Press Herald for sale?

By JEFF INGLIS  |  August 24, 2006

He believes that constitutes bad-faith negotiations on the part of the company, recalling an October offer by the union to re-negotiate a side deal to help the company reduce health-insurance premiums. But the company, he says, accepted the offer by demanding the union waive all rights to negotiate over healthcare in the future. The side deal was ultimately worked out, without the waiver of future rights, but “We had to fight them to save them hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Sylvester says.

In Seattle, the Times’s union staffers are embroiled in a bitter dispute that some fear could bring a repeat of the last negotiations, when for seven weeks in the winter of 2000-’01, newspaper workers struck, a move that cost the Times as many as 30,000 subscribers, according to Seattle union president Yoko Kuramoto-Eidsmoe, who also says the Blethens took that dispute “personally.”

All of this was happening before Knight Ridder was actually sold, so the position on unions of the future buyer was not certain, but the industry has been moving away from unions for some time.

In 2003, Seattle Times freelancer Bill Richards, hired under a special contract to report independently on the JOA, reported — to loud Blethen denials — that the Blethens’ financial picture may not be as bleak as they have long claimed. But in the intervening three years, across the industry, expenses have only climbed, and revenues have been flat or declining. So if the Blethens’ picture was rosier than they said then, it has only worsened. In 2004, the Times sold six acres of downtown Seattle land to Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen for $31 million, in a deal Frank Blethen told his newspaper would allow him to avoid major cutbacks throughout the company.

The Maine papers’ picture is worse still: in 1998, the Blethens’ Seattle Times Company officials told the Press Herald they would have to increase revenue and cut costs to make a profit in Maine. But between 1999 and 2003, there were two rounds of layoffs at the Press Herald, by far the largest of the three Blethen-owned Maine dailies. In mid-October 2005, the Press Herald announced a hiring freeze, and a week later said it was laying off 15 workers and eliminating six vacant positions, blaming flat revenues and dropping circulation.

In 1998, the Press Herald’s circulation was 74,500, and the Maine Sunday Telegram’s was 124,500, according to the press release announcing the sale to the Blethens. In April 2006, daily circulation was at 68,100, and Sunday was at 106,750, according to publisher’s statements on file with the Audit Bureau of Circulations, an independent agency that monitors newspaper circulation. That’s a nine percent drop in daily circ, and 14 percent on Sundays.

Where to go?
The anti-union efforts in Maine (as well as powerful anti-union negotiations in Seattle this year, including a demand for Times employees to accept a two-year wage freeze) will come to a head by the middle of next year. The Press Herald/Sunday Telegram contract expires in May 2007, the same month the arbitrator’s decision is due in the Seattle JOA case.

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