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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.

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Comments

HellcatCopley Feb. 3, 2009 @ 12:49 p.m.

Or maybe Bell just loves keeping them in suspense! When there's no pay raises ya gotta motivate the workforce somehow!

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classico Feb. 3, 2009 @ 12:49 p.m.

Of all the rumors I've heard about the U-T the past couple years, the one about running out of page film is the hardest to believe.

If they get a pagination system, some copy editors may wish they were canned. I had to learn three pagination systems in 11 years at the Copley-owned paper where I worked. The first one and last one about killed me.

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HellcatCopley Feb. 3, 2009 @ 12:52 p.m.

Part of the story about pagination: when the union was decertified, there was a hue and cry about pagintion because it would have resulted in a job drop in the production depatment. As the company had all but promised no take-aways if the union was busted, the paste-up people stayed on.

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JohnnyVegas Feb. 3, 2009 @ 1:17 p.m.

There is no way the UT has been sold. No one would pay for it, in fact Copley may have to pay someone else to take over the liability.

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realnews Feb. 3, 2009 @ 2:03 p.m.

Taking a page out this story...

Sorry. Couldn't resist.

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Don Bauder Feb. 3, 2009 @ 3:41 p.m.

Response to post #1: Maybe management thinks goose bumps on employees' flesh is a sign of tractability. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Feb. 3, 2009 @ 3:44 p.m.

Response to post #2: It may be hard to believe, but I strongly feel my sources are good. I gave the company almost 24 hours to refute the story, and heard nothing. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Feb. 3, 2009 @ 3:48 p.m.

Response to post #3: In the process of researching this, I touched base with people who know the unions' side of the pagination adventure. Nobody mentioned what you cited. That doesn't mean you are wrong. You are probably right. It was more than ten years ago. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Feb. 3, 2009 @ 3:52 p.m.

Response to post #4: Daimler almost gave away Chrysler. Now the hedge fund Cerberus, which bought it for a very lowball price, no doubt wishes it had not taken on such burdens. Yes, you can be given something, and it can drain you. That wouldn't be true of the U-T unless cash flow is negative, among other things. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Feb. 3, 2009 @ 3:53 p.m.

Response to post #5: You're forgiven. Best, Don Bauder

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WhatGoesAround Feb. 3, 2009 @ 4:29 p.m.

Don -- The Union-Tribune has known for at least a decade (and probably longer) that procuring photographic film was going to be increasingly difficult, if not impossible as the demand for it decreased. Photo offset suppliers and digital technology companies have been at war for 20 years, and digital has won the battle, and the Union-Tribune has known that too. So why did they delay pagination's implementation? To call it "shortsighted" is an understatement. I smell a rat (possibly several). To suggest that the U-T is about to launch an effort to cobble together a pagination system in "Rube Goldberg" fashion is an insult to Rube Goldberg.

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classico Feb. 3, 2009 @ 4:52 p.m.

Full-paper pagination isn't something that can be cobbled together in a couple weeks. These systems have huge learning curves. If the U-T is trying to do this in a hurry with a pared-back design/copy desk staff, God help them. I can't imagine anything that would more quickly induce a demoralized copy editor to look for work in another field.

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Don Bauder Feb. 3, 2009 @ 7:41 p.m.

Response to post #11: Very perceptive post. And what might be the motivation of this rat, or rats? Why put the production of a daily newspaper at risk unless sabotage or something similar was on somebody's mind? I would appreciate more from you. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Feb. 3, 2009 @ 7:44 p.m.

Response to post #12: And where is that demoralized copy editor going to find work these days? Certainly not in the journalism profession. It won't even be easy to get a job sweeping floors in a shopping center. (One reason is that there are so few people shopping, the floors don't get dirty anymore.) Best, Don Bauder

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JohnnyVegas Feb. 3, 2009 @ 9:08 p.m.

It won't even be easy to get a job sweeping floors in a shopping center. (One reason is that there are so few people shopping, the floors don't get dirty anymore.)

