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O.C. Register lays off workers

The newspaper will also trim news space to reduce costs as its revenue declines.

August 07, 2007|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

Facing steep declines in profit, the Orange County Register is laying off staff, reducing the amount of news in the paper and taking other steps to cut costs.

Starting Thursday and continuing this week, staffers have been tapped on the shoulder and asked to leave. Management at the Register declined to comment Monday. Insiders estimated the number of layoffs would be 20 to 35. A dozen had already been laid off by Monday, including longtime reporters and a part-time artist.

The layoffs come on the heels of a voluntary buyout at the paper last fall and are another sign of the challenges facing newspapers with declining circulation and advertising revenue.

In a memo to the staff last week, Editor Ken Brusic warned of the impending layoffs, citing a 14% drop in revenue and a 38% drop in profit from the year before. The 2006 numbers were down from 2005.

"None of this is easy," Brusic wrote. "But the truth is, as we see revenue continue to fall, especially in print, our company needs to take strong action to regain some balance."

Brusic said the paper would save money "any way we can" -- including eliminating open positions, cutting the freelance budget and dropping wire services.

Former editors and reporters at the Register estimated the editorial staff at 300 before the latest layoffs began. Some current reporters said more layoffs would continue to chip away at their ability to cover Orange County's 3 million residents. The paper's daily circulation is just over 300,000.

Michele Himmelberg was one of the reporters laid off. Himmelberg, 50, is an award-winning reporter who had worked in nearly every department. Her NFL coverage -- and a lawsuit filed against the league by her former paper in Florida -- helped female reporters gain access to locker rooms and forced equal-access policies for all journalists.

"I've had the honor of serving Orange County readers for nearly 24 years covering major news events and telling the stories of people who have shaped our community," she said.

"News is a consumer product that will continue to be in demand. The question is, with the methods of delivery changing, how do the people who tell these stories earn a living?"

Newsroom staffers described a morose -- and tense -- newsroom. Dragging out the layoffs for a week, they said, seemed particularly cruel and stressful.

"The way they're doing this is just horrible," one longtime staffer said. "It's like, 'Thanks for everything. Get out. Here's some boxes, start packing.' "

Another said: "The day starts and you don't know who it's going to be."

In 2004, privately held Freedom Communications Inc., parent of the Register, worked out a $1.3-billion buyout deal that saw more than half of the members of the founding Hoiles clan cash out their holdings and private equity firms Blackstone Group and Providence Equity Partners purchase nearly 40% of the shares. At the time, insiders said the investors borrowed a little less than $1 billion and provided about $400 million more in private capital to finance the deal.

Freedom, based in Irvine, has an option to repurchase a portion of the private-equity interests in 2009. In June, citing weak results, particularly at the Register, Standard and Poor's Rating Services downgraded Freedom's credit outlook from "stable" to "negative" because of the company's high debt levels.

One staffer said, "Anyone in journalism can see the writing on the wall. I'm no expert when it comes to financial matters, but this screams of Blackstone saying, 'OK, it's time to get serious about this money, these millions of dollars that we've offered up to you people.' "

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kimi.yoshino@latimes.com

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