Layoffs hit Las Cruces Sun-News again; top editor resigns

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Las Cruces Sun-News

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

The Sun-News’ offices in Las Cruces.

The Las Cruces Sun-News laid off three journalists and eliminated their positions on Wednesday, and the newspaper’s top editor voluntarily resigned.

The cuts were part of a continuing reduction in staff at papers owned by the largest newspaper corporation in the United States, Gannett, which owns seven papers in New Mexico and the El Paso Times in west Texas.

The journalists laid off on Wednesday at the Sun-News were community editor Frances Silva, news reporter Steve Ramirez and print planner Ruben Villegas.

Courtesy photo

Sylvia Ulloa

Lucas Peerman, the newspaper’s news director, was named interim editor after Sylvia Ulloa, the newspapers’ managing editor since November 2013, voluntarily resigned.

“It has been my sincere honor to be managing editor of the Sun-News over the past three and a half years and to work with the dedicated and talented journalists who are covering our community,” Ulloa said in a post on the Sun-News’ website announcing the changes.

“I know they will continue to contribute to the well-being of Las Cruces and Doña Ana County with their watchdog stories and delight readers with great articles, photos and videos about people in our community,” Ulloa said. “I wish them all the best.”

The El Paso Times laid off four journalists Wednesday — photographer Victor Calzada, reporters Victor Martinez and Lorena Figueroa, and planning editor Jason Harper. And Gannett eliminated some open positions at other New Mexico papers and one open position at the Times.

The news comes almost two years after Gannett became full owner of the New Mexico and El Paso newspapers in June 2015. Before that, Digital First Media was the primary owner and Gannett was a minority, non-controlling owner in the partnership.

Gannett has made other cost-cutting changes since taking over the newspapers. The company laid off 2 percent of its workforce last October, including some employees in New Mexico. That move came during Gannett’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to buy another company that publishes newspapers including the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.

Gannett shrunk the print editions of the Sun-News, Times, Carlsbad Current-Argus and Alamogordo Daily News in February. And the company has reduced the number of days the Deming Headlight and Silver City Sun-News appear in print to two each week. Those communities can also receive the print edition of the Las Cruces paper on Sundays.

Many Las Crucens reacted with sadness to the news of new layoffs.

“I hope the paper can keep afloat,” Carl Topley wrote on Facebook. “I may not agree with some of their editorials or political endorsements, but the Sun-News has been an important part of our community for much longer than I’ve been alive.”

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Rabbi Larry Karol wrote that those who were laid off “are people who have done good work in the community and on whom I have depended for getting the word out about events at my congregation or reporting about those programs.”

“This is very sad,” Karol wrote. “Many thanks to each of them.”

Some complained about the Sun-News’ quality.

“The paper has been going downhill for years and is not worth reading,” Bud Lulich wrote. “I can’t believe a city of this size can’t have a real newspaper.”

The new cuts in New Mexico and El Paso appear to be part of another round of nationwide staff reductions at Gannett papers. Retired journalist Jim Romenesko, who covers media, tweeted a message he received stating there were staff reductions at 37 Gannett papers on Wednesday.

After years of cuts going back to Digital First’s ownership, the Sun-News now has 10.5 full-time jobs in its newsroom. For comparison, The Santa Fe New Mexican — a newspaper with a larger circulation located in a city with fewer residents — lists 38 newsroom employees on its website. That doesn’t include its copy desk employees, but the Sun-News no longer has a copy desk. Those duties are handled by the Arizona Republic, which is also owned by Gannett.

Other newspapers have struggled as well. Last year, the independently owned Albuquerque Journal eliminated several staff positionsOne recent study found that U.S. newspapers have eliminated more than 20,000 jobs since 2007, more than 100 daily newspaper have closed, and advertising revenue of the seven publicly traded newspaper companies fell 7.8 percent.

The new layoffs “are disturbing, to say the very least,” said Laura Paskus, president of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Rio Grande Chapter Board of Directors. She said New Mexico already has “too few reporters trying to cover too many issues,” often “on a salary that’s not sustainable, and in a job that’s not guaranteed or secure.”

“We’ve watched the disappearance of locally-owned newspapers. And we’ve watched corporations from out of state buy out newspapers and newsrooms,” she said. “Neither of those have been good for the communities those papers serve. As out-of-state owners value profits above their employees and the communities they’re supposed to serve, all New Mexicans suffer.”

The times demand more reporters, not fewer, covering issues including the border, oil and gas development and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Paskus said. While many people are relying on the internet and cable TV to get national and international news, “that access to more information about the nation and the globe can’t be at the expense of knowing what’s happening in our own neighborhoods and counties,” she said.

“At a time when we need to know more — about one another, about what’s happening around us, and about how our governments operate — the news of these layoffs is very bad for all New Mexicans,” Paskus said.

An editor at the Arizona Republic did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the Gannett layoffs. The El Paso Times’ editor referred questions to an official in Gannett’s corporate office who also did not immediately respond.

The budget cuts at the Sun-News come as the newspaper has seen a dramatic drop in print circulation but growth in its online presence. According to Facebook metrics, the Sun-News has nearly 53,000 “likes” to The New Mexican’s 28,000. And in the past week, the Sun-News has had more reader engagement on Facebook than even the Journal, the state’s largest daily newspaper.

In recent months, the Gannett papers, including the Sun-News and Times, have been trying to lure more digital subscribers by offering online access, with no print subscription included, for $19.99 per year. That compares to $12 per month for online access to the Journal and $11.75 per month for online access to The New Mexican.

Sun-News president Rynni Henderson, in the post on the website, said the newspaper “is learning to do more with less, but our commitment to the community is as strong as ever.”

“We are evolving and will continue to deliver breaking news and the best local news and information available,” Henderson said.

This article has been updated to correct Peerman’s title and to add additional reporting. For disclosure, NMPolitics.net Editor and publisher Heath Haussamen (the author of this article) writes a column every other week that’s published by the Sun-News. NMPolitics.net also partners with the Sun-News on reporting projects and the paper sometimes runs NMPolitics.net’s articles. Haussamen is a member of the SPJ Rio Grande Board of Directors.

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