Matthew Lickona 11:49 p.m., Dec. 10
U-T Axe Was to Fall Friday. It Didn't. Newspaper May Need Employees to Slam Together Long-Delayed Pagination System
Last Friday (Jan. 30), Union-Tribune employees throughout the Mission Valley building expected massive layoff announcements. In the advertising department, employees "were getting diarrhea, had bumps on their arms, were finding it hard to work," says an observer. Managers knew nothing. Employees were told that only the Human Resources department and President Gene Bell knew what was going on. A member of the Human Resources department had told an employee that a team was working on it with instructions to complete the head-chopping that Friday. Word spread like wildfire. But the axe didn't fall. As of mid-day Tuesday, there is still no word. On Jan. 16, Bell had announced "dramatic changes in our cost structure" that would entail "a reduction in force." At the same time, the company said it was reducing severance payments and slashing employee benefits in a number of ways. Now, the rumor mill has it that the guillotine will be idle until March 31, or the company has been sold. I doubt both rumors. There may be another explanation. The Union-Tribune has not kept up technologically with the newspaper industry, particularly in pagination. That is the process by which a page is laid out on a computer. Some pages are now laid out on Macintoshes, but many are laid out by an old method using photographic technology. According to reliable sources, the U-T a couple of weeks ago suddenly discovered that it was running very low on the film material for those non-pagination layouts. It faced the possibility of not being able to print a newspaper in a few weeks, according to credible sources. The company scoured Third World countries where the old photographic method is still used. A second plan was to slam-bang together a temporary pagination system. The company refuses to respond to my questions. I do not know if the problem has been solved; if it has, it's probably only temporary relief. The U-T is still considering installing a full pagination system, even when the paper itself is for sale. If there are any more close calls, it will be necessary to do something. Some employees feel that's why the layoffs in editorial and advertising have not come. Extra help may be needed to set up a Rube Goldberg pagination system. Pagination in the industry began in earnest in the 1980s and picked up steam in the 1990s. By the mid-1990s, it was quite widespread, although its performance was somewhat mixed. The Torrance newspaper formerly owned by Copley Press considered full pagination in 1998, but postponed it for economic reasons, and finally made the move in 2004. In the mid-1990s, the U-T thought pagination was a good idea, but one that didn't pencil out. In the early 2000s, the technology was improving, so the company didn't want to commit itself to a system that would be obsolete. As the newspaper's finances fell apart, and the product shrank, conversion made even less sense -- in the short term view, anyway. However, if the company finds that it cannot publish a paper, it will regret delaying pagination. Why did the company run low on the film for non-paginated pages? Possibly the person in charge of that inventory got laid off. Or there was sabotage by one who was part of a pogrom. "Typical U-T shortsightedness," comments a former employee.