NEWARK - Owners of the Star-Ledger plan to close New Jersey's largest newspaper by year's end if production unions don't make concessions in contract negotiations, the publisher said Wednesday.
In a letter to staff, publisher Richard Vezza said the company felt "pushed into a corner" by the unions, whose contracts expire in July. Vezza said they have until Sept. 27 to make compromises or else the paper will shut down.
"This is not a threat. This is reality," Vezza said in an interview.
The paper's website, nj.com, is owned by a separate company and will continue to publish "no matter what happens with the Ledger," Vezza said.
The unions issued a joint statement saying their studies of the paper's ad revenues came up with different figures than the company's, and accusing the Ledger of trying to force the press workers, drivers and other production employees to accept a steep wage cut.
"Vezza's announcement that he will cease publication unless a settlement is reached with all the unions is another sad and pathetic attempt to pound all of our union brothers and sisters into a state of submission," said Ed Shown, president of the Council of Star-Ledger Unions and one of the Teamsters locals.
Vezza said the unions had shown little interest in "meaningful negotiations." Shown said the Ledger demanded a 55 percent cut in the entire wage package, which he said showed a lack of meaningful negotiation on the part of the company.
He said the unions were willing to "do whatever we have to so that the Star-Ledger may remain a thriving newspaper in these challenging economic times."
In his letter, Vezza said the paper lost $19.8 million last year, and is on track to do the same in 2013. The Star-Ledger lost $12 million in 2011.
In January, the paper laid off 34 employees from its newsroom, which is not unionized. In recent years, wages and benefits have been cut and staff members have been forced to take unpaid furlough days.
Vezza said the paper asked the unions to negotiate in December over the possibility of outsourcing production, a move he said could save $9 million a year. He said outsourcing without a union agreement would likely lead to a protracted court fight.
Shown said the unions do not believe the company was ever serious about outsourcing production but still wants the $9 million the company says it would save by doing so.
"This is a very serious and painful situation," Vezza said. "It is certainly something we wouldn't have done unless we felt that we really sort of had our backs to the wall on this."
This is not the first time the Star-Ledger has threatened to shut down. In 2008, the then-publisher said the paper would cease to print if union concessions weren't met. The two sides reached an agreement a few months later.
"I am optimistic that we're going to be able to strike a deal with the union," Vezza said.
Shown said the unions "look forward to settling their differences with the company so the Star-Ledger will remain a vital resource providing valuable news coverage to our state."
The Star-Ledger is part of Advance Publications Inc., a privately held company owned by the Newhouse family.
Unlike some of its sister papers, the Star-Ledger has no plans to reduce its print edition to three days a week, Vezza said. The company has said the market is too competitive to make that a cost-cutting option.
The Star-Ledger has 771 employees, 240 on the production staff and 170 in the newsroom.