by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post
When Warren Buffett sold The Buffalo News, employees took solace in the fact the new owners could have been worse. I did, too. At least it wasn’t Alden Global Capital, the Darth Vader of newspaper chains.
Nearly three years into the new regime, it’s becoming apparent that it might as well have been Alden, as Lee Enterprises is following the same playbook.
Cut the staff.
Sell off the real estate.
Strip the business of what other assets can be liquidated.
Last week, four newsroom employees, with a collective 140 years of experience, “retired.” It was that or see less-tenured colleagues laid off. They included two marquee reporters, Bob McCarthy, who covered politics, and Matt Spina, a crackerjack investigative reporter. Also gone are respected lifestyles writer Susan Martin and veteran news editor Paul Ehret.
Along with the departures came word that The News would not be filling at least two vacant reporting positions. The News has previously failed to replace Tom Prohaska, a workhorse reporter who covered Niagara County. The photography staff was trimmed from seven to five last year and the job of photo editor was eliminated. A vacant night sports editor’s position will not be filled. And Jerry Zremski, the paper’s stellar Washington correspondent, moved to part-time status last year.
You get the picture.
Yet more staff reductions are coming. On the day the newsroom said goodbye to McCarthy and Co., management informed the Buffalo Newspaper Guild that it was exercising its contractual right to outsource the work of the paper’s five-person design desk. That ax will fall no later than mid-June. The work will be done at a Lee design hub located out of state.
To put the cuts in perspective, newsroom employment peaked at The News somewhere north of 200 back in the 1980s. When I left in 2011, it was down to about 145.
Today, the newsroom staff is 66 full-timers, including 11 in management, plus five part-timers. Come June, the FTE count will be 63.5.
To be fair, The News under Lee has hired some reporters, some pretty good ones at that. Charlie Specht is a case in point. But the trend is unmistakable, and ominous.
Fewer reporters means less news coverage and with the exception of reporting on the Bills and Sabres, practically every other aspect of the paper’s coverage has been scaled back.
The impacts of the staff cutbacks aren’t lost on the leadership of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild, whose members include journalists in the newsroom.
“Quality local news requires investment, and Lee Enterprises is doing the exact opposite of that right now,” Guild President Jon Harris told me last week.
The disinvestment isn’t limited to staffing.
Lee, following the Alden playbook of stripping assets, wrestled the Guild’s pension plan away from the union in contract talks last year. Benefits were frozen and the plan’s $40 million in excess funds, which grew over the years because of Buffett’s deft management of the pension plan, were shifted to solidify the pension plans of other Lee newspapers.
Taking yet another page out of the Alden playbook, Lee last year struck a deal to sell The News building at the corner of Washington and Scott streets. The deal is pending, and the sales price hasn’t been disclosed, but the building is assessed at $9 million. (The News now operates out of Howard Zemsky’s Larkin and Exchange building.)
Do the math and it appears Lee will extract about $50 million from The News in three years while making deep cuts in the staff, newsroom and otherwise.
“We know what Lee Enterprises is getting out of The Buffalo News,” Harris said. “We’re wondering what Buffalo is getting out of Lee Enterprises.”