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Thursday, April 19, 2012 09:37 pm

Not playing in Peoria

Civic leaders say they’re concerned about SJ-R and Peoria newspaper

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Elected leaders in Peoria and Springfield say they’re concerned about the future of GateHouse newspapers in their cities.

Religious leaders and elected officials in Peoria have intervened in collective bargaining between employees and management at the Peoria Journal Star, sister paper of the State Journal-Register.

In a letter sent last month to the Journal Star’s publisher, Mayor Jim Ardis and 10 of the city’s 11 council members urged the newspaper to not cut wages and outsource jobs. In a similar letter, pastors of two churches in the city also said they were concerned that cutting jobs would jeopardize the newspaper’s role as a watchdog.

“I have never run a newspaper,” Ardis wrote. “But less is surely not more, when it comes to reporting the news.”

In an April 9 press conference outside city hall, Ardis said that some damage has already been done.

“The issue to me, both as mayor but also as a private citizen, is the information that goes out to our citizens, the people who live here in Peoria,” Ardis said. “As the Journal Star continues to decline, and I think it has declined, it’s a disservice to the people who live in Peoria and their ability to get information.”

Union representatives for newsroom and circulation employees say that the bargaining unit that stood at 120 workers when GateHouse bought the paper in 2007 has shrunk to 76, and management wants deeper cuts by outsourcing circulation at the cost of 36 jobs, cutting wages by 3 percent and increasing the percentage of health insurance premiums paid by employees from 25 percent to 45 percent.

The union fears that GateHouse will also eliminate the newspaper’s copy desk, as it is doing at the State Journal-Register. The contract between the union and the paper expired in August, and the two sides have agreed to monthly extensions of the old deal, said Chris Kaergard, a government and politics reporter at the Peoria paper who serves as vice president of Peoria Unit 86 of the United Media Guild.

Kaergard said that State Journal-Register readers should watch what is happening in Peoria.

“What’s happening here is not exclusive to Peoria,” Kaergard said. “Folks in Springfield have seen the same sort of attack on the ability of people at the SJ-R to do their work. The papers truly are linked in terms of some of the content that is shared.”

No one at Springfield City Hall is writing letters to Walt Lafferty, publisher of the State Journal-Register. But Mayor Mike Houston and several city council members said that they’re concerned about job cuts and the newspaper’s future.

“I think everyone is concerned about the future of the SJ-R,” Houston said. “While GateHouse is having its problems, I believe the SJ-R has been a profitable operation. When you look at the SJ-R, it has a great tradition. It provides great service. I hope it will continue to be able to publish.”

Council members Tim Griffin, Frank Edwards, Sam Cahnman, Doris Turner and Gail Simpson also expressed concerns, particularly about the shutdown of the paper’s press last year, which resulted in more than 50 lost jobs, and other cuts that could hurt the city’s economy.

“Basically, what they’re doing is sending jobs out of Springfield,” Simpson said. “What’s next? … At some point, you have to consider what’s best for the community versus cost-cutting tools.”

Lafferty could not be reached for comment, but he sounded upbeat during a March 27 interview with local radio personality Sam Madonia.

“I believe the newspaper is doing well,” Lafferty said.

Lafferty said that he has increased the amount of news in the paper and that the building isn’t for sale because he hasn’t listed the property, even though he has spoken with a commercial real-estate broker and selling the building is an option. Although GateHouse stock is virtually worthless and the company has struggled to make a profit with more than $1 billion in debt coming due in 2014, Lafferty said that he isn’t worried.

“I believe that date will come and go, and GateHouse Media will be a player in the newspaper industry,” Lafferty said.

Lafferty also downplayed job cuts in the newsroom.

“In the two years I’ve been there, the newsroom has had about 55 FTE’s (full-time equivalent employees),” Lafferty told Madonia. “Currently, we’re probably around 51 or 52.”

At the time of the interview, at least a dozen full-time newsroom employees had left the paper and not been replaced since Lafferty was hired in 2010. The names of the departed are Chris Britt, Erica Cusumano, Deb Israel, Brian Mackey, John Moody, Kathleen Ostrander, Ryan O’Shea, Jennifer Pointer, Amanda Reavy, Bruce Rushton, Rhys Saunders and Todd Smith.

A replacement for Reavy, who took a state job late last year, is reportedly joining the staff soon. But Jayette Bolinski, a police reporter and online producer, left for a job with Illinois Statehouse News two weeks ago. Michael Turley, managing editor for digital delivery, last week started work as GateHouse’s content team manager for the northern Midwest.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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