Division of Power #10 Free Press publisher responds to layoff questions

Last week, I reported on the recent Winnipeg Free Press layoffs, which saw five of the paper’s most beloved reporters dismissed, along with two additional staffers.

While the article focused on the way collective bargaining agreements between the Free Press and the Canadian Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) union local 191 have at times hindered the ability of the paper to embrace new talent, there is more to the story than that.

In response to a steep decline in profits since the 2008 economic crisis, it is clear the Winnipeg Free Press is drastically cutting its content in order to stay as profitable as possible. The seven staffers laid off on Sept. 18 are only the most recent casualties in a concerted process of cost-cutting.

In August, the Free Press announced it had cut 14 positions through a “a combination of retirements, voluntary resignations and five layoffs.”

All of this was in response to a second quarter financial report, released on June 30, that found a revenue decrease of $1.9 million or a 6.3 per cent reduction from the same three months in the previous year for the Free Press‘s parent company; FP Canadian Newspapers Limited Partnership (FPLP). However, the company managed to generate $28 million in revenue in the second quarter of this year.

The company also stated in August that further cuts would be made in the third quarter to adapt to the bleak revenue picture, the result being the seven staffers laid off in September.

Outside the fact these financial forecasts are similar throughout the industry, the most disconcerting aspect of these figures is how the Free Press and other newspapers chose to respond.

The cuts at the Free Press come largely to a youthful contingent of reporters, along with their most tech-savvy staffers. For example, they laid off both their deputy online editor and their social media reporter.

Rather than weathering the storm and maintaining a quality product, the Free Press has chosen to run a skeleton crew of senior staffers. Will subscribers still pay for the Winnipeg Free Press in the absence of unique, quality content? 

Over the course of several days, I attempted to reach Free Press publisher Bob Cox for answers. He did answer a list of e-mailed questions, but not before The Uniter went to press.

Here are his answers to my questions:

Ultimately, how do you justify the cuts and why was the Free Press newsroom hit particularly hard?

The Free Press newsroom was not singled out and staff reductions there are in line with what has been done in other departments of the newspaper. Any suggestion the newsroom was hit particularly hard comes from someone who is either unaware of what else has been done, or is ignoring it.

How do you respond to the criticism that these cuts make the Free Press significantly older in terms of staff and thus out of touch with the future of the industry?

Layoffs must be made according to provisions of our collective agreement. There is no choice. The most junior employees are at the top of the list.

Why were so many cuts made to the online component, like social media reporter Lindsey Wiebe and deputy online editor John White?

Our digital area was not significantly changed. The departure of one management employee should not be seen as a reduction in staffing. The entire newsroom is engaged in digital production now.

The CEP union and the Free Press will be negotiating a new collective agreement in July, 2013. What do you think should be on the table in those talks that could help the Free Press move into the future?

I would not comment now on the possible substance of negotiations with the CEP over a new contract. We live within the collective agreements that were negotiated and signed in 2008 and all of our changes involving unionized staff must be governed by those agreements.

Several people have criticized the seniority provisions in the current collective agreement, arguing that it keeps the newspaper from recruiting new talent. Do you agree with that sentiment? Should the Free Press rethink its protection of seniority?

Seniority is a long established and fundamental part of collective agreements. The Free Press, as a company, lives by those agreements. The paper itself does not protect seniority, but implements staff changes affecting unionized employees in accordance with the provisions of the collective agreements.

What other cuts have been made at the paper since the 2008 recession? How many were cut from the circulation department? Was the Winnipeg Free Press actively seeking out senior reporters to take buy-outs over the summer in order to avoid the recent seven layoffs, as Aldo Santin has suggested?

I refer you to previous public reports by FP Newspapers for information regarding previous staff reductions. The company regularly has discussions with its staff about their plans as a way of preparing for our future workforce needs.