Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
After LA Times layoffs, questions about diversity and seniority swirl
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Jan. 25, 2024, 5 p.m.

After LA Times layoffs, questions about diversity and seniority swirl

Disagreements between the LA Times and its Guild over seniority protections ended in more than 60 journalists of color being laid off.

Two days after the Los Angeles Times laid off 115 newsroom employees (a number that appeared to grow to 120 overnight), staffers feel no closer to having answers about the paper’s direction — and are raising questions about who’s kept their job and who hasn’t.

The LA Times Guild had a total of 400 members, but 94 were laid off this week. The Guild said that people of color were disproportionately laid off in part because they are more likely to be young and hired recently. Of those 94, 63 belonged to at least one of the Guild’s subgroups: the Black Caucus, the Latino Caucus, the Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus, or the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia Caucus.

LA Times leadership agreed that employees of color were “disproportionately more vulnerable,” because the union chose to prioritize seniority over diversity.

“The Los Angeles Times staff has become more diverse over the past several years, so there is more diversity among the more recently hired staff,” Times spokeswoman Hillary Manning told me via email. “Which, as a devastating unintended consequence of the union’s [collective bargaining agreement] which prioritizes seniority, makes journalists of color disproportionately more vulnerable when the company undergoes layoffs.”

In other words, the LA Times says that the seniority rule in its contract with the Guild is what led to more journalists of color being laid off. The LA Times Guild says the seniority rule exists to ensure that employees can build careers at the Times, and that the company had other options than to lay people off.

“They were basically proposing a total dissolution of our seniority protections — the thing that allows people to build a steady, reliable career here, in exchange for reduced job cuts,” Brian Contreras, the LA Times Guild unit council chair and a laid-off artificial intelligence reporter, said in an email. “But they wouldn’t say on the record how many jobs they were planning on cutting, either with or without our seniority protections in place.”

What kind of buyouts?

In the face of layoffs, whose jobs should be prioritized? Experienced reporters? Younger journalists who may better reflect the newsroom’s current priorities and the communities it serves? It’s far from a new debate but the questions have only become more pressing as layoffs and buyouts have multiplied in the news industry. Research on newsroom organizing in the digital age, for example, has found common concerns raised by journalists include “assumptions that unions protect seniority to a fault” and that unions can “undermine flexibility.”

“The company refused to offer newsroom-wide voluntary buyouts before launching these layoffs, which could’ve incentivized more senior staff members (who are disproportionately white) to step up and take the place of younger staff members (who are disproportionately POCs and more likely to get laid off),” Contreras said.

LA Times leadership said that in negotiations with the Guild, it did offer buyouts (as it’s required to do by contract). The paper’s president and COO, Chris Argentieri, sent a newsroom-wide email on Tuesday that said leadership countered the Guild’s demand for “unlimited voluntary buyouts” with “a seven-day period to accept volunteers for buyouts with enhanced severance prior to noticing layoffs as long as Guild leadership agreed to loosen the seniority-based layoff provision within the Collective Bargaining Agreement…The Company sought to achieve flexibility through more skips that would allow us to save positions and areas of coverage that better represent the communities we serve and that our readers have shown us are vital to the business.” (More on “skips” below.)

The buyouts that the paper was willing to offer, said Contreras, didn’t meet the guild’s criteria, and so on January 19 it staged the first-ever work stoppage in the Times’ 142-year history. Its stated demand was for “management to publicly articulate a clear headcount or salary reduction they’re aiming for, then offer the enhanced buyouts package outlined in our contract — up to 52 weeks pay — to all Guild members over a seven-day period, with no cap on the number of people who can be given one.”

Contreras said that during these negotiations, the company wouldn’t share on the record a specific number of layoffs it had in mind or an amount of money it was trying to save. In the LA Times’ own reporting, though, sources said the layoffs would impact “at least 100” newsroom staffers, and that while management wouldn’t disclose a specific layoff number, it said increasing the “skip” allowance could save 50 jobs out of that unknown number.

