Media workers face huge cuts

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More uncertainty was gripping employees of Norwegian media firm Schibsted on Thursday as it planned to slash jobs, consolidate some editorial operations among several of its newspapers and even move its flagship Aftenposten into the offices of another Schibsted paper in Oslo, Verdens Gang (VG). It’s the latest in a string of cost-cutting that reflects both a rapidly changing media world and efforts to preserve Schibsted’s profits.

The new cuts aren’t sitting well at all with the unions representing employees, more than 200 of whom may lose their jobs. They point out that they’re coming just months after NOK 1.35 billion was withdrawm from newspapers they described in February as “rock solid.” Union leaders have called the looming cuts “much too extensive,” while some long-time employees simply said they were “shocked” by their magnitude.

Layoffs loom
Schibsted plans to cut the budgets of Aftenposten, Stavanger Aftenblad, Bergens Tidende and Fædrelandsvennen in Kristiansand by NOK 400 million (USD 66 million). As many as 150 jobs at Aftenposten (more than 20 percent of its staff) look set to disappear, along with 60 at Stavanger Aftenblad and 40 at Fædrelandsvennen. The size of the cuts at Bergens Tidende was unclear. Schibsted already has announced major cuts at its newpapers in Sweden, including Svenska Dagbladet.

It was unclear how many cuts would be made in the editorial departments of the papers, but bosses were busy unveiling plans to publish just one weekend magazine, for example, instead of individual magazines at each paper. Editorial sections devoted to such areas as cars, travel and personal economy will also be consolidated. The Oslo-oriented paper that once served as the evening edition of Aftenposten, called Aften, will no longer be distributed separately and instead will become a section of the morning paper, coming out just three days a week.

Looming job cuts look likely to result in lay-offs. Schibsted Chief Executive Didrik Munch told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that “we’ll look at the competence we have, and the competence we need, but we can’t do this (cut staffing) with volunteer programs.” In earlier rounds of cost-cutting, Aftenposten, for example, offered severance pay incentives.

Quality assurances
It was just 10 years ago that Aftenposten sold its longtime headquarters building on Oslo’s equivalent of Fleet Street at the time, next door to VG, and moved into more modern leased offices next to Oslo’s central train station. The idea was to realize a capital gain and save money, but it clearly hasn’t been enough. Plans now call for Aftenposten to give up its lease and move into VG’s building next to Schibsted’s offices. VG itself has so far been protected from major cost-cutting.

Editors predictably tried to put a positive spin on the cuts, claiming they would maintain “quality journalism” in such areas as major news events, political coverage, commentary and culture. They claim they have to face the media trends that have resulted in falling newspaper circulation and advertisers that opt for digital media at much lower ad rates. Schibsted also plans to start charging for content on the websites of many of its papers, and in some cases already has.

‘Fooled’
“We’ve been fooled,” Finn Vågå, who represents journalists at Stavanger Aftenblad, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). “We were naive to believe that money set aside doing our good days would be used when we faced challenges.” Munch, Schibsted’s chief executive, countered that the cuts are necessary for its various media outlets to adapt to “a new digital reality.”

Aftenposten, though, announced plans Thursday to launch a new, subscription-free paper that will be delivered every Thursday to households in the greater Oslo metropolitan area. Company officials called it “a good alternative to important advertisers,” while free rival papers see it as an attempt to compete in their market.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The undersigned is a former journalist at Aftenposten, who accepted a severance package in 2008 when Aftenposten shut down its own English-language news service in an earlier cost-cutting move.)

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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