September 21, 2009

Advance addiction fed by Alabama lawsuit

I can't stop. It's my new addiction - following the retirement virus spreading through publications owned by the Newhouses and uncovering writers and photographers who suck me into their blogs with a lure of details on something about something related to Advance Publications and Conde Nast.

I watch the Live Traffic and the Recent Readers feeds, study the stats from Feedburner, Google Analytics, and StatsCounter, and wonder who you are. (Oh please, Spring Lake and Farmington share who you really are.)

I envy the cities with alternative news organizations or people who are keeping an eye on the big media.

Sometimes, I worry. Is this blogging erecting a barrier to future employment? Am I contributing to the ruin of my Advance Publication pension? Is this an unhealthy obsession with a former employer? How many more will run, unwilling to acknowledge a relationship on Facebook or Google?

Still, I can't stop and get almost giddy when I find that the Poynter Institute has posted a copy of  Howard Bronson's filing against the Mobile Press-Register, Advance Publications, Mark Newhouse and "fictitious defendants one through one hundred persons."

Isn't that delicious - the workings of the Newhouses and their organizations are so complex that even Bronson, who became publisher in 1992, can't name the individuals and organizations he wants to sue. Instead, his lawyers seek through the discovery process the names of people and businesses behind the decisions that led to the rescinding of a long-time job pledge, the request for his retirement, and more. For now, Bronson sues:
 "FICTITIOUS DEFENDANTS ONE )THROUGH ONE HUNDRED, persons, ) firms, corporations, partnerships, or ) other legal entities whose names are ) presently unknown to Plaintiff but who ) have participated in, have conspired with, ) and/or has aided and abetted others in ) committing the violations of law alleged ) in this Complaint."
Is that a hint that Bronson was surprised with Advance Alabama/Mississippi, which was announced when Bronson's replacement was named?  Or that Bronson's retirement was planned before Aug. 10, the day he was first asked to retire since his replacement, Ricky Mathews, left the Sun Herald July 21..)

Yet, I have to ask why Bronson is surprised after reading the details of his recruitment into the Newhouse organization. The effort lasted from September 1991 to February 1992, and designed to replace then-publisher William Hearin who was allowed to stay on with a title and some sort of job until his death in 2001. I'm reminded of the person surprised when someone who cheated on someone to be with her continues the cycle.

In a similar way, I am surprised why anyone believed the lifetime job pledge was written in stone, written in forever.

In the court filing, Howard Bronson explained why he wanted assurances that the longtime Newhouse job security pledge - "no full time, non represented employee would be laid off because of economic circumstances or technological change" - was staying if he accepted an offer to run the Mobile Press-Register in Alabama.
"Bronson was concerned that there would be a family upheaval leading to the implosion of the companies or a takeover by a public company, as he saw with the Ewing family which owned newspapers in Shreveport and Monroe, Louisiana. Bronson explained that once a family-owned company gets to the point of being run by the second and third generations (the Newhouse companies were just getting into the third generation), the estate/income taxes start to eat at these generations which leads to family friction and ultimately collapse. Donald Newhouse assured Bronson that the Newhouse family had the tax issues worked out for three more generations and that what happened to the Ewings would not happen to the Newhouses."
The filing says the pledge was important to Bronson as his family was leaving long-time roots, he was 55 years old with a career in newspapers and the pledge allowed him - not an age - to decide when to retire.

Actually, although Howard Bronson probably got a few more years out of the business by leaving Gannet for Newhouse I think Bronson was right to worry about the next generation of Newhouses as generations change priorities for businesses. Starting a business or organization takes a lot of energy, but the founders are eager to spend the time, the money and energy because they are passionate about what they have started. But as the leadership of a business or organization hands down the passion often becomes diluted.

Consider this: Do you expect your offspring to like your music enough to stand in line for tickets to a concert? (Actually, do you stand in line anymore or just hit redial on the cell or reload on the computer screen?)

In many ways, the Newhouses are stuck. There's no market to sell a chain of newspapers so the privately owned company changes to reflect want the new generation of owners.

In many ways, those who work for a Newhouse newspaper, or a CondeNast magazine or an Advance Publications unit are stuck. They will find little in the 45-page document filed in Alabama to calm the fear that more layoffs and restructurings are coming.

When I read in the lawsuit: "In fact, the Newhouses viewed Bronson as having too much integrity to be their hatchet man" I wonder if the upcoming charges with the ending of the job pledge are behind the Advance retirement virus.

Did Victor Hanson III decide to leave the Birmingham News and Fred Stickel the Oregonian rather then watch the dismantling of their products become the next Ann Arbor News or Flint Journal?

Bronson says he believes the pledge is so important to recruiting and retaining employees that when he was told in July 2009 that an Aug. 5 announcement would notify employees the pledge would be gone in February he "questioned the legality, morality and wisdom of their plan."

Bronson believes he did the right things, listing items such as changes that led to the "voluntary buyout of approximately 36 full-time positions and, with additional belt-tightening, the newspaper’s full-time employment was down approximately 51 positions compared to the same time in 2008 and 63 positions compared
to the 2009 budget; all this while adding substantial work for the Huntsville and Pensacola newspapers. For all this, the Newhouses were giving Bronson extra kudos."

The passage reminds me of words from a boss: "We'll take as much as you're willing to give" when he recognized how close I was to burning out physically and mentally far earlier then I did.

I have written about Howard Bronson before, including his lawsuit, "retirement" and some speculation about his leaving. I also wrote about him when the newspaper picked up some extra business.

Or maybe you wanted more about what's up in Advance's Ann Arbor efforts, or The Grand Rapids Press orThe Birmingham News or The Cleveland Plain Dealer or The Oregonian.  I need to index the rest of the entries.


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