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March 27, 2009, 6:29 p.m.

A bet on the next news ecosystem: NYT plans modest cuts to lucrative Escapes section & Sunday magazine

We don’t, as a pretty strict rule, cover newsroom layoffs because, well, you know where to find that stuff, and we try to focus on the future. But as newspapers retrench, the jobs and areas of coverage they choose to cut sometimes speak to the next ecosystem of news that’s slowly developing. Yesterday The New York Times Co. eliminated 100 positions on its business side and cut the salaries of most employees by 5 percent. The company’s flagship, the Times, will also save money by shrinking its three-page index to one and trimming its freelance budget.

However, even the Times’ own writeup omitted three other areas where the newspaper is planning cost-saving measures. Toward the end of his address to the newsroom yesterday, executive editor Bill Keller mentioned “a menu of proposed cuts” currently under discussion:

We are looking at ways to re-imagine our Sunday coverage of the region — which is now spread out among New York news pages, the City weekly and the Regionals. We are looking at whether we can do something with Escapes that will save production costs. With Gerry [Marzorati] and Stefano [Tonchi], we’re looking at some savings in the Sunday magazine.

One could guess that means Escapes will be folded into another section and the magazine will lose pages. Those would be notable cuts because Escapes and the magazine, with their high-priced advertising, are two of the most lucrative parts of the newspaper. Along with other weekly sections, they have essentially subsidized the national, international, and investigative coverage for which the Times is best known; Paul Krugman said last year that a single issue of T Magazine pays for the cost of a Times European bureau. Something similar could be said for at least some of the 100 business-side employees who were just handed pink slips.

After eliminating 100 newsroom positions last year, the Times has steadfastly maintained that it does not plan the sort of deep cuts that have devastated The Los Angeles Times, among other papers. Keller today told Editor & Publisher: “The solution to a bad economy can’t be less journalism.”

Maybe he will be forced to revisit that comment, or maybe the Times is betting that its true value — its core competency, if you will — is on the third floor of its newsroom, where the national and metro reporters and editors work. Trimming Escapes and the magazine, even slightly, would seem to send that message.

Others presume to know how the Times should navigate this crisis. I have no idea. But it will be important to watch where the Times swings its ax and what that says about the kind of newspaper we should expect to find on the other end.

Here is Keller’s full speech, which was posted on an internal site at the Times:

Bill’s Remarks to the Newsroom

After the note from Arthur and Janet about salary reductions throughout the company, Bill spoke to the newsroom and answered questions.

I’ve always said that if things took a turn for the worse, I’d call you together and we’d talk about it. As you have seen from the e-mails that went out this afternoon, the recession is hitting the company harder than expected. A lot of advertisers are hunkering down until the economy recovers, and that means we have to do some hunkering,
too.

I’m going to tell you what I know about how this affects the newsroom, and how we will all get through this, and then I’ll try to answer your questions.

The company today announced the elimination of about 100 jobs on the business side, the latest in an agonizing series of cuts our colleagues across the wall have suffered so that the we can preserve the newsgathering operation in these hard times.

Our aim — the newsroom’s aim, and one that is shared by Arthur and Janet and Scott and Martin — is to avoid another round of staff cuts here in the newsroom. That’s not just because we are big of heart and we hate the idea of sending valued colleagues out into an arid job market, although of course we do hate that idea. It is, above all, because we remain convinced that The Times will weather this recession, that advertisers will ramp up their spending again, and when we come through the other side we want to be staffed to continue producing the ambitious journalism our readers expect of us.

But to make it through this time, we need to ask further sacrifices of everyone in the company.

First, we want everyone at The Times, from the masthead on down, to take a pay cut of 5 percent for the remainder of this year. In return, you will get ten days of personal leave.