Someone tell that to the government.

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Don Bauder Feb. 3, 2009 @ 9:58 p.m.

Response to post #15: The federal government publishes retail statistics on a regular basis. Someone should have figured it out. But don't talk too loud: all the retailers may want bailouts, too. Best, Don Bauder

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Burwell Feb. 3, 2009 @ 10:21 p.m.

All the sweeping jobs at shopping centers are held by illegals. The only option for the fired copy editor is to enlist in the Marine Corps. As a Marine the editor won't have to worry about being pestered by life insurance salesmen.

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News Light Feb. 3, 2009 @ 10:31 p.m.

Speaking of moral, it was interesting to how the Super Bowl winning Steelers spoke highly of their boss, Dan Rooney and how nice he treats his employees.

At the U-T, neither the owner, CEO, or editor have not addressed their employees in person, or even in email in years. Not one staff meeting regarding anything, no keep up the good work, no we are going in this direction, no we will get through this. Gene Bell couldn't even send out the email regarding furlows and layoffs himself. He had the corporate communications guy do it.

Now that is a way to run a business.

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Burwell Feb. 3, 2009 @ 10:43 p.m.

Maybe the reporters should start filing workers compensation claims en masse based on writer's block from job stress. I am sure most U-T reporters are close to a mental breakdown from the stress U-T management is inflicting on them. The U-T should have cut the head count in one fell swoop rather than stringing the cuts out month after month, terrorizing and demoralizing the workforce along the way. If the reporters could find a psychologist who would sign off on a stress diagnosis, I doubt the state could deny the claims.

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Don Bauder Feb. 4, 2009 @ 7:19 a.m.

Response to post #17: Wait a minute. A New York Times investigative reporter -- Diane Henriques, I believe -- had a series awhile ago showing how insurance companies peddle scam policies to those in the military. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Feb. 4, 2009 @ 7:34 a.m.

Response to post #18: You are putting your finger on a chronic Copley problem. Mid-level managers are afraid to give praise to workers lest their bosses decide that the worker is not so good after all. And, of course, the hostility to labor unions has always existed, and escalated during the unfortunate period when union members were too aggressive with Helen Copley, who was a sensitive person. Top-level managers have always been sparse with praise: this is part of the military culture that has suffused the organization for decades. It's a top-down organization. Things don't move bottom-up. There is another point I want to make on the inability to install pagination on the news side. The company DID install pagination for classified advertising; there was a bottom-line payoff. That happened perhaps 12 years ago. Management could never see a payoff from pagination on the editorial side. President Gene Bell, from what I hear from reliable sources, nixed pagination deals a couple of times because he couldn't get the price he wanted. But that may have been what he told managers; actually, he may have simply wanted to kill or stall the program because there was supposedly no bottom line payoff. However, if the story presented here is true -- and I strongly believe that it is -- the inability to go pagination on the editorial side is now presenting problems that should have been foreseen.

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Don Bauder Feb. 4, 2009 @ 7:38 a.m.

Response to post #19: Interesting point. My guess is that the employee would have to prove that the company was deliberately using the Chinese water torture technique to induce resignations so the company wouldn't have to pick up the cost of layoffs. Best, Don Bauder

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Fred Williams Feb. 4, 2009 @ 9:44 a.m.

Don, could you throw in a couple carriage returns in your posts?

When it's a long brick of prose, it's difficult to read online.

Give us a (paragraph) break!

Thanks,

Fred

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Fred Williams Feb. 4, 2009 @ 9:58 a.m.

I find it nothing short of incredible that a functioning newspaper would still be printed without digital technologies.

What century are they living in?

I used the old photo-based system when I was on the staff of my High School newspaper...more than 25 years ago!

This must be highly embarrassing to everyone at the UT. How can the present employees even find another job when they don't know how to use industry standard software?

I feel sorry for the ones still toiling for the inept or indifferent top brass at the UT. If I were working there (and I wouldn't) I'd be writing some wicked limericks on the bathroom walls.

