Gerry Braun didn’t abandon his twice-weekly column at the San Diego Union-Tribune lightly. For 18 months, he’d been the metro columnist at San Diego’s lone daily print newspaper, a voice both loudly heard and widely respected. He earned national attention highlighting the Victorian prudishness of Southwest Airlines while maintaining a biweekly drumbeat of commentary on the foibles of Mayor Jerry Sanders, City Attorney Mike Aguirre and other assorted powers that be. So when he left his job suddenly at the beginning of last week, San Diegans who pay attention were stunned. “I think Gerry’s one of the best writers I have ever seen on any newspaper anywhere in the country, in terms of style,” said former state legislator Steve Peace, a reader of the Union-Tribune and its forebears for most of his 55 years. “As a reader, Gerry’s column is one of the few readable portions left of a relatively pathetic daily exercise. It’s a big loss.”
Leaving the paper was the climax of a tumultuous summer for Braun and the paper. Braun’s employment had been tense for some time. Former Union-Tribune staffers point out that as writing coach, the job he held after years of political reporting, he earned higher pay than most reporters but still not as much as a high-profile metro columnist would normally receive. Multiple sources close to Braun said he’d been promised a substantial pay raise when he took the new gig, but two evaluations came and went without any follow-through by the paper. Then Braun went to lunch with the paper’s editor, Karin Winner. Several people who spoke to Braun after the lunch say that she told him she didn’t think he was doing a good job, or at least that she was disappointed with his recent output. Braun was said to have been fuming.
Then, on July 28, Copley Press announced that it would explore a sale of the paper. A month later, management announced a buyout offer for up to 78 staff members. A memo circulated to staff said it would be the last buyout before the paper would be sold. The number of buyouts and which departments can offer how many of them are decisions that come from the paper’s top management, primarily Winner, the paper’s top editorial officer. Top management also determines when certain staff members can and cannot take the buyout. For most employees at the Union-Tribune, once the available slots are determined, buyout are given on a first come, first served basis. U-T staffers, some with decades of experience, took the note to heart. As reported in CityBeat’s Last Blog on Earth, Union-Tribune staff started lining up the day before the buyouts could be accepted, including Braun’s wife, Ruth McKinnie Braun, who writes the “Just Fix It” column. They set up camp in the lobby of the headquarters building armed with sleeping bags and reading material, ready to get their paperwork time stamped as soon as the office opened.
Sources say Braun let it be known that he was considering the buyout and that he might be interested in another job.
He has two children, including a 15-year-old daughter, so college expenses are very much on his mind. When he did put in for the buyout, the paper turned him down. A week later, he accepted the job as Mayor Jerry Sanders’ director of special projects, a position he started this week.
“I never even considered leaving the paper until management announced the sale,” Braun told CityBeat before he started work for Sanders.
While things seem to have worked out well for Braun—he told CityBeat his first day on the job was “amazing”—the paper he leaves behind finds itself coping with a thinned work force. The buyout Braun tried to take was the third the paper had offered since 2006, and there had been departures and layoffs along the way. Based on interviews, phone lists and Internet research, CityBeat estimates the current editorial staff at 240 people, excluding satellite projects like Today’s Local News and the Spanish-language paper Enlace. There are approximately 87 people who produce new content, meaning editorial writers, reporters, and photographers, among others, and 59 people who can be characterized as management, meaning they have staff who report to them or they evaluate staff for raises. Another 93 are copy editors, librarians, news assistants and other people who make the paper run. By its own policy, the Union-Tribune doesn’t discuss staffing numbers, so it would not confirm these figures.
Those staffing levels represent a major reduction since 1992, when the San Diego Union and the San Diego Evening Tribune joined forces in the face of a circulation department already giving ground to other media. Back then, the newly formed Union-Tribune had an editorial staff of 359 people. Broken out, that was 74 supervisors, 181 content producers and 104 editorial-support staff. So, in the past 16 years, the paper has lost more than half of its feet on the street while becoming more top-heavy. In 1992, 20 percent of the staff had a supervisory role, or a 4-to-1 worker-to-management ratio. After the buyouts and departures this year, management makes up 25 percent of the editorial department, a 3-to-1 ratio.
“Oh my gosh,” reacted Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. “That seems to be going in the opposite of what it should be. You would think you would put more people out there who were actually producing something.”
Nationally, daily newspapers are indeed going the other direction.
“I don’t think that’s typical,” said Rick Edmonds, a media analyst at the Poynter Institute when CityBeat asked him about those figures. “Any number of papers have tried to flatten the management structure, but at least over the longer time span, that’s not the case with the Union-Tribune.”
Edmonds said the more common complaint from reporters at other major metropolitan papers was that editors didn’t have enough time for them, because the ranks of middle management had been thinned.
Both Edmonds and Nelson remarked on the generally tough times for daily newspapers everywhere, how they’re losing circulation as people rely more on the web to get their news for free. Nelson, though, argued that the Union-Tribune isn’t about to go only to web editions, since almost no paper gets less than 90 percent of its revenue from the hardcopy edition. He wishes they would pursue a different strategy, though.
“I just wish that somebody would say we’re going to try and make a go of this thing,” he said. “The Union-Tribune can—it’s just a matter of saying, ‘Do we want to try to make this a great paper, or do we want to try to shrink it to a size that somebody will want to buy it?’ It seems to me that those are mutually exclusive.” Tips or comments? Write to ericw@sdcity beat.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.