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Herald aims to cut 24 percent of union news staff

Publisher expects to save $2 million

Boston Herald publisher Patrick J. Purcell said yesterday that he wants to eliminate nearly one-quarter of the 145 union newsroom jobs to save $2 million at the financially troubled paper.

The reductions would be a chunk of the $7 million Purcell is seeking to offset stagnating circulation and falling ad revenue. Purcell has already asked department heads to look for ways to cut costs, and the paper just said it was discontinuing its Sunday TV PLUS magazine.

In his meeting yesterday with executives of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Boston, Purcell laid out a proposal to cut about 35 editorial jobs. The company plans first to try to achieve staff reductions through buyouts, but to follow that up with layoffs if necessary.

''It would be an understatement to say we're stunned," said Lesley Phillips, the guild's president. ''It's a grave situation for the employees in the newsroom who have worked here for a long time and are completely committed."

''It's shocking, frankly," said newsroom union shop steward Tom Mashberg. ''Obviously, you can't cut 35 people from your news staff and not have an impact on your product."

Purcell declined to be interviewed yesterday, but he issued a statement. ''The Herald, like the newspaper industry as a whole, is facing significant challenges that have forced us to make difficult decisions," Purcell said.

Not all newsroom employees are covered by the guild, including some editors as well as staffers -- such as columnists -- who work on contracts. ''We have been assured there will be changes" to nonguild employment as well, Phillips said. Purcell's statement made no reference to how layoffs would be handled, but Phillips said the company indicated it was looking to implement them without regard to seniority, something that runs counter to the union contract. It's unclear how the union would react to such a move.

One Herald staffer who asked not to be identified described a somber mood among those who attended the Guild meeting to be briefed on Purcell's plans. ''Just depression," he said. ''It was as sad as you can get. It just felt like the writing was finally on the wall."

In a Globe interview several weeks ago, Purcell said: ''We're going through a soft patch in the economy. We've had a rough couple of years. . . . Whether this suggests a fundamental change in the Herald, I don't think we're at that point yet."

There has been speculation inside the paper that the Herald might dramatically alter its business strategy and editorial focus. One idea Purcell has acknowledged is on the table is to narrow the Herald's coverage area and focus on Boston and nearby communities. Several staffers also say that in discussions at the paper, the publisher has repeatedly cited the model of The Examiner in San Francisco, a free tabloid with a streamlined editorial staff that targets more affluent neighborhoods.

Phillips said that at yesterday's meeting ''there was discussion certainly about the changes that are imminent in the newspaper. Did he clarify them? No."

''My impression is that the publisher and editorial director are going to be adjusting the paper on an ongoing basis until they find a formula that works," Mashberg said.

Yesterday's meeting was one of a series of planned discussions between management and unions on the subject of cuts and concessions. Ralph Goscinak, secretary/treasurer of Teamsters Local 259, which represents about 125 Herald drivers, and Dan Caplette, president of the Boston Mailers Union, which represents more than 50 Herald employees, say they are scheduled to meet with management in late April. Both suggest there may be hard bargaining ahead.

''He may be looking for cuts in jobs. He can't do too much of that with us," said Goscinak.

''He's probably looking for some reductions," echoed Caplette. ''It's not done with smoke and mirrors."

Mark Jurkowitz can be reached at jurkowitz@globe.com.

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