Five-Person Buyout Hits ‘Cincinnati Post’ Especially Hard

By: Joe Strupp

At a time when newspaper buyouts are cutting staffs by 25, 50, or even 75 people at a time, a buyout offer seeking just five takers might not seem so important.

But to staffers at The Cincinnati Post, last week’s five-person proposed buyout is sparking concern. Not just because it will reduce the 65-person newsroom by another handful, but also because it marks the second such buyout move in less than six months at the struggling daily.

“The part that sticks in our craw is that they are still making so much money,” says Bob Driehaus, president of the Cincinnati Newspaper Guild and a Post reporter. “They stand to make $28 million over the next two years and to cut jobs and quality when you are making that money is infuriating.”

In September, the E.W Scripps-owned paper gave buyouts to 15 staffers, decreasing the newsroom from 80 to the current 65. If another five are lost through buyouts — or possibly more — that would mean a 25% reduction in staff since early last fall. Staffers have until Jan. 25 to decide if they want to take a buyout.

Driehaus is referring to the Post’s profit from the joint operating agreement it has with the rival Cincinnati Enquirer. He said the JOA gives the Post 23% of the combined papers’ revenue, about $15 million annually. The Enquirer, owned by Gannett Co. Inc., operates the circulation and advertising for both papers.

Scripps officials confirmed that the annual take from its portion of the JOA is about $15 million. But Rich Boehne, Scripps’ executive vice president in charge of the newspaper division, said judging the paper strictly on its profits is unfair. “If circulation is declining, that is what we have to react to,” he said, noting that the 36,000-daily circulation paper has been steadily losing reader for years, prompting the cutbacks. “Our share of profits is not a driving force in how we make decisions about the Post.”

Boehne cited the fact that the Post, an afternoon paper, must make money-saving decisions for the future, despite its current profitability. “It is not immune from the things that are affecting every other afternoon paper,” he said. “We are trying to be very prudent over time.”

The other unique element for the Post is that it has a better-than-likely chance of not being around in two years, a situation that makes such staff cuts even harsher for the rank-and-file. Under a provision in its JOA with the Enquirer, in place since 1977, either side may pull out of the arrangement if it gives three-year’s notice. Gannett gave that notice in 2004, marking Dec. 31, 2007 as the day the JOA will end.

Since the Enquirer has a larger circulation, a larger staff, and control of the necessary printing presses to publish both papers, it is more likely to succeed on its own than the Post. “We’re still reasonably optimistic that we will still be in business through 2007, but the message is they are not concerned about quality,” Driehaus said about the cutbacks. “They are taking us to below bare-bones minimum.”

Boehne, a former Post reporter and editor, said no decisions about life after the JOA have been made and stressed to the staff not to assume anything. “That is almost two years and we have quite a bit of time to determine if there is a viable option and we are spending time on that now,” he said, declining to speculate on how likely a shutdown might be. “The most important thing to focus on is what the market would need and support going forward.”

The Scripps executive also said the current buyout decisions have nothing to do with the paper’s future beyond 2007, and more with current economic needs. “We make no apologies for a buyout if it gives people an option to do something else,” he said. “Rather than get to the point of doing layoffs that are mandatory.” He also said a newsroom of 60 staffers is still better than average for a 35,000-circluaton daily. “That sounds like a pretty good newsroom,” he added.

The Post publishes both a Cincinnati and a Kentucky edition circulating on the state line between Kentucky and Ohio. But in recent years, coverage has shifted strongly to Kentucky. Among the scenarios for the paper’s post-JOA life is a lone Kentucky edition, although Scripps officials and Post editors decline to speculate on any future plans.

Driehaus said the unique circumstances at the Post make the current cutbacks even more damaging, especially to morale. He said it causes some to believe the paper may close before the end of 2007. “There is a fear of that,” he said.

Post Editor Mike Philipps downplayed speculation that the buyouts are marking the eventual end of the paper. “I think it is premature,” he noted.

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