Lean Times: City, Escapes, Regional Sections May Be Cut to Avoid Layoffs

billkeller 5 Lean Times: City, Escapes, Regional Sections May Be Cut to Avoid LayoffsOver the next few weeks, New York Times executive Bill Keller and his brain trust on the masthead have to make a series of difficult decisions in order to cut his newsroom budget.

Just how much he has been asked to cut he hasn’t yet told colleagues, but he has been given a real target number by publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. As at many places, each round of cuts gets worse, since all the easy ones have already been made, he has said.

“After several years of tough budget discipline, there is no pot of easy savings,” Mr. Keller said to the newsroom on Thursday, March 26, after announcing that some of the money would come from a 5 percent paycut for all top editors and a 5 percent pay cut for reporters, once the guild approves the measure. “Everything hurts,” he told his employees.

(In an email to The Observer, Mr. Keller later wrote: “Of course it’s difficult, but it’s by no means the most difficult undertaking I’ve had in this job. We’ve had people kidnapped, imprisoned and killed in the line of duty. Compared to that, this is just work.”)

And, to most readers, those internal cost-cutting measures still don’t amount to anything palpable. But then there are the cuts—like earlier decisions to eliminate the Metro section as a stand-alone and move the material to the back of the A section, or the elimination altogether of Play magazine—that readers actually see at the newsstand.

The City section appears to be the first victim this time. As we reported on our Web site earlier this week, editors have stopped assigning stories for the section, and City section editor Connie Rosenblum has been quietly getting word out to colleagues and contributors that the section is dead. One Times source said there are four more issues left, though The Times has yet to announce the decision and a spokesperson would not comment on our lead; trickling and incessant budget maneuvers are not good publicity, after all, and The Times would probably prefer to announce all of the savings being made in this round of cuts at once.

In an email to The Observer, Mr. Keller wrote that “this is a work in progress, and it serves no useful purpose to talk about things that are still mainly hypothetical. No decisions have been made.”

One source tells The Observer that there are plans to eliminate the paper’s weekly travel installment, Escapes. The regionals that are published in New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island and Westchester might fold as well, which is not an obvious choice: unlike City, the regionals have produced steady revenue, but if there is no more to cut there either, production and freelance costs may no longer be bearable.

Staffers from those sections would be reassigned to new jobs, our source says.

When the Metro stand-alone section was eliminated, the desk and the material it brought to the paper were supposed to be preserved; between online editions and those pages at the back of the A section. We’re hearing that a similar plan is afoot for material that has previously been published in the Escapes, City and regional sections, but another source cautioned that that was “a best case scenario.”

The New York Times Magazine is also expected to organize budget cuts, though the paper’s top editors are still in the earliest stages of figuring out how. One senior newsroom staffer said that the magazine will likely have to cut its page count and adjust its freelance budgets in the near future. Two sources said any changes to the magazine would not affect its publishing frequency.

Mr. Keller has said that job cuts, even at a newsroom with still an impossibly high figure of 1,300 people, is a “cruder instrument” than forcing lower salaries and vacation days. Furthermore, it’s easier to reverse a cut than it is to re-create a job.

If the guild nevertheless rejects the 5 percent plan, the newsroom would have to lose about 60 to 70 jobs. Mr. Keller stopped short of promising that the cut would avoid layoffs altogether in 2009.

“I wish I could make that a firm promise,” he said. “I can’t.”

This story was modified from its original version. Quotes from New York Times executive editor Bill Keller were added.