The Seattle Times building back in the day. Today, the papers newsroom staff—like many others around the country—is in the midst of a downsizing.
The Seattle Times building back in the day. Today, the paper's newsroom staff—like many others newsroom staffs around the country—is in the midst of a downsizing. Seattle Municipal Archives

At the beginning of the week, Seattle Times editor Kathy Best sent out a memo to her paper's newsroom reminding staffers that it's been "a tough budget year," thanking them for their "creativity" in dialing back on day-to-day expenses, and announcing that "even after pulling all the change from all the seat cushions, we still need significant reductions in the newsroom budget."

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That, Best said, means making a reduction in the size of the paper's newsroom. Seattle Times staffers have until noon on Dec. 31 to decide whether they might want to apply for what is essentially an inducement to depart: "One week of pay for each year of service up to 13 weeks." ("Because this is considered a reduction in force," Best added, "people who leave voluntarily also will be eligible for unemployment compensation, which currently is available for 26 weeks.")

Best admitted that the timing of the announcement was "not ideal," but suggested the holidays could be a time "to talk over your decision with your families." She also said: "I don’t want to lose any of you and I know that doing so carries a price for our newsroom and for our readers. But we don’t have a choice if we want The Seattle Times to continue."

Buyouts and layoffs are nothing new in the shrinking newspaper business. That's been true around the country for some time now, as well as at The Seattle Times.

But the dire note Best sounded in this week's memo made me wonder how large a reduction is currently on the table, and what it means for Seattle at the end of a year that has seen some notable local media consolidation (KCTS combining with Crosscut) and some big merger talk (in the form of the ongoing saga of KUOW potentially taking over KPLU).

"We are reducing the newsroom budget by 6 percent through a variety of cuts, including people," Best told me. "At the same time, the Times is working innovatively to grow revenue so that we can continue to thrive."

What does Best mean when she says, "We don't have a choice if we want The Seattle Times to continue"?

"The Seattle Times is a business," she told me, "albeit one with a strong public service mission. The Blethen family has made significant personal sacrifices to invest in the Times to help position us to maintain that mission for digital as well as print readers. Now we need to make sure the Times is profitable, which means cutting our expenses as strategically as we can."

And what does Best mean when she talks about the "price" that comes with downsizing?

"This process requires us to make choices," Best said. "To position the newsroom for the future, for example, we now have two full-time news developers and we have converted a newsroom researcher, Gene Balk, into our FYI Guy columnist. But to make those good things for readers possible, we had to give other things up. The trick is to minimize the impact on readers from what we stop doing as we create new capacity for digital as well as print storytelling.

"We want to produce relevant journalism that makes a difference in the lives of our readers and our community, as we did with our investigation of the anencephaly cluster in the Yakima Valley. Those are the standards we will measure cuts against."

So what's the whole that's being cut from? Exactly how large is the Seattle Times newsroom these days?

"We have—and will continue to have—the largest newsroom in the Pacific Northwest," Best told me. "The reporters are listed on the website if you’d like to count them. But as I’m sure you’re seeing in other newsrooms, we have a lot of cross-over: producers writing stories (Evan Bush, for example), photographers writing stories (Alan Berner), desk editors posting stories and curating the Web, etc."

I took Best's suggestion and counted the number of people on the Times' newsroom staff list.

It was not as easy as it might sound, since—as Best noted—some people repeat in various parts of the list. My special process for this task required an Excel spreadsheet and some one-on-one time with KEXP's Swingin' Doors show yesterday evening. After including all types of newsroom jobs—reporters, photographers, editors, editorial page writers, critics, sports writers, page designers, web designers, a news assistant, and more—the Times newsroom, by my count, currently stands at 202 people.

I welcome corrections to that number. Who knows how many of the listed people are full-time vs. part-time vs. freelancers. I can't tell from the online list.

But I can't imagine Best is wrong about the Times having the largest newsroom in the Pacific Northwest. I also can't imagine that losing working journalists is a good thing for our currently-struggling democracy.

Wish it were different.

Full memo below:

Sent: Monday, December 14, 2015 11:09 AM
To: News - All Employees
Subject: Newsroom reduction

Colleagues,

As you know, 2016 is a tough budget year for The Seattle Times.

Thanks to your creativity, we were able to find tens of thousands of dollars in savings from expenses. But even after pulling all the change from all the seat cushions, we still need significant reductions in the newsroom budget.

That’s why we’re offering an opportunity for those of you already thinking of leaving the Times to do so with some extra cash in your pocket.

Attached are the details of an “Expression of Interest’’ in voluntarily departing. Those who apply will be eligible for one week of pay for each year of service up to 13 weeks. (The minimum is four weeks of pay, regardless of experience.)

Because this is considered a reduction in force, people who leave voluntarily also will be eligible for unemployment compensation, which currently is available for 26 weeks.

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I don’t want to lose any of you and I know that doing so carries a price for our newsroom and for our readers. But we don’t have a choice if we want The Seattle Times to continue.

As the attachment outlines, you have until noon on Dec. 31 to submit your Expressions of Interest. We will review them and let you know whether they are accepted by Jan. 8. Some EOIs may be rejected if your position is mission critical.

It is possible, even with the voluntary departures, that we still may need layoffs to make our budget. But the EOIs will, I hope, minimize that need.

I know the timing for this is not ideal. But I hope that those of you considering leaving the Times will be able to use the holidays to talk over your decision with your families.

There will be meetings today in the Fishbowl at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to answer your questions. We will repeat those sessions tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. You are also free to talk with your department head, AME, or me, Jim or Mich at any time.

Kathy