Buyouts result in painful newsroom losses

The Editorial Department of The Buffalo News is expected to lose at least 16 Guild members as a result of targeted and voluntary buyouts that the company made available last month. The loss of so many veteran newsroom staffers at once is deeply troubling to the Guild.

Prior to these departures, the Guild represented 100 members on the newsroom floor, encompassing everyone responsible for reporting, fact-checking, designing and producing the paper, with the exception of upper management.

The buyouts, as they stand, represent a loss of 16 percent of the Guild-represented newsroom staff, and nearly a fifth of staff reporters and columnists.

“There’s no sugarcoating what a blow this is to journalism in Western New York,” said Guild President Sandy Tan. “We’re losing respected colleagues whose work has been invaluable to this newsroom and to this community.”

Eight of the expected losses to date involve copy editors, page designers, a clerk and part-time reporters who were either told their positions were being abolished or their hours were being slashed.

The remaining eight are reporters and columnists who opted to take voluntary buyouts that were offered to all newsroom writers except for a select few.

Voluntary buyouts were offered in conjunction with one-on-one meetings between management and reporters and columnists to discuss the future of The News and assess each writer’s contributions.

Most of the reporters and columnists who accepted voluntary buyouts left over the last two weeks. Those who have announced their departures on Twitter have been retweeted by the Guild account @buffaloguild.

The eight staffers who have either accepted, or are currently expected to accept, targeted buyouts are slated to leave by July 1. It’s possible that changes to this buyout number may occur because targeted employees have the remainder of this month to finalize their decisions.

All these Editorial employees have been responsible for reporting, fact-checking and producing the paper. Once they are all gone, they will have taken with them 390 years of cumulative newsroom experience.

Because of the union’s contract language, The News does not have the ability to unilaterally terminate specific employees. But there were mitigating factors that left some Guild members feeling they needed go.

Many were facing reassignments into unknown or dramatically different job duties. Part-time reporters faced an 80 percent cut in their hours, resulting in a non-sustaining wages and making them ineligible for benefits.

Other veteran staffers readily took a buyout because they were close to retirement or felt they were ready to pursue other opportunities outside The News.

The value of the voluntary buyouts were roughly in keeping with the severance provisions that already exist in our contract, though some of that money could be redirected to pay for up to two years of continued health insurance. The Guild negotiated more favorable terms for those who were facing targeted buyouts.

Throughout this process, the union has played an important role. We ensured that members considering a buyout were given all the information they needed to make an informed decision.

The Guild worked with the company’s Human Resources Department and other members of management to provide its members with accurate and individualized buyout figures. The Guild leadership team also provided one-on-one guidance to every affected member and ensured they had access to free, independent financial planning advice.

In a column last month, Editor Mike Connelly told the reading public that “Buffalo News reporters will continue to report everything they reported before.”

The truth is, we simply can’t. It is impossible to lose nearly a fifth of your writing staff and expect the same extensive coverage that has earned The Buffalo News its loyal readership.

The latest round of buyouts will shrink the Editorial staff to slightly less than half of those who worked here a decade ago. Looking at the writing staff alone, the newsroom employed 86 reporters and columnists in 2008, compared with only 44 now.

Management has informed the Guild that it will do some newsroom hiring. To date, The News has posted for two editor positions within the Guild and has either posted or will post additional reporting positions for both local news and sports. Management also said it intends to hire new digital content producers, which are new, digital-only reporting positions.

The Guild hopes these hires will be made swiftly and reflect the depth of experience that the newsroom has lost. The postings will be added to the Guild website.

Despite these difficult times, we know what we do makes a difference. We ask Guild members to encourage continued public support of our work. And we hope The News will not continue to thin

Guild ranks at a time when the need for good journalism has never been greater.