Westword cuts staffers, pay amid ‘roughest stretch we’ve ever seen’

The layoffs and cutbacks keep coming. After exhaustively reporting on the impending sale — and possible shutdown — of the Rocky Mountain News last month, Denver’s alternative weekly Westword turns a spotlight on itself, writing in blog posts that three staffers were laid off Monday and top brass at parent company Village Voice Media (VVM) are taking 10 percent to 15 percent pay cuts.

Media reporter and blogger Michael Roberts, noting that a VVM bigwig presented a “relatively sunny assessment” of the company’s straits only weeks ago, rushed to the keyboard to break the news:

At a meeting that concluded moments ago, Westword editor Patricia Calhoun announced three editorial layoffs: assistant calendar editor Amber Taufen and staff writers Adam Cayton-Holland and Lisa Rab. Given the relatively modest size of Westword’s staff, these moves represent a major hit that will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the paper moving forward.

A bit later, Roberts dug through his inbox and uncovered a VVM corporate memo warning of belt-tightening ahead, and promptly posted that. Included in the memo, which attempts to put a brave face on “the roughest stretch we’ve ever seen,” was this list of savings:

Unfortunately, this year we have found it necessary to make staff reductions and have placed all staff openings on hold.

We are also going to take these additional measures effective January 1, 2009:

1) All VVM senior managers and officers, including Larkin and Lacey, are taking 15% pay reductions.

2) VVM Publishers and Editors are taking 10% pay reductions until our revenues begin to grow again.

3) We will suspend the Village Voice Media match into our 401-K plan. …

The cut-backs have affected all 15 papers across the VVM chain, Roberts wrote in a follow-up post, including the much-lamented loss of Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who wrote for the pioneering publication for 50 years.

The Westword layoffs cap a year that has seen news outlets across Colorado take unprecedented hits as the tanking economy meets a rapidly changing media landscape. Last week, Colorado Mountain News Media shut down three Western Slope publications, including The Valley Journal of Carbondale, The Leadville Chronicle and the Spanish-language weekly La Tribuna, The Denver Post reported, in addition to cutting staff and curtailing editions at two other papers, The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

The fledgling Carbon Valley Herald shut its doors on Dec. 28 after a six month run laying off its seven staff newsroom.

Last month, the owners of Denver’s oldest newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, announced it was on the market and could be shut down if a buyer isn’t found by mid-January. The owner of Denver’s other daily, The Denver Post, recently suffered a credit downgrade and told unions at the paper he would be seeking concessions totaling $20 million. A month earlier, The Vail Trail shut down at the same time industry giant Gannett cut newsroom staffing by 10 percent at its papers, including the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

The state’s nontraditional news media, including The Colorado Independent, has suffered its share of cutbacks recently too. PolitickerCO.com closed its doors and laid off its lone reporter in December, and The Colorado Independent laid off five journalists in November, at the same time both site’s parent organizations cut staff nationally.

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Ernest Luning

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