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Indianapolis Star to be laid out in Louisville; local jobs likely lost

July 24, 2010

The Indianapolis Star soon will be designed and laid out in Louisville—a move that has sparked outcry from union leaders and concern on the part of observers who fear the shift could eliminate the paper’s local flavor.

Virginia-based Gannett Co., the Star’s parent company, this month informed employees of a plan to move layout and design work for its 83 dailies to five regional design hubs at its newspapers in Asbury Park, N.J.; Nashville, Tenn.; Des Moines, Iowa; Phoenix; and Louisville.

There had been rumblings for several months about Gannett’s design regionalization plan, and Indianapolis was rumored to be in the running to become one of the design hubs. Instead, the Star’s 12 designers could lose their jobs. Staffers said they’ve been told by management to expect at least some layoffs in the coming year.

Papers that become design hubs, meanwhile, will add as many as 35 to 60 positions, Gannett sources said. But union officials representing 180 Star employees called them “bottom-of-the-pay-scale” jobs.

Star officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Sources within the Star said Gannett executives flew in this month to tell newsroom employees about the plan, which will be rolled out in the next two years. Those same sources said they believed changes wouldn’t be implemented here until late 2011, after the current union contract expires, though some design centers will open early next year.

Star staffers said while Gannett executives emphasized the company’s progress in digital news delivery and its overall solid footing—Gannett on July 16 said it more than doubled its profit during the second quarter, to $195.5 million—the mood among news employees nevertheless was somber.

Indianapolis Newspaper Guild President Tom Spalding, who called the design hub announcement a “bombshell,” said he fears regionalizing design will make hitting tight daily deadlines more difficult, and that the Star—one of Gannett’s three largest newspapers—may be too big for the regional design approach to work here.

“This is a cost-cutting measure, pure and simple,” said Jim Brown, executive associate dean of Indiana University School of Journalism at IUPUI. “It will lead to a homogenization of design among the Gannett papers, and will strip out the individual design and personality that Star designers with knowledge of this local community bring.”

Brown questions how designers in Louisville could incorporate local landmarks such as Monument Circle into the newspaper’s layout to maximize the impact for local readers.

“They simply wouldn’t know the local significance and how to play these graphic elements within the context of stories,” Brown said. “Maybe for smaller papers where copy editors double as designers, this could potentially help, but the Star has good designers with real institutional knowledge of this community, so I see this as a big loss.”

Union leaders and Star graphic designers, Spalding said, were told by Star Editor Dennis Ryerson at a July 13 meeting that he hopes to keep as much of a “design presence” as possible in Indianapolis.

Ryerson did not return phone calls from IBJ. His administrative assistant referred questions to John Kridelbaugh, Star vice president of market development, who also did not respond.

“The designers were encouraged to continue doing the kind of high-quality, one-of-a-kind, award-winning work they’ve been doing despite the frustratingly pitiful amount of detail about Gannett’s plans here,” Spalding said. “We hope to show Gannett that the cookie-cutter approach to cost savings won’t work here, is shortsighted, and is illogical.”

Spalding said the union will fight any attempts Gannett makes at outsourcing the design jobs, and he emphasized that the union’s current contract stipulates the Star can’t lay off staff as a result of using non-union personnel to handle design work. The contract expires Aug. 30, 2011.

“Gannett tried to get the right to outsource certain types of Star newsroom [and] building services jobs during negotiations in 2009 and we rejected and resisted that, and they relented,” Spalding said. “We ended up with the unpalatable wage freeze and 10-percent pay cut, but we at least kept the contract in place that gives us power to fight. We will defend our turf.”

IUPUI’s Brown said there are still many unknowns about Gannett’s plan that will have a big impact on the local paper. Advertisers, for example, may be concerned about who will handle ad design and placement, he said. From readers’ perspective, Brown said, the most important unknown is how much direction will come from Gannett’s Virginia headquarters.

“Will these design centers maintain some autonomy and level of creativity?” Brown asked, “or will templates be pushed from Gannett’s headquarters? From a cost-cutting measure, templates might be the best way to go. From a journalistic standpoint, I think it’s the worse-case scenario.

“If that’s the case, the local character of this newspaper as we know could be completely erased.”•

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