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Austin will suffer under Statesman's major staffing shake-up, experts say

Austin will suffer under Statesman's staffing shake-up, experts say

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Readers will suffer if Statesman's reporters take proposed buyouts.  Photo by Jon S

Just four months after the Austin American-Statesman was sold, the new owner is extending buyout offers to every one of the daily newspaper’s 200-plus employees. While observers predict this will lead to dramatic staffing cuts and diminished news coverage, they doubt it will result in a shutdown of the Statesman.

Rich Oppel, interim editor in chief of Texas Monthly and editor of the Statesman from 1995 to 2008, thinks it’s more likely the Statesman’s print edition will vanish in five to seven years.

“The future is digital,” Oppel tells CultureMap. “I would not be surprised to see continued hiring — even with buyouts — to bring in newspeople who are ‘digital natives’ and will help migrate the Statesman to strong non-print platforms.”

Former journalist Wanda Garner Cash, retired associate director of the University of Texas School of Journalism, says she’s “dismayed and saddened” by the Statesman news, which surfaced August 10.

“Every person in Central Texas, the state of Texas, and the nation should be also dismayed and discouraged by the Statesman offering buyouts to its entire workforce,” Cash tells CultureMap. “This move signals the new owner’s lack of appreciation for the dedicated staff, and it says the new owner regards the staff as disposable.”

“If even one reporter or photographer accepts the buyout,” she adds, “the community will suffer from a loss of coverage and institutional knowledge.”

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the nonprofit Poynter Institute, says Austin isn’t in danger of losing its only daily newspaper — at least anytime soon — since Pittsford, New York-based GateHouse Media, LLC purchased the Statesman in April for $47.5 million from its longtime owner, Atlanta-based Cox Media Group Inc.

But the offering of severance packages to Statesman employees probably will reduce the staff “substantially,” meaning fewer resources for reporting local news and, therefore, thinner print editions, Edmonds says.

“Offering everyone buyouts is a pretty standard way of doing a staff reduction,” Edmonds tells CultureMap. “That way, people who are nearly ready to leave and want the severance can do it. Fewer people who really want to stay need to be laid off.”

On August 10, the Statesman reported newspaper-wide eligibility for voluntary severance packages. Any employee who accepts a severance deal will leave the company in September.

“This also allows us to better align our resources around the areas of most importance to our readers and advertisers,” Statesman publisher Susie Biehle told her newspaper.

Statesman executives will consider whether to accept staffers’ buyout requests based on the paper’s business needs and news coverage needs, Biehle says.

“We are aggressively pursuing a path to greater revenue diversification and eventual overall growth to better support our entire operation,” Biehle says. “In the challenging media landscape that affects all Texas newspapers, this path doesn’t stray from our commitment to do journalism with impact.”

That being said, the Statesman is ceasing publication of Ahora Sí, an award-winning weekly Spanish-language newspaper, on October 11.

The potential buyouts at the Statesman underscore a sad reality about the modern-day newspaper business: Shrinking readership and revenue are triggering an overall decline in reporting of local news.

“What I hope we do not see is a further diminishment of local reporting here in Austin and across the state,” Oppel says. “In a case where you have a buyout, what is most at risk is the depth and experience of reporting. Most buyouts are taken by veteran newspeople who are near retirement.”

“I’m sure the Statesman editor, Debbie Hiott, is working hard to balance the expectations of ownership for reduced or reallocated expenses with the need for experience on the major beats,” Oppel adds.