The Express Lays Off Six Employees, But the Paper Continues On

The newspaper is changing to a freelance-reporting model.

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In a cost-cutting move, the Express laid off six employees on Friday, including most of its editorial staff. The layoffs were the result of a series of unfortunate events for the publication, including a recent appellate court decision against the newspaper. The Express, however, intends to continue publishing weekly under a different editorial model and is committed to continuing its long tradition of investigative journalism; political and environmental news; and music, arts and culture, and food coverage.

The people laid off were great employees and journalists, and they will be sorely missed. Four of them have made their layoff status public: managing editor Janelle Bitker, staff writer Darwin BondGraham, associate editor Azucena Rasilla, and calendar editor Beatrice Kilat. Bitker and Kilat were part-time employees. In addition, one other full-time and one other part-time employee were laid off. In all, the layoffs represented about 4.5 full-time equivalents.

For the past five months, the owners of the Express and Telegraph Media, which produces Oakland and Alameda magazines, The East Bay Monthly, and Bay Woof, have been attempting to sell the publications. The owners received interest from numerous potential buyers, and in the past two months, majority owners Stephen Buel and Judy Gallman were optimistic that a sale would go through.

However, the Express recently suffered an unexpected loss in an appellate court case involving a former employee, Terry Furry. The court ruled that the Express, under its former ownership and management, had illegally denied overtime pay to Furry, a longtime employee who had served for years as the paper’s sales and marketing director. The appellate court also ruled that the Express must pay Furry’s attorneys fees. The appellate court overturned a lower court ruling in favor of the Express. For more on the case, see my post from last Wednesday.

Furry and his lawyers are now demanding a payment of $750,000, of which $450,000 would go to the attorneys. Furry is represented by attorney Tanya Gomerman. The Express is represented by Oakland attorney Dan Siegel.

Although there is not yet an official financial judgment lodged against the Express in the case, the adverse court ruling will make it virtually impossible for the current ownership to sell the publication until the case is resolved.

The Express has been struggling financially during the past three-plus years, and the paper’s owners were hoping to sell it to buyers who would infuse the publication with much-needed capital. The magazines and The Monthly, by contrast, are healthy financially, although they do not produce enough excess revenue to prop up the Express as it was. The current owners, who are longtime print journalists, have also been subsidizing the paper with their personal funds for the past 18 months, but can no longer do so.

The Express has the potential to thrive again and even grow – but it needs financial investment. Other alternative newsweeklies have made up for declining print advertising revenue by pursuing other revenue streams, including putting on events and creating ancillary publications. But launching such endeavors requires capital.

Under the reorganization, I will be returning to my role as editor of the Express, and Buel will return on Monday as publisher (his old position). I had been serving as both editor and publisher in recent months.

The Express will also be moving to a freelance model for nearly all of its ongoing coverage. Throughout its 40 years, the paper has relied heavily on freelance journalists in its pages. Before the recent layoffs, more than half the content in the paper each week was produced by freelance writers. In addition, several of the people laid off have agreed to freelance for the paper.

The paper is fortunate in the fact that the Bay Area is also home to numerous excellent freelance writers. The magazines and The Monthly, which have prospered for years using almost all freelance material, have a group of regular freelancers who consistently produce great journalism. The Express will now be relying on many of those folks as well.

In addition, the Express, the magazines, and The Monthly will be sharing more content in the weeks and months ahead. We have tried to keep the publications separate editorially, but we can no longer afford to do so.

The paper is also committed to pursuing other possibilities for new revenue streams, including a community-based funding model similar to the one Berkeleyside recently launched. We’ve been heartened by the outpouring of support the paper has received in the past few days and readers’ stated willingness to pitch in to help. We likely will take you up on that. Stay tuned.

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