Mankato Editor Flemming: Layoffs an Industry-Wide Problem

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

In March 2001, with his stunning resignation as publisher of the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, a well-known newspaper figure, Jay T. Harris, ignited a debate about the effect the industry’s increasing focus on the bottom line was having on its journalism.

“The drive for ever-increasing profits is pulling newspapers down,” Harris said a few weeks later in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors that was carried live on C-SPAN.

Now a more obscure figure — the executive editor of The Free Press in Mankato, Minn. — is reviving that debate with her decision to lay off herself rather than sacrifice another journalist to corporate demands to downsize the newsroom.

For the past several years, the Free Press has been owned by Birmingham, Ala.-based Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., a chain of 100-plus papers known for running a lean operation.

Deb Flemming said that as part of overall cost-reduction measures, Free Press Publisher Ken Lingen asked her to come up with a plan to get staffing to “industry levels,” using the rule-of-thumb of 1 to 1.2 FTE’s (full-time equivalents) per 1,000 circulation. The paper’s circulation has shrunk from 25,449 in September 1996 to 22,032 last September, so it was considered overstaffed with 30 people.

“As I looked at the plan, it became clear that I needed to include me in it,” Flemming told E&P in an interview Wednesday. She said she didn’t want to thin the reporting ranks any more than she had to.

But the 50-year-old Flemming, who’s worked in newspapers for 25 years, said she’s not bitter about the outcome — “I’m really, really at peace with this plan,” she said — or about Community Newspapers.

“From my perspective, this isn’t a CNHI bad-guy thing, this is an industry thing,” she said. “It’s not the company you’re working for — it’s the bottom-line pressures the industry puts on newsrooms. … This isn’t unique to Mankato, and I’m concerned.”

Newspapers have always been a business, but it’s different now, she added: “The increased pressures for profitability are coming at the expense of our newspaper product.”

Flemming said she hopes her self-layoff will ease that pressure at least a little at Mankato. Because of her decision, Flemming will be the only person actually losing a job in the newsroom. Two other journalists were to be eliminated, but between the beginning of study for the plan and its announcement Tuesday, two staffers left the paper. Those positions will “remain dark,” Flemming said.

“By including my posiiton in the cut, I think it wll impact [journalism quality] less,” she said. “It’s better than if I hadn’t inclulded myself.”

Not that Flemming believes the paper was actually overstaffed. The Free Press coverage area sprawls across eight counties that include three colleges that generate plenty of news.

Publisher Lingen told The Associated Press that some correspondents and part-time positions will be added to cover the area.

With Flemming’s departure and the elimination of her position, City Editor Joe Spear will head the newsroom with the newly created title of managing editor.

Flemming said she has no immediate plans, but she believes her long career in newspapers leaves her well-prepared for whatever’s next.

“One of the the beautiful things about all of this is, when I have time to clear my head, I know the skills I’ve gained in this profession are extremely marketable outside the newspaper industry,” she said. “But I’m not ruling out returning to newspapers.”

Flemming began her career at the old Waseca (Minn.) Daily Journal, then moved to Free Press from 1982 to 1985. she was named editor of the Owatonna (Minn.) People’s Press in 1985, and managing editor of the Traverse City (Mich.) Record-Eagle in 1992. Since 1995, she has been executive editor of the Free Press.

Flemming’s resignation is effective April 9.

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