Philadelphia Media Network, owner of the Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com, is seeking to eliminate 30 to 35 newsroom positions through buyouts and warned that it could lay off employees if it fails to reach that target.
At the same time, the company is hiring 10 employees with digital-related skills, such as a newsletter editor and search optimization editor, and said it would continue to hire in specific areas to modernize the newsroom and expand its audience on Philly.com.
"The economics are not getting any better," said PMN publisher Terrance C.Z. Egger, but he noted that PMN is not just cutting costs.
"We've already decided to invest in growth areas like online subscriptions, events, a new content-management system, digital, and the overall marketing," Egger said. "We are now going through a similar phase in the newsroom to invest in key areas of coverage, storytelling, and our ability to reach broader new audiences."
Inquirer and Daily News print advertising has declined faster than it can be replaced with newer sources of revenue such as digital advertising, which the company says requires it to cut costs.
But PMN is also encouraged by some early investments. The company last month began charging readers who click on more than 10 stories for further access to Philly.com, and those online subscriptions are "off to a good start," Egger said.
Employees who lack digital skills or are uncomfortable with the newsroom changes can "self-select" their departure, he added. Egger credited top newsroom executives for crafting a buyout offer that was considerate to employees.
The cutback and expected hirings were disclosed in an email to the newsroom around noon Monday, and represent a net reduction of about 10 percent in the 210-member union-covered staff, according to company data.
Unionized newsroom employees who have worked at the company since October 2010 are eligible for 28 weeks of pay in severance, based on the memo. In addition, the company will pay lump sums of $2,500 to $15,000 to departing employees, based on seniority.
The company also will offer medical insurance for up to six months and career placement services.
Stan Wischnowski, executive editor and senior vice president, said in the memo that "these terms will not be matched in the future. This program is the last best chance for staffers considering a life change, retirement or different career."
PMN is owned by the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism, named after billionaire cable magnate and philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, who donated the papers to it. Though PMN can receive grants from the institute, it is run as a business, where revenues must pay for expenses.
"I wish I could say this is shocking or unusual, but it's a piece of what's happening in other places," said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst with the Poynter Institute, a journalism training organization.
September and October are typically the period for cutbacks as media companies budget for the coming year, Edmonds said.
"It can make jobs for the people still there more difficult and potentially compromise the quality of the product," he said.
As part of the buyout, the newsroom will dissolve a 21-employee "multiplatform" desk, or copy desk, which checks spelling and grammar, edits content, and writes headlines for print and digital stories, and a small department that processes photos for the print newspapers.
The newsroom will open some positions for those employees by adding to the staff of "print coordinators," who will do some copy editing and determine how stories will be displayed on pages.
The New York Times made similar changes to its copy desk this year. PMN executives believe the system can work here.
The buyout offer came only days after a six-month no-layoff pact lapsed between the Newspaper Guild, which represents newsroom employees, and PMN. The pact was reached during contract negotiations last spring.
"The Guild has always tried to work with the company to improve our products as we adapt to new ways people get news and the changing economics of our industry," said Howard Gensler, president of the Newspaper Guild, which is Local 38010 of the Communications Workers of America. "Unfortunately, we do not agree that eliminating the copy desk and photo production editor positions is a step in the right direction."