By Ken Stone
Beginning in April, readers of The San Diego Union-Tribune will miss some familiar bylines and photo credits in the wake of buyouts accepted this month.
Some 46 company employees applied for severance checks tied to their tenure — as much as a year’s pay. But not all 46 will leave, since the U-T had a deadline of 6 p.m. Friday for applicants to rescind their buyout applications.
According to a list of titles and ages (ranging from 40 to 69), buyouts were approved for about two dozen in the U-T newsroom or its associated nine community newspapers: the La Jolla Light, Del Mar Times, Encinitas Advocate, Solana Beach Sun, Carmel Valley Times, Poway News Chieftain, Rancho Santa Fe Review, Ramona Sentinel and Rancho Bernardo News Journal.
But several newsroom veterans confirmed they are taking buyouts, including John Gibbins, a photographer for four decades; Peter Rowe, with 35 years as a writer and columnist; and public-safety reporter Pauline Repard, leaving in April after 31 years at the paper.
On Monday, weather columnist Robert “Rob” Krier confirmed he’ll be taking the buyout as well, leaving May 1.
Krier, a 63-year-old North County resident whose main job is copy editing, has worked at the U-T for 32 years. About 20 years ago, then editor Karin Winner asked him to write a weather column. Ever since, he’s used what he called his “nose for numbers” to educate and entertain readers.
The latest shrinkage of the 151-year-old newspaper comes amid heightened demand for trusted professional reporting and vetted information in the era of coronavirus.
A list obtained by Times of San Diego includes potential buyouts of six reporters and four photographers or photo editors (about half the photo staff). Other buyout applicants include a deputy sports editor “executive editor,” both 63. But the executive wasn’t managing editor Lora Cicalo or publisher Light, both under 60.
About 115 newsroom staff members are listed on the paper’s site, including page designers, copy editors, news assistants and Opinion section staff. If 20 of them take buyouts — and aren’t replaced — it would represent a 17% staff reduction.
Reporter Rowe, 64, is famed for his beer column and coverage of the San Diego craft brewery industry. On Friday, he said that he had been planning to retire in 2021, so the buyout timing “worked quite nicely.”
He said he hoped to write a farewell column in the weekly entertainment guide Night & Day.
On Saturday, photographer Gibbins said he accepted his “generous buyout offer” after 41 years and four months at the paper — dating to before the 1992 merger of the morning San Diego Union-Tribune and sister afternoon daily The Tribune. (But the competing papers shared photo staffs.)
“It has been a great run with some amazing journalists,” he said.
I’m the last person in the @sdut newsroom tonight, and I don’t know when I’ll be back. It’s an eerie feeling being in a major American newsroom when the place should be abuzz with activity and humor and LIFE and the lights are only on where the magic happens at @sdutIdeas. pic.twitter.com/RKUYR2o940
— Matthew T. Hall 🏡 (@SDuncovered) March 20, 2020
On Instagram, theater critic James Hebert, 56, wrote that he would take advantage of the buyout after 12 years as a critic and 30 at the U-T to “reconnect with my family and look to new horizons.”
View this post on Instagram
Friends, I realize this is not of huge import given everything that’s going on right now, but I wanted to let you know that as of April 3 I will be departing from my position as Union-Tribune theater critic. I want to emphasize that this is entirely my decision — the company offered voluntary buyout packages to employees a few weeks ago, and I’ve decided to take advantage of the opportunity to step away (after 12 years in the critic’s chair and nearly 30 at the U-T), reconnect with my family and look to new horizons. Given the crisis we’re all going through, it felt especially important to be more available at home and more able to support my amazing wife Sophy. And as parents of a great young man with autism whose whole world has suddenly been canceled, we need all hands on deck just now. (Speaking of: We're also so lucky to have our daughter suddenly home from college; a resident stand-up comedy ace is a must at times like this.) I have nothing but complete appreciation for all the opportunities and incredible experiences the U-T has afforded me over the years, and I am going to miss all my colleagues like crazy (including my gifted longtime editor, Michael James Rocha, my fantastic friend and pop-music critic extraordinaire George Varga, my longtime writing hero Karla Peterson, my matchless theater-beat compatriot Pam Kragen and so many others). And while I’ll have a bit more to say on this in an upcoming U-T piece, I’ll treasure for the rest of my life every moment I've been blessed to spend getting to know San Diego’s incredible theater artists and witnessing their work. My greatest regret is that I won’t have a chance to cover our theater scene — at least from this seat — as it rebounds triumphantly from the current crisis. But my most unshakeable conviction is that it will do exactly that. As things return to something more like normal life, I'll be on the lookout for new opportunities. In the meantime: Thank you, thank you, one and all. Now, to borrow a theme from the last show I reviewed: Time for me to fly.
