An open letter to Lee Enterprises, amid incessant “cuts to people and paper”
Nov. 12, 2020
Ms. Mary Junck:
As many of us have come to realize, there is no bottom, no low, no new nonsense that your national chain can sink to.
It’s apparently not enough that you have reduced our frontline journalists by 50 percent in the two years that you’ve run us. We started 2018 with 118 journalists. We will end 2020 with about 62.
This year, you’ve reneged on an unbreakable vow to our readers: that when you took over BH Media, you would seek “synergies” in the executive branch and upper management of BH and Lee so that frontline journalists can continue to provide communities with reliable, relevant information they can’t get elsewhere.
In the past two months, you’ve axed nine productive World-Herald journalists while keeping duplicative weight in the C-suite. Rather than make sacrifices, you’ve passed on the cuts to our readers, by cutting their product.
Just to name a few of the crushing choices you’ve made:
- This week, you decided to end the longest-running Washington, D.C., bureau in the Midwest. Forever, the World-Herald has held Nebraska’s and Iowa’s congressional delegation to account. No one has done it better than Joe Morton, who has manned the bureau for the past 14 years. Long before Covid, he sacrificed an office, saving the company thousands of dollars in rent by working out of his home or the halls of Congress. This decision is such a gut punch: What will our readers, and the electorate, lose without a watchdog in Washington, D.C.?
- Jeffrey Koterba. Our award-winning cartoonist. Talented, clever, creative, sharp and productive every damn day of his more than three decades of work at the World-Herald. What a loss.
- Our design desk. We know what you’re up to, and our readers are coming to realize it: You’re carving away at the frontline editors who have local expertise and hold our newspaper to a gold standard when it comes to reliability and readability. Unlike you, they’ve lived here for years, have a lifelong connection to this community and the matching desire to serve it.
- Mike Sautter. Our workaholic preps journalist, who brought more people to omaha.com than perhaps any single individual in the newsroom. Also brought in significant revenue as one of the few journalists who sought out advertisers for his high school videos, photos, podcasts and reports. This summer, he jumped in off of his beat, chronicling George Floyd protests through video and twitter. And of course, he filled a need that traditional newspapering doesn’t — tweeting, ranking and videotaping high-school athletes, a profitable and immensely popular pursuit. You apparently have no desire to serve our readers or even to profit off of readers’ (and parents’) immense interest in videos and rankings of high-school athletes. So Sautter is off to serve readers and make money for someone else.
Contrast those cuts with the executive branch of Lee Enterprises. The duplicative VPs that you promised would be streamlined. And of course, the diabolical way you keep rewarding yourself and your Davenport-based executives with seven- and six-figure compensation packages as they cut hard-working, community-minded journalists making $50k a year. As longtime industry analyst Rick Edmonds said, the one thing Lee knows how to do is “cuts to people and paper.” Except, apparently, for the high-priced people with oversized offices and outsized views of their value to the company.
You have committed an unpardonable sin: Cutting content for readers, before cutting corporate waste and duplicative weight.
Blame these cuts on a pandemic all you want. If you were a governmental agency in the midst of a budget crisis, we as journalists would scrutinize everything.
So our questions:
- How do you justify paying for two publishers in Omaha? Are they producing twice as much as one publisher should?
- Have you looked at your v-p suite? Because we have. Please justify to readers why the veeps keep their jobs when that money could pay for reporters, editors, photographers.
- Do you still have the Omaha CHI Center corporate box that our co-publisher, Ms. Bechtel, refused to relinquish when she took over (though the previous publisher had made arrangements for another Omaha business to buy it)? Are we still paying out high five-figures annually for that?
- Most importantly: What’s the end game? Are we just squeezing the last bit out of a struggling industry to pay off Buffett? Or is there a plan and a path to sustainability?
A humble, sincere thought on where you can start: By vowing to preserve news staff, to carve corporate waste (instead of private jet rentals, you all can fly commercial), to care more about our communities and our readers than your friends in the offices down the corporate hallway.
We’re sorry to have to state these things publicly but let’s face it, you’re a public company that has no problem publicly ending the careers of people like Koterba, Morton, Sautter and so many others. So we’re sincerely asking you to explain yourself to us and to your customers.
Before Buffett became your bank — and provided the $500 milllion+ loan to cover your debt and buy his newspapers — we pressed Buffett’s righthand man, Ted Weschler, on what Lee would bring to the table.
One of our Guild leaders at the time kept asking Weschler: “What’s Lee’s vision for the World-Herald?” Finally, he scrunched his eyes and said: “Lee has no vision.”
Please try to prove him wrong. Tell us what your vision is.
We appreciate your attention and we await your response.
Todd Cooper, President; Hunter Paniagua, Vice President; Alia Conley, Vice President ~On behalf of the 50-plus members of the Omaha World-Herald Guild