Sources: Top Courier-Journal editorial staffers likely to take buyouts include Keith Runyon, Steve Ford

By Peter C. Vey (From the New Yorker, till their attorneys make us take it down.)

(Editor’s note: Several contributors and staff members collaborated on this post, which was written by Terry Boyd.)

Earlier this month, Courier-Journal watchers among the digital set spotted an editorial they interpreted as a harbinger of revolution.

An unsigned March 9 editorial titled “Bridge to Progress” contained actual overt criticism of River Fields:

The bridges project is this community’s most important civic undertaking. It is futile, and potentially harmful, for bridge proponents to resist tolls, without which the bridges simply cannot be built. All should hope that River Fields either abandons its mischievous litigation or that the courts dismiss it. The time for groundless protest and stalling is past.

Like Kremlin Watchers of yore, who analyzed how Comintern members were arranged on the parade dais in an effort to determine the political direction of the old Soviet Union, our local Courierologists seized on these five lines as proof opinion page editor Keith Runyon has at last fallen from power.

Because Runyon’s wife Meme Runyon runs River Fields, a preservation group created to fight the East End bridge and an entity that long has been a vache sacrée for CJ editorial writers.

That glancing mention, our Courierologists said, was proof Runyon will yield to Pam Platt.

And we have confirmed through multiple sources that Runyon indeed is planning to leave under Gannett Co. Inc.’s standing buyout/early retirement offer.

Yet another round of Gannett workforce reductions is cutting into the CJ’s top editorial levels. Its liberal, graying Comintern, if you would.

To us, this seems like the most notable mass departure since McLean, Va.-based Gannett began multiple rounds of workforce reductions in 2008.  This time, it’s not Neighborhoods reporters and second-rate columnists. This time, we estimate the CJ could lose something on the order of 200 years of combined Louisville journalism experience should Runyon and veteran editors and reporters depart.

So much for maintaining institutional memory.

Without further ado – and absolutely no shadenfreude – here is our (partial) list of CJ editorial personnel likely to apply for the Gannett buyout offer, a list Insider Louisville staff and contributors have double-confirmed.

Joe Baldwin, copy desk. (Did not return calls for comment.)

Harry Bryan, sports editor. (See comment below.)
Ralph Dunlop, general assignment reporter. (Did not return calls for comment.)
Steve Ford, editor of editorials (Furlough)

Dale Moss – Southern Indiana columnist. (Did not return calls for comment.)

Larry Muhammad – general assignment reporter. (Declined to comment.)

Ken Neuhauser – features writer and kids columnist (Furlough)

Mark Provano – political editor. (Did not reply to call for comment.)

Keith Runyon – opinion page editor (Furlough)

Mike Upsall – assistant metro editor (Furlough)

Andrew Wolfson – legal reporter  (Did not return calls for comment.)

We called and/or left voice mail messages for each person on our list, but only Harry Bryan would comment.

Told that his name was on our list, Bryan replied, “I haven’t applied for anything.” Asked if that meant he didn’t plan to take the Gannett early retirement package, he replied, “I didn’t say that. I don’t know. But this is a personal matter, and I’m not going to discuss it with you.”

Otherwise, no one on the staff was willing or able to discuss the changes.

And we have lots of questions. Such as, “How long have you worked at the CJ? What will you do now? Are veterans taking the buyouts to spare colleagues across the board cuts? Are the buyouts fair? How is morale at the paper?”

Alas, it was not to be, and here is what we know for certain:

In February, Gannett’s top executives offered early-retirment packages to 665 employees. To qualify, a candidate must be at least 56 years old with at least 20 years of service.

Forty-six employees have been offered buyouts, but Gannett will grant 20 at the CJ, according to Gannett documents.

Those eligible for the package, but who have elected to stay, include reporters Sheldon Shafer and Deborah Yetter, according to our sources.

Here’s the parting gift those 20 lucky employees (if 20 indeed step forward) will receive per the original internal notification of the buyouts:

The offer provides for salary continuation of two weeks’ pay for each complete year of service, capped at 52 weeks, and ongoing health, dental and vision coverage during this period. Employees who are eligible will have 45 days to accept. At the close of the offer period, Gannett will review acceptances and make final decisions based on the terms of the offer. 

The deadline to apply is one week from today, Tuesday, March 27. Those who get the buyout would leave the Courier-Journal in April.

To get someone’s perspective beyond our own, we called former Courier-Journal chief political reporter Al Cross.

Cross, who left the CJ in 2004, now is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community, part of the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. He remains a regular Courier-Journal contributor. (Cross declined to discuss internal CJ dynamics.)

He is what those of us in digital information delivery classify as a 20th Century traditionalist. He believes newspapers will exist for as long as the huge 50-year-old-plus demographic still needs to hold a paper in their hands.

That doesn’t mean Cross is blind to the inevitable digitalization of news delivery.

He referred to recent studies – including one by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center – indicating the newspaper industry is the only business segment not showing post-recession growth.

Cross predicts small-town newspapers will continue to flourish because limited advertising potential means upstarts aren’t likely to challenge existing operations.

Sunday editions remain profitable for big chains, so Cross predicts a hybrid “daily” newspaper model will emerge, based on mid-week and weekend print editions supplemented by 24/7 on-line news operations.

The accelerating decline of traditional, objective journalism “is very bad for democracy,” he said. The “news world” is being distilled into a business that exists “to confirm your existing belief system … Fox News and all the rest.”

The new news consumer prefers to be comforted by his niche media, “rather than challenged,” Cross said. Revenue cuts due to advertisers chasing the transition to the Internet means the newspaper industry “is diminished,” he said.

“Not dead, but seriously diminished.”

The question becomes, who fills the power vacuum?

During the past year, the Courier-Journal editorial board led by Runyon used its influence to accomplished a number of goals including killing the proposed hospital merger and helping Metro Mayor Greg Fischer take down corrupt Metropolitan Sewer District officials.

Other Gannett properties have reduced the number of local editorials while adding opinion pieces from syndicated columnists.

With the exits of Runyon, Ford and others, who has the clout to step into their civic leadership roles?