Baltimore Sun feels Tribune cost cuts

February 17, 2009

Suburban bureau reporters at The Sun in Baltimore, Maryland, are about to learn the true meaning of the word “mobile.” The Tribune Co-owned paper is shutting down the last of its three suburban bureaus and bringing their reporters back to the main newsroom in Baltimore proper, sources told MediaFile on Tuesday.

The paper will outfit them with laptops and Blackberries and will send them back into the field to do their job by car or however else they can get to the story. It is part of wider changes going on at Tribune Co, which is in bankruptcy proceedings because of some $13 billion in debt that it has been unable to deal with because of the increasingly grim advertising sales plaguing newspapers.

Tribune’s chief executive, real estate magnate Sam Zell, was unhappy with the amount of empty space that The Sun has in downtown Baltimore, especially when considering all the space that the paper was renting in the suburbs, one of our sources says. The three bureaus that The Sun will shut down are in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties. The Sun’s bureaus in Carroll and Harford counties already closed in the past year. It’s not clear if the two are related, but the three bureaus shutting down now are traditional turf war zones with The Washington Post, which recently said it will begin cooperating with The Sun on some coverage in the counties.

Shutting down bureaus must feel a little like a retreat. On the other hand, it must be nice to not be chained to a desk all day long, as we suspect more mobile journalists — or “MoJos” — are discovering..

The news was delivered in an off-record employee meeting, which also included the news that more buyouts and layoffs are on the way, likely sooner rather than later.

Speaking of personnel issues, Tribune Co Chief Administration Officer Gerald (Gerry) Spector had some bad news for employees: Salary freeze for non-union employees are coming this year. And if you’re in the union? Management will work it out in collective bargaining agreements. This is similar to what News Corp did at Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal. It also comes on top of mandatory furloughs at Gannett and other publishers, not to mention a variety of other ways to stay afloat in increasingly stormy seas.

Here’s Spector’s memo, released Monday and obtained through a source:

As you know, this year is off to a difficult start-not only for us, but for our peers in the media industry and for much of the business world as well. The advertising environment is very difficult. The economy is, at best, challenging. Across the country, businesses are cutting jobs, furloughing employees and freezing pay. Some of our major advertising clients, like General Motors, have laid off thousands of employees; others, like Circuit City, have been forced to liquidate assets and go out of business. Obviously, developments like these put significant downward pressure on our revenue.

As a company, we’re fighting back like never before-developing new products, operating extremely efficiently, and re-examining everything we do with an eye toward maximizing our cash flow. However, given current trends and the likelihood that it will take some time for the economy to recover, we have to do even more. For that reason, we’ve decided to implement a salary freeze for non-union employees in 2009. For those employees represented by a union, the issue will be addressed in collective bargaining.

I know this is difficult and I appreciate your understanding. Compensation is our largest expense and a salary freeze enables us to share the sacrifice. Hopefully, freezing salaries now will allow us to avert more drastic action in the future.

Thank you again for all your efforts.

(Photo: Reuters)

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