April 8, 2020

Bucking the newspaper industry trend, Hearst Corporation has told its newsrooms there will be no layoffs, no furloughs and no pay cuts during the course of coronavirus coverage.

In fact, Hearst CEO Steven Swartz told publishers and editors in a conference call this week, the company is giving a 1% bonus to all employees, will create an added bonus merit pool later and is waiving the budget targets that determine executive bonuses.

In addition, the company is taking out six-figure TV ad buys in some markets to promote the papers and their pandemic coverage.

The conference call was internal, but summarized for Poynter from several sources who requested anonymity.

Hearst’s 24 dailies include the San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News, Times Union of Albany, New York, and a Connecticut group.

Other chains and individual newspapers have been making a series of disheartening cuts in response to an abrupt print advertising downturn as my colleagues Kristen Hare and Tom Jones have been reporting. And at most places, print advertising had been sinking fast even earlier in the year.

By contrast, Hearst appears to have decided comprehensive local reports on the pandemic and recession are an opportunity to showcase public service work and build audiences.

It helps that Hearst is a private company, a diverse and rich one. Its magazine division with Cosmopolitan and other titles was a growth engine for many years. And along the way it has made many shrewd investments in digital businesses and established an international footprint.

Publicly owned chains need to satisfy investors who will listen to a longterm strategic story but mainly watch quarterly profit reports closely. And both chains and independently owned papers may be short on cash or overextended in borrowing, seeming to leave no choice but to cut.

Unlike Hearst, the Newhouse family’s private Advance Local, also part of a larger media company, gutted the remaining print news operation at the Cleveland Plain Dealer just this week, after losing a two-paper competition in New Orleans and selling The Times-Picayune to its rival, The Advocate, last year.

I profiled Hearst’s management of its papers in December 2016 in a story on the Houston Chronicle. It includes acquiring a ring of smaller weeklies if possible and a two-tier structure of a basic and paid premium digital report.

The company has a deep editorial and executive bench and typically promotes from within. In recent years, newspaper division head Mark Aldam became Swartz’s number two for the entire company and Jeffrey Johnson, who had been publisher of several of the larger papers, succeeded Aldam.

Aldam had a reputation among editors for tight budget control, so cutbacks are not unheard of for the Hearst group.

Hearst may be an outlier, not just in its action regarding newsrooms during the crisis but in the long game it plays generally. I would like to think, however, that Hearst’s bet pays off and inspires other deep-pocketed investors, individuals and companies, to see some business potential in the battered newspaper industry.

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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  • Whoa, let’s lay off the Hearst adulation! Yes, good for them for sticking with their employees and core mission at this time. But how can you ignore the fact that they are the gold standard when it comes to treating employees shoddily? I have friends at the Times-Union who have not had a raise in OVER A DECADE. While I’m sure this 1 percent will be welcomed, it is a DROP IN THE BUCKET when weighed against the tens of thousands of dollars these writers and editors have given up over the years because Hearst refuses to reward their loyal employees. I’m sorry, I’m just sick over the tone of this posting. It needs to be fairly balanced with the truth about how Hearst has treated its employees and withheld raises over the years. I personally would never work for a Hearst paper and this tiny gesture certainly won’t change that. These employees deserve retroactive raises that I’m sure Hearst can afford thanks to that vast portfolio and shrewd investments that you mention.