One of America’s Great Papers Fires a Third of Its Staff

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The Reading Eagle was started just after the Civil War, in 1868, Since then, it has served one of Pennsylvania’s largest cities. It has several distinctions as an American daily, most peculiar among them is that great American novelist John Updike was a copy boy at the Eagle in the early 1950s. Not so peculiarly, the paper’s owner went bankrupt recently. The new owner MediaNews Group has fired roughly a third of its staff, a story that has become remarkably common in the industry.

The Eagle is still a large paper by most industry standards. It is among the 10 largest papers in Pennsylvania with a daily circulation of 37,000 and 50,000 on weekends. However, advertisers have slashed the amount they spend on newspaper advertising in the last two decades. Before MediaNews Group bought the paper, a deal that closes at the end of the month, the previous owner thought it could support 221 people. The new owner’s plans say that that number is 81 too many. Like hundreds of papers before it, the Eagle has been nearly destroyed by the fall-off in print advertising and the number of people who will pay for a subscription to a print paper.

MediaNews Group has a reputation for buying papers for little and then slashing costs to save money, and improve profits. The company is owned by hedge fund Alden Global Capital and claims to run one of the most profitable newspaper chains in the country. Recently, it tried, without success, to take over Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper company.

The Reading layoffs come after a year of newspaper industry downsizing. The most visible of these was the buyout of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. After the deal was closed, every member of the staff was fired. The new owner said some may be hired back

The Reading Eagle faced several hurdles that some other dailies do not. The town of Reading has among the highest poverty rates in the country. It is an industrial city that has lost much of its population. It is not based in a large enough city so that there might be some billionaire to take over the paper and run it as has happened in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Boston, and Washington. When the Reading Eagle’s parent went bankrupt, there was only one taker.

MediaNews Group has a proven formula: cut costs until there are no more to cut. That will provide a profit margin each year expenses can be held below the top line. Once the process is finished, likely so is the paper. To get that process underway, a third of the Eagle’s employees are now gone.