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Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild Scrambling to Make Plans in Wake of Massive Sun Layoffs

On Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m., the dust is still not settled in The Baltimore Sun newsroom.

The day after the Tribune company laid off nearly one third of the paper's editorial staff--including upper-level editors, photographers, designers, and copy editors--Angie Kuhl, the Sun's unit chairwoman for the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, says the staff is still "kind of shell shocked." In a story that appeared in the Sun today, Renee Mutchnik, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, says that the layoffs were part of a restructuring plan for the paper that will make it "a 24-hour, local news-gathering media company."

Mutchnik continued: "As everyone knows, more and more readers are moving online, and advertisers are following them. This is our plan for success, not just survival."

The problem is, apparently, that the plan has yet to be revealed to the newsroom staff or the guild representatives, who met with company representatives earlier today to discuss the layoffs. Kuhl says that it's not clear to anyone yet how the newsroom will be structured--or even who, exactly, will be left in the newsroom because some of the recently terminated newsroom staff have "bumping rights." That means they have a month or so to either accept their severance packages or bump into a different newsroom position. That could, in turn, result in other staffers being bumped out of their positions.

"So it may not be clear for a month who else may be leaving," Kuhl says. "Those [bumped] people in turn may then have the same right. It's a bit of a domino effect."

One of those employees with bumping rights is Connie Knox, who says she reported to work yesterday and before she could even log in to her computer was called into an office and told she was being let go. Knox, a slot person on the copy desk who has been with the paper for more than 30 years, says she isn't sure yet what she's going to do because the layoffs came so suddenly.

"There may not be perfect ways to do this," Knox says. "But there might have been slightly improved ways to do this. Maybe a little more empathy with the employees you were dealing with, since most of them were longtime employees. I did leave probably within an hour of my getting notice yesterday, and I do know that other people were still being told. And it was pretty traumatic for some of the people who probably might have had little inkling that this was coming--or no sense of the scope of the layoffs. The size, the very size of it, has been kind of staggering for people, and trying to understand what's going on, and what the production of the newspaper will look like in the future."

Kuhl says that the Guild specifically asked management today what number of employees it hopes to have in the newsroom when the restructuring is complete. "They said it's just impossible to predict because the advertising climate is still so unstable," she says. "It's our fervent hope that this is it, as far as the guild goes and as far as the Sun goes, but they couldn't offer us any assurances that this is it for now. . . . If we could have a better sense of where the Sun was trying to head, for instance, some specifics of where they thought the paper was going, how it was going to be run, maybe we could come up with some alternatives."

Mutchnik did not return City Paper's calls for comment.

Kuhl says that the Guild is planning to get together with representatives from the AFL-CIO to assemble a sort of jobs and services fair for those employees recently laid off by the Sun. She says they plan to offer unemployment advice, insurance information, health-benefits information, and hopefully some job leads. The guild will offer the information for both union-represented employees and also terminated management employees who were not part of the guild.

"We're going to try to help people find alternatives to working here," she says. "It's a problem because newspapers everywhere are reducing staff. In the past, reporters could be somewhat mobile, and if you had to, you could move to another city. But I don't think any of the major dailies are hiring right now."

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