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Block Communications to lay off hundreds at newspapers in Pittsburgh, Toledo

| Tuesday, June 3, 2014, 2:18 p.m.

Block Communications Inc. said it will lay off 136 people at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and 131 at the Blade of Toledo, a decision that will help cut costs at the two money-losing dailies where the company has been wrangling with unions for more than a year over concessions.

Production and printing employees would be affected as both newspapers prepare to leave their long-time printing facilities in Downtown and Toledo for new or cheaper plants. Newsroom and advertising workers will be spared, company and union leaders said on Tuesday.

Newspapers are struggling with a challenging business environment amid the rise of the Internet and changes in consumers' reading habits. The Post-Gazette's problems are exacerbated by competition for readers in Pittsburgh — one of the few markets with two major dailies.

Plant closing notices say layoffs at the Post-Gazette will begin about July 28 and continue for two weeks, and layoffs at the Blade will begin about Aug. 1. Toledo-based Block Communications filed required notices in Pennsylvania and Ohio last week.

It is unclear how many employees worked in the production operations at the Post-Gazette building downtown. But the newspaper plans to move 175 employees to a printing facility in Clinton Commerce Park in Findlay by August. The newspaper said in a filing with the state that it doesn't plan to close the building where it has editorial and other operations.

The Blade will close the production portion of its building in downtown Toledo this year but will keep newsroom and advertising in the building, Stephen B. Spolar, vice president of human resources and labor relations for Block, told the Tribune-Review.

Asked whether Block plans to print the Blade at the Post-Gazette's new printing plant and transport newspapers to Toledo, Spolar declined to comment, saying that is subject to negotiations with the unions.

Negotiations with the unions over a new contract have been ongoing for a year, with Block asking for wage and benefit concessions after years of losses. In March, members of the Newspaper Guild “celebrated” their 3,000th day without a raise with a pie party in the newsroom.

Block told employees in Toledo in a recent letter that losses exceeded $8.5 million in 2013, and unions in Pittsburgh said the P-G was expected to lose $22 million in 2013. Block is a private company and isn't required to publicly report financial information.

Steve Nobles, president of District 3 of the Graphic Communications Union, representing pressmen, paper handlers, engravers and mailers at the Blade, said Block negotiators informed the union that the company explored printing alternatives.

“They didn't think they could afford to stay open, but they wanted to negotiate,” he said. Nobles said union attorneys are examining financial information supplied by Block, and he expects to meet again in a few weeks. “If it's determined they will outsource printing, we will negotiate the decision and its effects on union members” to determine severance, Nobles said.

Newspaper industry experts estimate that at least one-third of all dailies are printed somewhere else and trucked to delivery areas. Such arrangements save the cost of buying and maintaining printing presses, and maximize efficiency of existing printing plants, they said.

Nobles said he believes Block could outsource printing in Ann Arbor or Detroit in Michigan, or in Cleveland or Bowling Green in Ohio. He doesn't believe Block could print the Blade at the new P-G plant near Pittsburgh International Airport. “I don't think they could do it time-wise and get the papers on the street in the morning,” he said, because it's at least a four-hour trip.

“If they have any plans to do it, they have not told us, and they have not told the Pittsburgh unions,” Nobles said.

Joseph Pass, attorney for unions at the Post-Gazette, declined to comment, citing negotiations. He described the P-G's new plant as “very advanced, which is the reason why there are 136 layoffs.”

The Post-Gazette's circulation has been eroding.

The Tribune-Review and its Trib Total Media-branded papers and e-editions posted a Sunday circulation total of 337,484 during the six months ended March 31, more than 45,000 ahead of the P-G, according to figures from the Alliance for Audited Media. Sunday circulation at the P-G dropped by more than 10,000 papers, or 3.4 percent, to 292,180, and by nearly 14,000, or 7.7 percent, Monday through Friday.

On June 1, Trib Total Media Inc. ended a contract with the Post-Gazette for delivery of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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