Lee Enterprises plans newsroom cuts at Virginia publications
Daily Progress copy editors' jobs moving to Midwest hub
The Daily Progress newspaper in Charlottesville will lay off its four-person copy desk in early October, as Iowa-based owner Lee Enterprises eliminates local jobs in favor of a consolidated copy desk in Indiana or Wisconsin, according to a memo sent to affected employees Friday.
The cuts at The Daily Progress are possibly just the beginning of eliminating copy editing and page design jobs at all of Lee Enterprises’ Virginia newspapers, according to members of two newsroom unions and other Lee employees.
The company did not respond to a request for comment Friday. A union member at The Roanoke Times, where 10 copy desk positions are on the chopping block, said the company has not informed editors at his newspaper of its plans to move the jobs to design hubs in the Midwest, although Lee did confirm it with union negotiators.
The proposed cuts come four months after Lee Enterprises finalized its purchase of 30 newspapers previously owned by BH Media Group, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., for $140 million in cash. Lee had previously been hired to manage the BH Media newspapers, including those in Virginia.
Among the Virginia newspapers now under Lee’s ownership are the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bristol Herald Courier, The News & Advance in Lynchburg, The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and The News Virginian in Waynesboro, The Roanoke Times and The Daily Progress.
The plans to relocate page design duties for daily papers in Virginia — typically conducted in-house — to a centralized hub came out when Charlottesville’s newsroom union, the Blue Ridge NewsGuild, was negotiating its contract earlier this year, according to Shawn Garrett, a graphic designer at The Roanoke Times and a member of the Timesland News Guild, the newspaper’s union, which is currently negotiating its contract with Lee.
A statement released Friday by the Blue Ridge NewsGuild executive committee acknowledges that its members signed a contract this year that allows the move, adding it was “one of many concessions we had to make to secure raises and health insurance protections.” The union also notes that replacements for a sports reporter, a University of Virginia beat reporter and a fifth copy designer have not been hired since Lee took ownership.
According to the guild, four full-time copy-editing positions will be eliminated, and page design for the Daily Progress and its sister paper, the News Virginian in Waynesboro, will be done in either Indiana or Wisconsin beginning in October.
In a memo sent to the four copy editors by an editor at the Daily Progress, which was provided to Virginia Business, their jobs will be eliminated the week of Oct. 5-11, although the editors will be given “first consideration” for one new copy-editing position in Charlottesville, “which will essentially work collaboratively with Lee Design Centers and designers. It will be posted internally and you and your three other colleagues affected by this work transfer may apply for it.”
Under The Daily Progress’ union contract, employees are required to be given 60 days’ notice before being laid off, which the memo fulfilled.
Meanwhile, The Roanoke Times’ union also has taken its copy desk’s case public, posting a petition online and asking readers and government officials to contact Lee Enterprises officials. According to Garrett, seven part-time and three full-time copy editors and designers — more than half of the staff on the Times’ copy desk — are set to be cut. Because the Daily Progress found out about the plans to consolidate the paper’s copy desk in the Midwest, the Times’ union members asked Lee if its copy desk would be affected. The company confirmed the cuts, he said.
“They told us before our union was certified,” said Garrett, whose job is not affected by the cuts. “It fell to the union to tell these people that they were losing their jobs.” And because section editors, as newsroom leaders, don’t belong to the Timesland union, most didn’t know about the consolidation plan when union members approached them, Garrett added.
“We’re vehemently opposed to any cuts,” Garrett said Friday. “We’re trying to impress upon the company that our paper’s much better served by keeping jobs here instead of shipping them off to the Midwest. It’s an erosion of local journalism.” He added that although his union is busy finalizing its contract with Lee, its members are having behind-the-scenes discussions with other unions, including the newsroom union at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Richmond Newspaper Professional Association.
The number of potential layoffs at the Times-Dispatch, which is the state’s flagship newspaper, is not clear. Union representatives either didn’t respond to requests for comment Friday or declined to speak about negotiations.
Smaller Lee-owned papers, even those with employees in the single digits, expect to be affected, too. Ashley Spinks — the only full-time editorial staffer at the weekly Floyd Press — reports, edits and designs her newspaper. It is profitable, she said, and yet several positions were eliminated before she joined the paper in July 2019, and her freelance writing budget also has been cut. Her newspaper, too, will be designed at one of the Midwest hubs.
“It’s just removing the design process from the community, which is bound to have deleterious effects and will likely shorten my deadlines, making stories less timely,” she said.
In late March, amid economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Lee announced layoffs and two-week unpaid furloughs required by the end of June of its full-time employees at 77 daily newspapers across the country. Company executives also took a 20% reduction in pay. Gannett and The Tribune Co., which also own several Virginia newspapers, announced furloughs in March, and the Tribune-owned Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press newspapers have consolidated their publications’ production, as well as selling the Virginian-Pilot’s longtime Norfolk offices earlier this year to a developer.
Virginia Business Deputy Editor Kate Andrews was a copy editor and staff writer at The Daily Progress from 1999 to 2006.