by Pia K. Hansen

The Spokesman-Review continued to reduce its staff earlier this week, when 14 full-time equivalent positions were cut in the newsroom and six in the rest of the organization. At the same time, the paper's longtime editor Chris Peck announced that he is leaving in early December. Peck has been The Spokesman-Review's top editor since 1982.

"It has been an honor to be part of the effort over the last 20 years to build and maintain a first-rate newspaper," he said in a written statement released by the paper Tuesday morning. "I just feel the need to take a breath and consider some new adventures."

He declined interview requests later that day, feeding community speculation as to why he chose to leave during a time of so many layoffs. Some say he got tired of wielding the axe in the newsroom, others that he got a new job, but no official reason was given.

Originally hired as a columnist back in 1979, Peck continued to write a weekly column for the paper, even after he became part of The Spokesman-Review's executive management team and took on assignments in many industry groups such as The Associated Press Managing Editors and the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

About a dozen newsroom employees -- including some volunteers -- lost their jobs at the same time that Peck announced his plans to leave. The last time the paper laid off newsroom staff was in late June, when 11 people were let go from the newsroom and nine from the rest of the staff.

"Stacey [Cowles] said in a meeting last Thursday that the paper might actually take a loss next year, if it didn't go through with the layoffs," says Karen Dorn Steele, president of the Spokane Editorial Society, the bargaining unit that represents 110 Spokesman-Review employees. "We were also told [the layoffs] are a result of pressure from the owners, the Cowles family, to bring the cost down."

Steele said the layoffs were also blamed on a sagging advertising market, especially after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

"They had already projected sort of flat markets this year, and after Sept. 11, I guess things must have gotten worse than they expected," she explains, adding that national advertising especially has been dropping since that date.

This time the layoffs will result in more structural changes to The Spokesman-Review than last time around.

"They are closing our bureau in Sandpoint, but that reporter is kept on staff. And we are losing a reporter in Coeur d'Alene," says Steele. "The writer we have in Pullman is going to work half-time. We rent a building down there, with a sports writer and some circulation people. I'm not sure what's going to happen to them."

Steele, who has been with The Spokesman-Review since 1982, says she fears another round of layoffs.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all if the economy continues to do poorly," she says. "Management this time clearly said there are no guarantees. It's very discouraging."

Some community observers are not surprised by the second round of layoffs.

"As a general observer, it doesn't surprise me that they would have to cut staff, considering their circulation has dropped over the last couple of years," says Professor Steve Blewett, chair of Eastern Washington University's journalism program. "The staff had gotten to be a pretty good size, and the fact the circulation is down means advertising revenue is down, so they probably have some serious financial concerns to take into consideration."

The Spokesman-Review is not the only newspaper struggling with a stagnant or weakening market. Though some dailies report a slight increase in readership following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Newspaper Association of America reports declines in both recruitment (classifieds) and retail advertising.

"The Spokesman-Review is under the same enormous pressures that all papers are under right now, so I believe what's going on over there reflects what's going on industry-wide," says Blewett. "If it continues to be this difficult for family-owned, independent newspapers, it could be a real tragedy."

Steele agrees about the looming tragedy, adding that according to her research there are only 12 family-owned newspapers left in the country -- The Spokesman-Review of course being one of them.

"What we do as journalists is critical, especially in smaller cities," she says. "The New York Times is not going to come in here and report on what's going on locally." She worries about what the layoffs are going to mean to the quality of the paper in the future.

As for Peck's reasons for leaving or who could possibly replace him, Steele declines to speculate.

"The veteran reporters here are sad that he is leaving. He has built up a good news staff, but we haven't been perfect," says Steele. "Not being able to cover the River Park Square public-private partnership fully, or as much as we wanted to, has been an embarrassment to some people in the newsroom."

She says Peck helped her when she was working on her Hanford Nuclear Reservation stories by allowing her to spend weeks and weeks to break open the secrecy behind what was going on with the downwinders.

"He has also encouraged international reporting in Romania, on the orphanages, and in Pakistan, a couple of years ago, on wheat trade. That's pretty unusual for a paper like this," says Steele.

It's hard to tell what the double whammy of losing 25 newsroom staffers and the top editor is going to do to a paper eager to hang on to its distinction as a top 25 newspaper (in only the 125th largest market).

"They are going to reorganize over the next 30 days," says Steele. "Then I guess we'll see."

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