Contract negotiations between The Sun and the union representing 480 newsroom, advertising and other employees began yesterday against the backdrop of steady declines in circulation and profitability, and competition from newer media.
The talks between the two parties also are occurring as Tribune Co., the parent of The Sun, is slated to be taken private later this year in a $8.2 billion leveraged buyout by Chicago real estate financier Sam Zell.
The current agreement covering Sun members of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild expires June 24. The Sun is one of the few unionized Tribune properties.
Management and the Guild say they want to conduct talks in good faith and collaboratively, after acrimonious bargaining in 2003, when workers voted to authorize a strike. The Sun brought in workers from other Tribune properties to replace Guild members in the event of a strike.
With industrywide challenges in circulation and advertising revenue, The Sun's focus during negotiations is to reach a fair contract that "gives the company flexibility to change as fast as readers' needs change," said Linda Yurche, a Sun spokeswoman.
The company's proposals include allowing the newsroom to have combined reporter-photographer positions in response to a growing shift to multimedia news; eliminating the cap on annual cost-sharing increases for health benefits, and making union membership optional.
The Sun plans to present its proposal for wages and retirement plans at a later date, according to the company's bargaining report to employees.
"We need to think about how the business has changed over 10 years, and most importantly, how it'll change in the next 10 years and how we could position ourselves to be much more nimble responding to change."
Michael Hill, a Sun reporter and chairman of the Guild unit at the newspaper, said the union presented a proposal to the company yesterday that sought salary increases; limits on medical costs and additional staff cuts, along with the elimination of a pay-for-performance compensation and evaluation system.
Another goal is to combine operations of baltimoresun.com, whose employees are not Guild members, into The Sun's unionized newsroom, he said.
"We understand these are challenging times in the industry," Hill said. "The economics are such that very good people are leaving the newspaper because they can't work here anymore."
"In order to maintain the quality ... management needs to address these economic concerns," he added. "People should not fall behind inflation, and we have been doing that."
The weekly salaries for reporters currently range from $521 for a beginner to $1,137 for a top-scale worker this year, according to the Guild's contract.
Guild members marked the kickoff of negotiations with a rally in front of The Sun's building at Calvert and Centre Streets.
"I'd like to see civil bargaining," said Rona Kobell, a Sun reporter for the past seven years. "We are all in this together. We're all trying to work in the same constraints and economic pressures."
Larry Mack, a housekeeping employee at The Sun's printing plant and a Guild member, said he's mainly concerned with job security.
Since the last round of bargaining talks, the landscape of the newspaper industry has shifted sharply. Tribune, for example, reported a loss of $15.6 million for the first quarter, compared with a profit in the first three months of 2006. Revenue dropped 4.3 percent to $1.21 billion.
Daily and Sunday circulation at the nation's newspapers, including The Sun, has been falling steadily. The Examiner, a competitor in the Baltimore market, has had little impact on circulation since the free daily began publishing in April 2006, The Sun said.
Taking into account readers who are migrating to its Web site, The Sun says its total readership is increasing.
The Sun, like other media companies, has trimmed expenses by cutting pages and sections in the print edition and reducing staff through buyouts and attrition.
"Being as nimble as an Internet operation while staying financially strong and excelling journalistically, without the kind of revenue that used to underwrite robust print news-gathering efforts, is a difficult balance," Sun Publisher Timothy E. Ryan said in a statement. "However, we can and will achieve that, in part by achieving a fair and realistic new agreement with the Newspaper Guild."
Last month, The Sun announced that it would reduce its staff by about 50 people company-wide, including 15 in the newsroom, by offering buyouts to certain employees. Other Tribune Co. properties, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, also announced staff reductions.
"We're committed to resources that great journalism requires within the scale of what our advertising [revenue] can afford us to do," said Yurche, The Sun spokeswoman. "Our emphasis is on quality. We'll continue to have great journalism."