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Don Bauder Feb. 4, 2009 @ 10:41 a.m.

Response to post #23: I have tried this before without success. I will keep trying. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Feb. 4, 2009 @ 10:47 a.m.

Response to post #24: Fred, how lucky you are. You were on your high school newspaper, apparently, about 25 years ago, perhaps 26. My 55th high school reunion is this year .(I was sports editor and had nothing to do with production.) I was editor in chief of my college newspaper (University of Wisconsin) more than 50 years ago (1958). I can remember the old linotype machines and other ancient technology. Best, Don Bauder

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Fred Williams Feb. 4, 2009 @ 10:59 a.m.

I was a writer, illustrator, and paste-up guy...I remember working late with x-acto knives and glue sticks, the photo-printed paper still hot...

But I'm really no good as a journalist.

I cannot fool myself or anyone else that I'm objective. I have a distinct viewpoint and set of experiences that I apply to what I see, and cannot pretend to separate that from my writing.

That's why technology suits me. Sometimes you can actually get rewarded for telling the unvarnished truth.

In politics and journalism, that seems to be forbidden.

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HellcatCopley Feb. 4, 2009 @ 11 a.m.

Not only is it top-down but it is also run by legend.

The UT is chock-a-block full of prognositicators, tea leaf readers, crystal ball gazers, and card tellers who claim to know the inside track of David Copley's mind and intentions for the company.

In the old days, the assorted gypsies did the mind reading trick on Helen's behalf. They stopped when she died. So far, clairvoyance of Helen's management directives from regions beyond have not been announced.

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Don Bauder Feb. 4, 2009 @ 11:56 a.m.

Response to post #27: Fred, you could always be a columnist or editorial writer. You write beautifully and persuasively. Trouble is, these jobs aren't around in this miserable economy and environment for ink-and-paper media. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Feb. 4, 2009 @ 12:01 p.m.

Response to post #28: Also, Copley executives always read Burl Stiff's column when one of Helen's or David's parties was the main subject. Everybody wanted to know who in the corporate hierarchy was invited, and who was photographed with whom. That was a clue to who was in and who was out at headquarters. Best, Don Bauder

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JustWondering Feb. 4, 2009 @ 12:01 p.m.

Ahhhh finally, an explanation for the UT's editorial pages. They're coming from extra terrestrial origins... alive or dead it's getting harder to tell everyday.

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Ponzi Feb. 4, 2009 @ 12:05 p.m.

Serves them right. I remember in their golden years when I wanted to run a classified ad in their paper, I had to schlep down to their office in Mission Valley and wait in a long, slow line to submit and pay for my ad in advance.

I’d enter the grand hall of walnut paneling and oil paintings of the elite Copley kings of the past glaring at me while I waited in line. There was always a security guard standing near the elevator.

They were behind the time then, they didn't take credit cards over the phone yet or accept ad copy by TWX, and they are behind the times now.

One thing is for sure. There's no cattle line to pay for ads there anymore.

Yay for craisglist.com

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Don Bauder Feb. 4, 2009 @ 1:02 p.m.

Response to post #31: There may be an extraterrestrial explanation, but what is really hard to differentiate is the editorial page from the news pages. That's always been true but seems to be getting worse, and it figures. With everyone wondering whether they will have a job, there is more and more slanting of copy to fit the editorial bias of the top editors and the owner, David Copley. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Feb. 4, 2009 @ 1:05 p.m.

Response to post #32: Back in those days, the Union and Tribune were making more than 30 percent pre-tax profit. One reason for the fat profits, as you point out, was the pennypinching on equipment and personnel to serve customers. Now that mentality is haunting the company. Best, Don Bauder

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muzzler Feb. 27, 2009 @ 11:54 a.m.

While pagination may sound like it makes technological sense, it never made financial sense for a large metro stand-alone newspaper. Especially at the U-T where the sheer and utter obstinance of the news department regarding what they ABSOLUTELY had to have in any system. That alone drove the complexity of specifications (and potential cost) through the roof.

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