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All-star lineup of Tucson reporters faces buyouts, layoffs loom

A list of household names on the Arizona Daily Star staff must soon decide if they'll stay on the job — the newspaper's corporate owners have offered buyouts for older workers, with the veiled threat of potential layoffs pending if not enough staffers accept.

At least a dozen journalists have been given 45 days to decide if they'll accept six months of salary to walk away from their jobs as part of a cost-cutting effort by Lee Enterprises, the Iowa-based media chain that runs Tucson's daily newspaper.

On the list — and possibly soon no longer appearing on the morning daily's roster of journalists — are Greg Hansen, sports columnist, arts reporter Kathy Allen and environmental reporter Tony Davis, sources at the Star and others familiar with the situation said.

David Fitzsimmons, the outspoken editorial cartoonist and columnist, faces leaving his pen on his drawing board. Reporter Carmen Duarte has been at the Star since 1981. Other names familiar to even casual readers of the paper are on the list: Ernesto Portillo. Carol Ann Alaimo. Doug Kreutz. Alfredo Araiza and Ron Medvescek have photographed untold numbers of Tucsonans at thousands of news events. And behind the scenes, local news editor Norma Coile and copy editor George Campbell have worked to keep the news coming our way.

This round of buyouts is taking place across Lee's chain of nearly 50 newspapers, sources said.

The South Park operation under which the Arizona Daily Star is held is a partnership between massive national newspaper chains Gannett Inc. and Lee, with each holding a 50 percent share. Lee is the publisher of the Star, while Gannett was formerly the publisher of the Tucson Citizen, which ceased printing in 2009 and folded up its small blogging site in 2014. The online archive of the Citizen went offline last month with no explanation from corporate officials, and has not been restored.

Employees offered buyouts here are all 62 or older, with at least 15 years of employment at the Star, sources said. They have until early April to decide if they'll hand in their press passes in exchange for 26 weeks of guaranteed pay.

Corporate officials insisted to those offered the buyouts that there are no layoffs planned or anticipated, sources said. But Star insiders greeted those statements with skepticism; it's been a common practice for newspapers to move to layoffs if not enough workers accept buyout agreements.

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Editorial cartoonist Steve Benson was recently among a group laid off at the Arizona Republic after he declined a buyout and Gannett did not meet its target for cutting salaries at the Phoenix newspaper.

In 2016, the Star laid off at least nine journalists — about 15 percent of the newsroom staff at the time. In 2011, the newspaper handed 52 employees their walking papers, including about 15 from the newsroom.

Most Star employees declined to speak on the record about the buyouts, wary of corporate repercussions. Most of those reached by TucsonSentinel.com said they were still evaluating the offer, which was made Monday.

Fitzsimmons posted on Facebook, because "I believe in transparency. And crushing rumors."

"To say I'm inclined to decline the offer and stay as long as The Arizona Daily Star endures is an understatement," he said. "If enough employees across Lee Enterprises take the bait I will survive yet another rough and tumble year for journalism. If not enough take the company-wide buyouts, then future layoffs are inevitable."

"I will remain a proud employee of The Arizona Daily Star as long as the presses run," he said.

While overall revenues have drastically declined in the past decade, and Lee and Gannett have cut expenses to match, the Star is still very profitable. The operation netted about $10 million split between the two partners last year out of $47 million in revenues, with the profits distributed from "all available cash" on a weekly basis. The last year specific numbers were disclosed, 2016, the Star had continued its longstanding pattern of spending about 10 percent of its revenues on newsgathering, including the total salaries of all the reporters, photographers and editors.

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3 comments on this story

3
542 comments
Feb 28, 2019, 12:16 pm
-0 +2

The partnership is about making profits, not investing new money, Christopher. Both companies split roughly $10 million each year, and truck it out of town.

2
Feb 27, 2019, 10:32 pm
-0 +1

At what point does Lee tell Gannett to get off its fat duff and start contributing financially as part of this partnership?  If they’re a 50-50 partner in this operation, but not contributing anything into it, why is Lee letting them get away with that?

1
152 comments
Feb 26, 2019, 1:59 pm
-2 +5

This is only going to make the paper less desirable.
All this while the CEO of Lee Enterprises in Davenport, Iowa, pulls down a hefty $1.5M a year while ravaging all of that chain’s outlets.
Sad.

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