Staff restructurings and layoffs at the Chronicle

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The Chronicle buried the following ominous information in the “Around the Region” column of its Business section today:

The Houston Chronicle is undertaking a restructuring that will include both the creation of new niche products — in the newspaper and as separate publications — as well as reductions in operating expenses, including the elimination of staff positions.

“We are working hard to adjust the cost side of our business,” said Chronicle Publisher and President Jack Sweeney. “We will not compromise our commitment to quality journalism and service to our advertisers.”

In a letter to Chronicle employees released late Monday, Sweeney said he is committed to keeping up with the changes in the Houston community with vibrant new products, pointing to the recent redesign of the Chronicle and the company’s commitment to Spanish-language products such as La Vibra, a weekly Spanish lifestyles supplement and La Voz, a weekly newspaper published in partnership with the Chronicle.

A restructuring of the company’s expense base is critical because the newspaper needs to invest in the future, Sweeney wrote. The newspaper has already reduced operating expenses and will continue to do so, including cuts in staff. Cutbacks will be achieved through attrition, a voluntary buyout program and, if necessary, involuntary layoffs.

Many of us have been writing about the Chronicle‘s problems for some time, and have more recently suggested that the design changes really haven’t done much to address those problems. They must finally be starting to affect the bottom line.

Publisher Jack Sweeney seems to be spinning what appears to be significant downsizing. While he claims that new niche products will be created, the only examples cited are the redesign — which isn’t a new product at all — and an emphasis on a weekly Spanish language supplement. However, the new Spanish product being introduced would seemingly be balanced by the old Texas Magazine being discontinued, for no net gain in product, and an actual loss of product for English-only readers.

The last paragraph is the most ominous. Press releases and internal company memos don’t bring up the possibility of “involuntary layoffs” if there’s a good chance that payroll can be reduced to desired levels through attrition and incentives. Sweeney must be planning a massive manpower reduction.

While we have our problems with the Chronicle‘s editorial decisions — and think staff reductions might actually be avoided if the editorial product were thoroughly remade into something of higher quality — we don’t have problems with most of the fine folks who make the newspaper go on a daily basis. It’s unfortunate that some of them will pay the price for the newspaper’s poor editorial choices over the years.

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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX