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More changes coming to Star in wake of layoffs

June 22, 2011

A deep round of layoffs at The Indianapolis Star is only the beginning of a major restructuring of the company's news operations, Publisher Karen Crotchfelt told IBJ in an interview Wednesday.

The newspaper on Tuesday eliminated 81 positions, 62 of which had been filled, in a move it blamed on a sluggish economic recovery and weak national advertising spending. The layoffs, which included 26 newsroom positions, were part of a purge of 700 employees by parent Gannett Co. Inc.

The next steps for the Star, which remains profitable, include reassigning several remaining staff members to an online-only operation that will double in size to 21, and refashioning the newspaper's suburban coverage, Crotchfelt said.

Most of the eight reporters who lost their jobs Tuesday covered news and sports in suburban areas. Those let go include Josh Duke, who covered Avon and Brownsburg out of the newspaper's west bureau; Melanie D. Hayes, who covered Fishers and Noblesville; Robert Annis, a government and crime reporter in the north bureau; Ted Schultz, who covered high school sports in the north suburbs; and Kevin O'Neal, a reporter in the south bureau.

Suburban coverage will get a new look by the fall, Crotchfelt said.

"We are looking at our suburban strategy in terms of number of zones and doing significant consumer research to see what people are looking for," she said. "We will have a different approach but will continue to serve those readers with the content they tell us they really want."

She declined to elaborate, citing competitive reasons.

Tuesday's layoffs also claimed 12 copy editors, including sports copy desk chief Tom Brew. The Star will not outsource copy editing, Crotchfelt said. Most stories will simply get fewer reads by an editor.

"Be prepared for even more mistakes throughout the paper," wrote Annis, the former north bureau reporter, in a post on Twitter. In another post, he implored readers to "let Gannett know how you feel about their cost-cutting. Fewer reporters = Less news reported."

Crotchfelt acknowledged there will be fewer stories but said the paper will emphasize its "watchdog coverage" and "strong voices," including columnists Matthew Tully and Erika D. Smith.

"From a newspaper standpoint, what we do best that nobody else can do is compelling, in-depth, engaging stories," Crotchfelt said. "We're going to marry that great investigative storytelling with more utility coverage like lists of things to do, serving both ends. We can do that with the staff we have."

She said the Star will go from 10 employees focused solely on digital efforts to 21, with reassignments scheduled for the next few weeks. The digital team was not spared from Tuesday's cuts: research and database editor Michael Jesse and events editor Steve Slosarek were among those laid off.

Others who were let go include fashion writer Jenny Elig, copy editor and Guild treasurer Geoff Ooley, photographer Alan Petersime, and suburban reporter Gretchen Becker. The layoffs also hit seven employees in the newspaper's advertising department.

By continuing to cut local content producers, Gannett risks devaluing its product and putting itself in a worse financial position, wrote Rick Edmonds, who researches business and journalism issues for the Poynter Institute, in a column posted Wednesday.

The elimination of so many more jobs—this is the company's fourth large round of layoffs in three years—"risks accelerating losses of print circulation and, in turn, print ad revenues," Edmonds wrote. "But all-in digital enthusiasts will say, so what, that’s not the future."

Crotchfelt called Tuesday an "extremely painful day."

"We have a lot to work through but I also believe Star Media has a really significant role in the marketplace," she said. "It's going to take some time. We've got some healing to do. But we're going to figure out how to continue to be a strong voice in this community."

The Star has 630 total employees, and another 388 who work for Gannett directly. The newsroom now has 136, down from 230 in 2007.

The local cuts were deeper than the chain's national average because other newspapers laid off more people earlier or recorded stronger ad sales, Crotchfelt said.

She said any cuts she orders are not a factor in her bonus or incentive arrangement with Gannett. The company's CEO, Craig Dubow, earned $9.4 million in 2010, including a $1.75 million bonus partly tied to his efforts at "restructuring costs and creating effeciencies."

The Indianapolis Newspaper Guild plans to review the cuts to ensure the Star followed its contract with union employees, wrote Robert King, the newspaper's religion and philanthropy reporter and the union president, on the Guild website. Represented employees were offered one week of pay for each year served.

He called on the newsroom staff members who remain to focus on telling the city's stories and to continue to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

"Despite Tuesday’s unpleasantness, despite the corporate greed that made it possible, and despite the sense of loss we all feel, our readers still depend on us to put out a newspaper," King wrote. "We do it to pay the bills, as did our friends. But mostly we do it because we feel it’s important, and because we will never concede defeat to those rat bastards at corporate headquarters."

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