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Editorial: WSJ owners should cut from the top

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This issue marks our official Winston-Salem kickoff party, and the advent of our new bureau in the heart of the Camel City gives us opportunity to take a swipe at the local newspaper of record, The Winston-Salem Journal, a division of Media General.

Last week the WSJ announced that it has begun outsourcing customer-service calls to its circulation department, which are now transferred to Manila, in the Philippines.

As a result, four positions will be eliminated at the Journal, another trickle in a long, slow leak that has trimmed the paper’s staff to less than 350 full-time employees over the last few years.

They are by no means alone in an industry that has in recent years found itself chasing outdated and unrealistic profit margins at the behest of Wall Street expectations and investor demands. Just last month The Houston Chronicle slashed 5 percent of its workforce – about 70 positions – and The Boston Globe will shed 125 positions by March.

The four people who lost their jobs at the Journal, in perspective, might even be considered “non-essential personnel,” and outsourcing their jobs to Manila, where typical call centers pay their people around $250 a month, would certainly shave a few shekels off the bottom end of the pay scale.

And shares of Media General are down. Way down. At less than $30 a share at the time the decision was announced, MEG is trading at its lowest point since its move to the New York Stock Exchange in 2001, just a week after 9-11.

Still, Media General President and CEO Marshall Morton managed to pull in just a bit more than $4 million in salary, bonus and stock options in 2006, when MEG stock dipped below $40 a share for the first time since 2000. And J Stewart Bryan III, Media General’s chairman of the board, pulled in more than $3 million in cash compensation alone for fiscal year 2006.

But the thinking at Media General, we guess, is that earnings are down because they’re spending too much on customer relations in the circulation department at The Winston-Salem Journal.

It’s easy to take shots at daily newspapers owned by large, publicly traded conglomerates – just ask anybody who works for one. Or somebody who used to work for one, as the ranks of the downsized swell with each passing month.

But don’t ask the cheerful voice on the other end of the line, the one who will answer with a scripted greeting delivered in an ESOL accent when you call the Journal’s circulation department. For that matter, don’t ask that disembodied voice anything about the Camel City, as it likely won’t know Winston-Salem from Wilmington as the division between the daily newspaper and the city it serves grows just a little bit wider.

YES! Weekly chooses to exercise its right to express editorial opinion in our publication. In fact we cherish it, considering opinion to be a vital component of any publication. The viewpoints expressed represent a consensus of the YES! Weekly editorial staff, achieved through much deliberation and consideration.

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