Peter Kafka

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New York Times Boss to Staff: Keep Up the Good Work, and We Probably Won’t Fire You

Here’s a nice summation of the state of newspapers today: A pep talk to a newspaper’s staff now consists of a pledge not to fire said staff.

That’s what New York Times (NYT) Executive Editor Bill Keller (pictured here) told his charges yesterday, and even then he couldn’t make the promise ironclad.

The New York Observer has the prepared text of remarks Keller delivered to the paper’s editorial workers yesterday.

There’s a lot of back-slapping for the NYT’s coverage of the financial meltdown and some other attaboys (as well as some references to competition from News Corp.’s Wall Street Journal (NWS). (News Corp., owner of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, is also the owner this Web site.)

But here’s the part the staff is most interested in:

A deep, sustained recession will mean the search for savings and the quest for new revenues continues, that there will be no luxuries and little comfort. It will mean, as the company announced last week, that for management there will be some cuts in future pension benefits and retiree medical insurance. … The tough business climate has already meant the consolidation of sections to save printing costs. It will mean, I’m sure, that our hiring is even more selective than before. It will mean some new projects get delayed. It may mean we get more exotic and garish species of advertisements.

What it will NOT mean, I most fervently hope, is a surrender to the short-sighted, serial staff cuts that have hollowed out some of the nation’s great news organizations. There are no guarantees, especially since we have such limited visibility into the future. But as of now, even with the growing misery of the global economy, our aim is to move forward without another wave of newsroom buyouts or layoffs. If I learn that such a staff reduction is on the table, I will tell you, and I will tell you promptly.”

It’d be nice for the paper’s remaining workers if Keller could be firmer with a no-layoff pledge, but he’s not in a position to do that because the company’s revenue, profits and stock price are all in a multiyear slide.

Last week, on the same day the paper’s credit rating was cut to junk status, the company said it would consider cutting its dividend in order to conserve cash.