paper's future, "because often the younger hires, the new hires, are more energetic. If you're amputating the future for the sake of the present, I think problems are inevitable."

Says columnist Brian O'Neill, another long-time staffer: "My philosophy frankly is to keep on doing my job and not worry about the rumors until I see something on paper.

"I'm confident that our Guild will represent me well," he continues. Hearing about the Guild's report on its first meeting with management, O'Neill adds, "I don't feel like I'm alone or we at the Post-Gazette are alone ... Almost everyone in the country's concerned about the future of our economy.

"I cherish every paycheck nowadays -- even more than usual," he concludes.

Representatives of the Guild and the other largest union -- the Teamsters -- were not available for comment.

Several staffers, concerned for future job prospects, asked to remain anonymous. Some blamed the paper's poor health on Shribman and his sub-editors for not beating the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review often enough to stories (even to the story of these impending layoffs) and for not focusing enough on Pittsburgh.

According to another, even now the paper "is a great place to work." This staffer also noted that "last time there were layoffs, the unions and the management really worked together," and the same ought to happen this time. "Somebody's going to have to write this thing."

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