“Given the crisis we’re all going through, it felt especially important to be more available at home and more able to support my amazing wife Sophy,” he said Monday. “And as parents of a great young man with autism whose whole world has suddenly been canceled, we need all hands on deck just now.”
In his 362-word post, Hebert said his greatest regret is not having a chance to cover the San Diego theater scene “as it rebounds triumphantly from the current crisis. But my most unshakeable conviction is that it will do exactly that.”
Gibbins, 62, recalled that his first day was busy. It was Jan. 29, 1979, when he covered the San Carlos school shooting by Brenda Spencer, 16.
“Last days will be pandemic [coverage],” he said. “Big bookends.”
“I have nothing bad to say about my time there,” he added. “I have been blessed with good direct bosses the whole time. There are some great new young journalists there now and by us seniors leaving that will give the company some breathing room salary wise and they will be able to hire more young talent with the latest skill sets.
“Not to take anything away from my current colleagues on staff. They can keep up with any newbie and teach them a thing or two along the way. The ongoing transition from print to all digital is rolling along.
“Like I tell the kids I work with: ‘Visual storytellers have been around since the cave painters and are not going away, only becoming more vital.'”
Repard, considered the dean of police reporters in San Diego County, lately has focused on courts. She was president of the San Diego Press Club in 2016-17.
Weather writer Krier maintains an active Twitter feed, citing rainfall and temperature records and inviting readers to take part in annual weather prediction contests.
He echoed hopes for his employer, saying that although “tons of talent” is leaving, “the people left behind are dang good.”
Don Bauder, the former U-T business editor and San Diego Reader columnist retired to Colorado, said he believes downsizing will continue at most metro dailies, and at many weeklies and small dailies.
“We have to face facts: The daily paper is too late with too little,” he said via email. “The paper you get in the morning has information you saw on TV the night before. The print product that lands on your doorstep in the morning may have inaccurate information, particularly from abroad. The exceptions are rural and small-town papers that don’t have online competition and remain the only source of local news. Some of those, however, are still doing badly. Look at Gannett.”
Bauder cited “two glorious exceptions”: The New York Times and Washington Post, “which have the manpower to cover a hot topic extremely well, and hence are prospering.”
He said he and his wife, Ellen, watch MSNBC.
“Night after night, it features stories it picked up from the Times and Post. It also interviews Times and Post reporters almost every night. Ergo, the Times and Post have recovered economically.”
But Bauder, 83, calls himself a sad example of a newspaper investor.
“Years ago, I made money selling Times stock at $46,” he said. “A few years ago, I figured that if any newspaper could make it financially online, it would be the Times. I bought it at $16, waited for the miracle, agonized as profits went down and it dropped the dividend. I finally sold it at $9. But along came Donald Trump. Last Friday, Times stock closed at $29.19.”
Bauder says the U-T faces more revenue losses with movie theaters, restaurants, bars and gyms shuttered.
“No reason to advertise if you are closed and nobody goes out,” he said. “Why would retailers except grocery stores and a few others advertise now? This might not be serious if the virus is stopped soon, but that is a very remote possibility. So if ads plunge, so does income, and there will almost have to be buyouts and layoffs.”
Like dozens of others in the downtown newsroom, Rowe is working from home now. But he contrasted current ownership — billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong — with previous U-T owners Platinum Equity and “Papa Doug” Manchester.
He praised Soon-Shiong, also owner of the Los Angeles Times, and said he has hope for the San Diego paper’s future.
He also said he continues to try new beers. On Friday, he made an order via DoorDash.
“A new experience,” he said.
Updated at 10:43 p.m. March 23, 2020.
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