“The 94 layoffs that actually happened are below both what was expected if we caved on seniority (100 layoffs) and what was expected if we didn’t cave on seniority (150 layoffs),” Contreras told me.

Let’s talk about skips

The Guild’s contract, ratified in 2019, says the company must offer voluntary buyouts before instituting involuntary layoffs. It also says that involuntary layoffs will happen in inverse order seniority, a policy also known as “last in, first out.”

Roles are grouped into “layoff clusters,” and the contract allows the company to “skip” 15% of people in a cluster who’d otherwise be laid off — in other words, management can preserve certain jobs at its discretion.

For instance, per the contract summary:

If the company wants to lay off 20 people, managers can “skip” over three in the group, choosing instead to lay off the next three least-senior employees. (Those three employees laid off out of seniority order would eligible to receive the “enhanced” severance.) The company cannot “skip” over someone and instead lay off someone with far more seniority.

“We’ve given them some flexibility in our contract where they are allowed to skip or save or bypass up to 15% of the people in the entire layoff cluster, and move to the next, least senior people,” LA Times reporter and Media Guild West president Matt Pearce explained to me. “If you have a cluster of 100 people, management can decide to save the 15 most junior people in that cluster. But then at person number 16, they have to apply the seniority layoff order the rest of the way. So 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, all those people get laid off. [Management] can’t bypass over anyone in that path.”

There’s a 30-day period for guild members’ layoffs to be finalized once they’re announced. During the first 14 days of that period, staffers who weren’t laid off can volunteer for buyouts. If a staffer’s buyout request is accepted, it might preserve the job of someone in their cluster who had been given a layoff notice.

According to Contreras, the seniority protection in the contract allows the company to “retain mid- and late-career reporters and [let] those reporters put down roots in the communities they cover [and] rely on steady employment at the Times.” But since the Times has been working to diversify its newsroom with new hires in recent years, the last-in, first-out rule means that those diverse, new hires were more vulnerable to layoffs.

“What buyouts allow is for a more senior staffer to voluntarily leave in exchange for a financial incentive, thus saving the job of a newer staffer who’d otherwise get laid off,” Contreras said. “This is a way to bolster diversity efforts without undercutting seniority protections, given how race and age are intertwined at our company. And although it can cost more money in the short term — because buyouts come with a financial incentive to make them enticing — it saves the company money in the long term because they are aimed at older, and thus better-paid, employees.”

When the the Times offered a limited number of buyouts last summer, the Guild said, seven of eight people who took a buyout were white, and seven of the eight people whose jobs were saved were people of color, thanks to buyouts. A total of 74 newsroom staffers were laid off this past June.

In Argentieri’s email to staff on Tuesday, he said the company had countered the buyout request with a proposal of a seven-day voluntary buyout period if the Guild agreed to increasing the company’s “skip” allowance from 15% to 50% per cluster.

“We said that if we were granted the increase in skips, we could reduce the layoffs, but also made clear these buyouts were contingent on increasing skips should we need to implement layoffs,” Argentieri wrote.

The Guild’s bargaining committee and the company returned to negotiations on Wednesday and continued on Thursday. An additional five staffers have received layoff notices, according to a Guild email shared with New York Times media reporter Ben Mullin on Wednesday night. On Thursday, Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong named editorial page editor Terry Tang as interim executive editor, following the departure of Kevin Merida earlier this month.

Photo by Kevin Pedronan being used under a Creative Commons license

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     Jan. 25, 2024, 5 p.m.
Show tags
 
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
A tuition-free J-school? CUNY aims to be one by 2027
Thanks to a $10 million gift from Craig Newmark Philanthropies announced Thursday, the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY will cover full tuition for half of its class starting in August 2025.
Ten young journalists open up about their struggles to break into the news industry
Emerging journalists across Europe, North America, and Latin America tell similar stories.
City Cast, a local news podcast network, is still expanding three years in
This month, City Cast published guest demographic data for podcasts in its 11 cities and analyzed how that data compared to each local community.