The Santa Barbara News-Press chose May Day, ironically enough, to lay off 10 employees, that number confirmed late Thursday afternoon by Barry Cappello, attorney for the paper’s parent company, Ampersand Publishing. Those who were laid off included Barry Punzal, the sports editor, a 25-year veteran; and Robert Klinger, an image technician who had been there even longer, said Punzal. “I didn’t even see it coming,” said Punzal. “They just ripped out my heart is what they did, because I gave my heart and soul to that place… . They should have just put a gun to my head.”
Punzal was handed a packet that did not include severance pay; just his final check, documentation for state unemployment compensation, and an application for Cobra, the temporary medical insurance option for those who have lost their jobs and therefore their group insurance.
Cappello said that the layoffs were necessary because “the economic times are such that a reorganization of the paper is required. Revenues are off due in large part to national trends,” he said, namely declining newspaper readership; and because “the Teamsters engaged us in massive litigation.” (The Teamsters are the union that employees elected as their bargaining unit, though its negotiations with management—interrupted by a lengthy legal proceedings from which the Teamsters emerged victorious-have yet to result in a contract.) More than 80 employees have walked out or been fired since July 2006, when tension between the publisher and the paper’s staff precipitated the daily’s current troubles. Although the paper has also initiated its share of expensive legal battles in the wake of the daily’s dramatic meltdown, Cappello said that the paper is “defending the right of ownership to control the content of its newspaper.”
The fact that Santa Barbarans are canceling their subscriptions, due to what Cappello characterized as an economic boycott instigated by the Teamsters, was also a factor, said Cappello. According to a report on Craig Smith’s Blog, the paper’s circulation for the three month period ending March 31 was 35,061 for its weekday issues, down from 37,730 a year earlier, a loss of about seven percent, and Sunday circulation was also down seven percent. During the same period, according to Smith, circulation for the Ventura County Star and the Santa Maria Times either rose or held steady.
Cappello said that he could not give the names of the laid off employees because he didn’t know if they had all been notified yet; and that he did not know how the decision was made about whom to lay off. When he was a sports writer Punzal was a union supporter who, alongside with his editorial colleagues, wore tape over his mouth to protest management policies. He was elevated to the position of sports editor shortly after Gerry Sprat, who had previously occupied that position, resigned in protest. Punzal said that he and his team, including two former interns whom he trained and urged the paper to hire, formed a self-contained “paper within a paper” and that he was especially shocked to be let go because they were highly productive. Punzal was making about $65,000 a year and he estimated that the new hires—temps, like other employees hired in 2007 and 2008—are paid less than half that amount.
Besides Punzal and Klinger, those confirmed to have been laid off are features editor Mindy Spar, Mimi Mork from the circulation department, Elena Villanueva from retail advertising, and Tomasa Moran from accounting.
It is the first time since the troubles began in ‘06 that employees have been laid off en masse; all of the rest have been fired or walked out.