For non-union staff, including Arthur and Janet and me and the rest of the mastheads, this will be mandatory. For Guild members, of course, this will require the approval of the union. The Guild leadership is being briefed this afternoon, and I expect they will seek the guidance of Guild members. I hope you’ll agree with me that, as painful as this is, it is preferable to the alternative of layoffs. And let me be clear: if we do not get agreement on an across-the-board pay rollback, we will face layoffs, probably on the order of 60 to 70. I hope with all my heart that we can avoid that.

What we’re asking of you is not easy. Most of the people in this newsroom have been working their hearts out, producing some of the finest news reports in the history of The Times, and building a website that is breathtaking. We talk all the time about the loyalty of our readers — but we should not forget, that’s loyalty you earned. Your work is the envy of the news business, and you deserve to be rewarded for that, not docked.

To make matters worse, an across-the-board cut makes no distinction between those who have pulled more than their share of the weight, and those who have pulled less. Proprietors of other newspapers have chosen deeper and deeper staff cuts the Washington Post today announced its FOURTH round of buyouts since 2003.

But layoffs are an even cruder instrument than furloughs or pay cuts. Even if we are as careful as possible, as we were in last year’s staff cuts, the reality is we end up losing some valuable people, and cutting into our journalism. With each subsequent cut, it becomes harder to keep the scalpel away from vital organs. Moreover, you almost never get those slots back.

The pay cut is the biggest item on the list of sacrifices, but it is not the only one. The newsroom has been assigned to come up with additional cuts from our 2009 budget, on top of the pay rollback. After several years of tough budget discipline, there is no pot of easy savings. Everything hurts. But we have come up with a menu of proposed cuts that we think will minimize the damage to the great report we deliver to our readers. If I am a little tentative about the details, it’s because some of these things are still under discussion with the business side.

First, we are looking to consolidate or eliminate some features that are dear to our hearts but that we’re rethinking in this hour of need. We intend to kill the expanded index on pages 2 and 3, using those pages instead for jumps from A1. That will save us six columns of newsprint a day, which adds up.

From there it gets harder. We are looking at ways to re-imagine our Sunday coverage of the region — which is now spread out among New York news pages, the City weekly and the Regionals. We are looking at whether we can do something with Escapes that will save production costs. With Gerry and Stefano, we’re looking at some savings in the Sunday magazine. Again, I’ll hold off on details until we’ve talked more to the affected editors and gotten some feedback from our colleagues on the business side.

Where we do end up cutting features, the staff responsible for these features will still have jobs — but, obviously, they may be different jobs.

Second, we plan to cut our freelance budgets across the board. We realize that some sections are largely or wholly dependent on freelancers, and we are working on a plan to help the editors of those sections with a greater supply of staff-written material.

There will be other odds and ends, and of course we will not stop looking for ways to do our jobs more efficiently, as we have done for the past several years. But what I’ve just outlined — the pay cut and other savings — we hope will carry us at least through this year. Let me repeat that: our best estimate now is that, assuming we get the pay cuts we have proposed to the Guild, the newsroom will get through this year without a round of layoffs.

I wish I could make that a firm promise. I can’t. Forecasts, even very conservative forecasts like this one, can be wrong. What I will promise you is that, again, if circumstances change, I will tell you.

Finally, everyone here knows that newspapers are in an urgent search for new ways to pay for our work beyond the recession. At the moment, there is an intensive, wide-ranging process underway to study every alternative for generating revenues from the web, print, mobile and so on. Nothing is off the table. Some of you are participating in that effort. If anyone can find the right formula to grow in the new world, we can.

Today’s measures are not about THAT, except in the sense that they buy us time. The cuts we’re talking about today assure that we remain healthy and intact while we work on adjusting for the long run.

Finally, on a personal note, it is an honor and a privilege to work with all of you. A lot of days are more fun than this one, but days like this — when we are tested, and stand together — make me especially proud to be a part of this place.

Photo of Keller addressing the Times newsroom by Sara Krulwich.

POSTED     March 27, 2009, 6:29 p.m.
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