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S-R to cut 60 positions; editor resigns

Smith (Amanda Smith / The Spokesman-Review)
Smith (Amanda Smith / The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokesman-Review will cut about one-fourth of its editorial staff this month, laying off as many as 27 employees in a move its publisher says is a reaction to economic conditions of the newspaper industry.

Steven A. Smith, who has been the newspaper’s editor for more than six years, is resigning as part of the reductions, which he called devastating to the news operation. The newsroom cuts will affect writers, editors, photographers and support staff.

Companywide, about 60 workers will be cut.

Publisher W. Stacey Cowles said the reductions were “nothing unusual” and a reaction to the economics of the newspaper industry.

“Our goal remains that of being among the best daily newspapers of our size anywhere in America, and most importantly of being the preferred source of information in the Inland Northwest,” Cowles said in a statement released as reductions were announced to the staff Wednesday. “We are not, however, immune from general economic forces.”

Other changes involve a narrowing of the newspaper, from about 13 inches to about 11.

“While the page will be slightly smaller in size, we anticipate little reduction in the amount of news in the paper,” said Shaun O’L. Higgins, the newspaper’s director of sales and marketing. Changes in the way the newspaper handles advertising will open some space for news, and a new design will make classified advertising easier to read.

The newspaper will still publish its Voice sections and Handle Extra in North Idaho and maintain bureaus in Olympia and Boise.

Jim Kershner, president of the Spokane Editorial Society, which represents the editorial department, called the cuts brutal. The 86-person union will lose 21 members in the layoffs, announced two weeks before negotiations on a new contract are scheduled to begin. Four to six newsroom managers will be laid off.

“It’s also the latest in a long series of bad decisions by the people who own and run The Spokesman-Review,” he said. “Management told us that these cuts are necessary to ‘ensure the continued profitability of the company,’ although I have never heard anybody claim we are actually losing money.”

The newspaper has more than 100,000 subscribers on the weekend and may have twice as many readers, Kershner said. “Yet we won’t have them for long if we keep taking away more and more content and start eroding the quality of our journalism,” he said.

One source, who declined to be identified, said the layoffs are part of an effort to cut more than $1.5 million in newsroom costs. Smith would not confirm that figure, but he agreed that the editorial budget is being cut by more than $1 million.

Cowles said the newspaper company’s work force in 2009 will be about 470. Many jobs have been eliminated by resignations and retirements; the rest will be lost in involuntarily layoffs, he said.

The editorial union’s labor contract calls for voluntary reductions first, followed by forced reductions based on seniority.

In announcing the layoffs, Smith urged remaining employees to continue a tradition of fine journalism.

“I think the impact of these cuts on the newsroom is devastating,” Smith said later. “That’s not a belief that the paper is going to be damaged in a devastating way.”

He said he disagrees with the decision to make such large cuts but added, “I absolutely respect the right of the publisher and owners to do whatever they believe they need to preserve the paper into the future.”

He said he resigned because he was uncomfortable with the level of the cuts.

“The publisher should have an editor in sync with his priorities,” Smith said.

His successor has not been named.

Carla Savalli, assistant managing editor for local news, called Smith “a fierce and courageous editor.”

“Readers may never completely agree with the way a newspaper covers a community, but there was no more passionate advocate for civic journalism and truth-telling than Steve,” Savalli said.