Sun will endure despite painful loss of institutional memory

August 08, 2004|By Paul Moore

ON JUNE 14, The Sun reported that the newspaper and the union representing newsroom employees had signed an agreement allowing the company to implement a voluntary buyout program to reduce labor costs.

The plan was offered because Tribune Co., which owns The Sun, sought staff reductions to offset lower than anticipated revenue growth in its publishing division. The proposal offered selected categories of employees up to one year's salary if they agreed to retire early, and also offered additional staff members the chance to be considered for the buyout.

By the deadline at the end of the month, 16 newsroom and two editorial-page employees had agreed to accept the buyout, according to Pat Klemans of The Sun's human resources department. That number helped the newspaper reach its required goal and averted layoffs.

Because of the number of departures during the year, newsroom management expects to eventually fill some of the vacated positions. As of today, 17 of the 18 staff members have either retired or left the newspaper.

Buyouts, early retirements and incentive-to-leave packages are now accepted and widespread methods for newspapers and other companies to maintain or increase profit margins and to assure investors that the organization is efficient and well managed.

During the same period at the Los Angeles Times - also a Tribune newspaper - 40 newsroom staff members accepted buyouts and 22 were laid off. At The Washington Post, 56 newsroom employees accepted buyouts when they were offered in 2003, said Shirley Carswell, an assistant managing editor. (Twelve have stayed on with one-year contract extensions.) "It's the reality of the business," she said, "but there still was a lot a sadness at the time."

Saying goodbye to friends and colleagues is part of the loss. The larger problem is that the departure of a group of editors, reporters, executive secretaries and administrators all at once leaves a big hole in the structure and the psyche of a newsroom.

To be sure, The Sun still has its share of talented and knowledgeable veterans. But it is the sudden loss of a chunk of cumulative memory - institutional memory - that hurts.

There can be benefits, however. A newspaper continually needs younger talent, fresh perspectives and infusions of energy. And not all experience is good experience. Veterans can become resistant, stodgy and inflexible.

That is not the case here.

Most of the departing journalists are veterans of enormous talent and energy. G. Jefferson Price III, who began at The Sun in 1969, was the Middle East correspondent from 1973 to 1975 and from 1982 to 1987. He was foreign editor for much of the 1990s. His last assignment was Sunday Perspective editor (he will continue to write a weekly column).

Kathy Lally, who supervised all reporting about education, worked at The Sun for 29 years. She served as assistant managing editor in features, foreign correspondent and education reporter, among other positions. Investigative reporter John B. O'Donnell worked for nearly 40 years in a variety of reporting and editing capacities.

"The days of people working 35 years at one newspaper are over," said Antero Pietila, a 35-year Sun veteran who took the buyout. "The nature of all businesses, including newspapers, is changing." This means that increased corporate ownership, with its more aggressive management style, combined with a more mobile work force produces fewer long-term commitments between companies and employees.

Why does this matter to readers?

Anthony F. Barbieri, the managing editor of The Sun who has spent 34 years at the newspaper, said the process of "capturing and transmitting experience in the newsroom is what can be lost. A veteran foreign correspondent or a veteran state house reporter provides invaluable knowledge to younger colleagues through daily interaction." Mr. Barbieri will retire at the end of this month.

The Sun remains mostly a collegial newsroom, where the commitment to excellent journalism has not abated.

Michael Pakenham, The Sun's book editor who retired and wrote his final column last Sunday, summed up things best when he said, "The grand times are not over. ... But I will not be here at The Sun, from which I take with me an indomitable inventory of friendships, professional challenges and inspirations, and fondness for a legendary newspaper that is in a process of change - but which is, I am confident, immortal."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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