September 23, 2009

I know plenty of former newspaper employees who once thought they had job security. They figured they’d never be laid off because their companies raked in so much money that they could weather cyclical economic downturns.
At the Press-Register in Mobile, Ala., and 19 other daily newspapers owned by Advance Publications, many workers based that feeling on something firmer than water cooler talk. Their employment stability was promised in writing, right on the first page of the employee handbook.

The so-called “Newhouse pledge,” named after the family that founded and controls the New York-based media company, guaranteed that in most cases, employees would never be laid off. The pledge, which according to a recently filed lawsuit has been in place for at least 25 years, applied to all full-time, non-union employees. Newhouse has a reputation of being an anti-union company, and some believe the pledge was intended partly to discourage employees from organizing.

But like hot type and afternoon editions, the pledge has become a relic.
In August, Advance Publications announced that it would repeal the pledge, effective Feb. 5, 2010. Then, the company presumably will begin to lay off some of the people it once promised to keep regardless of “technological changes or economic conditions.”
The unusual job security pledge is at the heart of a lawsuit pitting former Press-Register Publisher Howard Bronson against Advance Publications [PDF] and Managing Partner Mark Newhouse. Bronson wants a jury to award damages for breaking the pledge and forcing him into retirement. (Bronson, representatives of the paper and Advance declined to talk to me or didn’t return messages.)
Not only was the job security pledge written down in the Press-Register employee handbook, but it was frequently restated in memos and verbal communications, according to the lawsuit and interviews with current and former Press-Register employees.

There were caveats, of course. Workers had to complete a probationary period and perform their work satisfactorily. They could be fired for misconduct and had to be willing to train for new jobs.
And there was another exception in the pledge, one that might have been easy to dismiss in the pre-Internet age, but today sounds eerily prescient. The pledge applied only as long as the newspaper “continues to publish daily in its current newsprint form.”
This summer, Advance closed its 45,000-circulation daily Ann Arbor News and launched a Web-based entity,, and an affiliated twice-weekly print edition. Could similar moves be far behind at other distressed properties?
I am personally familiar with the Newhouse pledge. I was a Press-Register reporter from 1997 to 2002, when I left for a job at The Tampa Tribune. I remain vested in a small Newhouse pension.
During my tenure in Mobile the paper was known around town as “the Cash Register” for its robust revenues. I never worried about losing my job, especially due to the economy, but I do remember talking about the pledge with the man who hired me, former regional news and business editor Jerald Hyche.
“The Newhouse pledge was comforting,” said Hyche, now an Episcopal minister in Houston. “It seemed to represent the family’s and the company’s long-term vision for an industry that could be pretty volatile.”
A few years before I arrived in Mobile, American Journalism Review published a story focusing on a dramatic shift at Newhouse papers around the country — their move from “high-profit journalistic underachievers” to award-winning watchdogs “with fat news holes and the staff to fill them.” Then-Editor Stan Tiner, now at The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., said he went on a hiring spree after arriving in 1992. (In those days, the story noted, there were no formal budgets at the papers.) Tiner declined to comment for this story.
Steve Newhouse, chairman of AdvanceNet, the chain’s online division, told Editor & Publisher that the pledge does not apply “to the kind of transitional moment in the newspaper industry that is basically struggling to survive.”
Outside media experts said Advance Publications can’t be expected to uphold a promise from a bygone business model.

“Anybody in the newspaper business in this country today knows that staying alive is the first priority,” said Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Lauren Rich Fine, a former media analyst for Merrill Lynch and now practitioner in residence at Kent State University, said the pledge is “unrealistic in today’s world, whether for a media company or something else. Companies need flexibility to downsize.”

According to the lawsuit, Bronson was given talking points to indicate the company had “no current plan” for layoffs once the pledge expires in February. But several of my former colleagues said this week that they are bracing for cuts. Who could blame them?

The Press-Register has had about 36 voluntary buyouts, plus other attrition, over the past year. Some 200 buyouts have taken place at The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., also owned by Advance Publications.
The job security pledge “was unique in the newspaper industry and, as far as I know, fairly unique in business,” said Jim Aucoin, chairman of the Department of Communications at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Until June, he also was a part-time editorial writer at the Press-Register, not subject to the pledge.
As a private company, Advance isn’t subject to the same financial disclosure rules as publicly held chains such as Media General, which owns The Tampa Tribune. But media observers say Advance is subject to the same market pressures that have pushed down revenues at other papers.
“They must have thought they could save enough through retirements and buyouts,” Aucoin said, “but the cuts may need to be deeper and more painful.”
Some Press-Register employees told me Bronson is a hero for taking on Newhouse. Others worry that they’ll face more financial pain and job insecurity if he prevails.

Bronson isn’t the only publisher leaving a Newhouse newspaper. Last week Victor Hanson III, 53, president and publisher of The Birmingham News, announced that he would retire Dec. 1. At The (Portland) Oregonian, 87-year-old Fred A. Stickel stepped down as publisher on Friday. His son, Patrick F. Stickel, the newspaper’s president, told The Oregonian that he will serve as interim publisher but will not seek the post permanently.
Fine, a former member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board, said the six-month warning on repealing the pledge is fair notice. “You offer something, and you may have to withdraw it later,” she said, comparing it to cuts imposed by struggling U.S. automakers on their unions. “There is no such thing as offering something forever.”

Whatever perception of job security I had at The Tampa Tribune ended when my colleagues started getting laid off in 2007. I lost my job last year. I never had anything in writing, but I doubt it would have mattered anyway. In business, it seems, a pledge is only reliable as long as it’s also profitable.

Maybe a jury in Mobile will decide otherwise.

Mark Holan is a freelance writer and editor in Tampa.

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