Boise Weekly publisher calls for salary cuts

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In every newsroom, there is one irony-philic reporter with the unenviable task of documenting his or her own newspaper’s demise.

At the Contra Costa Times, where I worked for three years, that guy was George Avalos. At every one of our dour newsroom-wide meetings, Avalos would sit near the front, taking notes and asking most of the questions, knowing that the meaningless numbers our publisher was parroting from his corporate overlords would mean more empty desks and less news the next morning.

Avalos always asked about corporate profiteering and never got an answer.

I would stand near the back of the crowd, furious that we were constantly treated like cogs in a machine rather than tapped for our collective creative genius. I staged a one-man work slow-down. I called a union-organizing meeting. I quit and moved back to Boise.

On Friday, I sat in the corner at another dour newsroom-wide meeting. Boise Weekly owner Sally Freeman asked us to forfeit 10 percent of our pay for a three-month period to make up for a shortfall in November advertising revenue and a bleak outlook for the coming months.

Just two weeks ago I was writing about how the recession is just so much Wall Street smoke and mirrors. Now it is taking a chunk out of my paycheck.

And we’ve got it good. The same week that Boise Weekly’s 20 employees put 10 percent of our paychecks back into the company coffers, some 2,000 newspaper workers in Gannett towns joined the unemployment rolls. More than 15,000 journalists, ad reps and other inky finger types lost their jobs this year according to one accounting.

On Saturday I attended a media justice summit in Boise and fear I came off sounding like we poor reporters are the ones that need some justice.

But, though it may be depressing, any reporter worth his or her salt will treat the end-of-newspapering story just like any other story, so here goes:

Boise Weekly publisher Sally Freeman on Friday asked the staff at Idaho’s only alternative weekly newspaper to take a 10 percent cut in pay through the end of March, optimistic that revenue would rebound by spring. After the quick announcement at BW’s regular Friday staff meeting, Freeman cried a little and then offered to meet with each of her workers individually.

When Freeman bought the paper with her ex-husband Bingo Barnes in August 2001, she faced an even more daunting task.

“When I first bought it, in one day I laid off 11 people,” Freeman recalled.

At the time, the paper, which she bought from City of Roses Newspaper Co., a small Portland, Ore.-based newspaper chain, had 22 employees and half the revenue it has today. While revenue is up and the staff is nearly at the level it was in 2001—when BW boasted a full-time feature writer who was driven to Eastern Europe after the layoffs—Freeman told Boise Weekly that weak ad sales have rent her bottom line.

Boise Weekly’s revenue was down 4 percent on Dec. 3, as compared to 2007, Freeman said. She came in $90,000 below budget in the last six to seven weeks and projects an 8 percent revenue drop-off by year’s end, based on languishing December ad sales.

In just three weeks time the paper’s financial situation took a nosedive.

“There were already lots of layoffs happening in media before there was any indication that we were being impacted by the economic downturn,” Freeman said.
I didn’t ask about profits, partly because I forget that profits are what matters in business and partly because it seemed rude. Freeman is not a faceless media corporation; she is a colleague whose office door, which I can see from my desk, is usually open. And frankly, I hope she makes a lot of money and continues to send me to Cuba and Denver and buy better paper and ink.

Boise Weekly sustained itself through the first few months of the national recession, in part, because it is a locally owned business that depends on other local businesses for much of its support, Freeman said.

In journalistic terms, that means Boise Weekly is independent in ways that other newspapers cannot be. While working journalists have many filters through which we sieve the unending stream of “news,” we, at BW, are liberated from the corporate filter. That allows our small reporting staff of five, as well as editor Rachael Daigle, to seek the stories that we think will alter readers’ consciousness and to apply our own experiences to writing those stories, rather than crafting them in any particular corporate-culture milieu.

Boise Weekly is also poised to embrace the next generation of news delivery in launching a newly-designed Web site after the first of the year. The design and implementation has already been paid, Freeman said, and will not be derailed by the economic downturn.

I googled George Avalos last night to see what he’s been writing. He is still at the Contra Costa Times. His last story was about how three union activists, two of them friends of mine who were laid off soon after CCT workers voted to form a union in June,  failed to convince the National Labor Relations Board that they were fired for their union activities.

When writing becomes a Manichean battle between the creative classes and the bankers who feed them, our culture suffers. When the publishers draw pictures for our covers and stock our larder with plenty of beer and wine, our culture thrives.

So I’m sticking around, but I want my dime bag back in April, Ms. Sally.

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