The already rocky handover of the New York Times Regional Media Group to its new owner, Halifax Media Holdings, isn't getting any smoother with news that the bosses want re-hired employees to sign potentially illegal non-compete agreements. The document (PDF) has been described as "atrociously exploitative," and states harshly that rehired employees "directly or indirectly … be employed by, perform services for, or hold any ownership interest in the business of operating a newspaper." But in California where there are three former Times Co. papers, state law prohibits "every contract by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business." After being passed around and gawked at by the national press, Halifax "has been pushed back to a yet to be determined time so the language can be changed," according to Jim Romenesko. But regardless of the outcome of the non-compete agreement, our sources tell us that Halifax is botching the transition in many other regards.
We spoke with Carl Hall, the executive officer for the local Pacific Media Workers Guild representing a number of the former Times Co. employees, and he told us that most employees are being kept in the dark about what they're supposed to do. Because of an existing contract with the Times Co., Hall's instructed union members not to sign anything until they've had the opportunity to meet with Halifax leadership and seek counsel if necessary regarding the legality of the various documents the papers' new owner is asking its new employees to sign. So far, they've not heard a peep from Halifax. "I'm sure they're busy," Hall told The Atlantic Wire, adding that he thinks local publishers are meeting with Halifax management in Florida on Tuesday. That said, Hall said that the timing and urgency of the whole affair was kind of odd. "These documents raise a lot of questions. I don't know what to tell you -- if I were buying a paper like this i wouldn't be sending a document out that looks illegal to people."
Update (4:10 p.m.): Sources have told The Poynter Institute's Julie Moos that Halifax has now told former New York Times regional employees that the non-compete "policy would not apply to them."
This is just the beginning of the woes for the newly minted Halifax employees. One non-union journalist told us that benefits were being cut. "Many of us are losing some vacation time, sick time and personal days, but I don't know much more than that," he said. "That non-compete agreement is the big thing that strikes all of us as really bizarre, so we're awaiting clarification. None of us really wants to sign any of the new employee forms until we get some answers." Another journalist described the paperwork as "incredible … clearly a strategy to allow Halifax to fire a bunch of people who don't sign 'for cause' so Halifax won't have to pay severance."
As Hall suggested, the non-compete agreement is just the latest in what sounds like a troubling breakdown in communications between the the two companies and a large group of employees, who we've been told are both "apprehensive" and "very cautious" about what will happen to their jobs. It's been nearly two weeks since The Times Company introduced the possibility of layoffs in an all-staff memo and offered confidential counselors to speak to employees. A couple days later, we reported on a select group of employees' receiving four-sentence emails informing them that they would be re-hired, but others haven't heard a thing. Layoffs appear imminent, but they also appear to be limited. Poynter's Julie Moos reported Wednesday that "The New York Times Co. limited layoffs to 10 percent of employees, according to an SEC filing" meaning that about "200 people could have lost their jobs when the sale was completed."
At this point in time, keeping their jobs is no longer the only concern for the former Times employees. Without employees' knowing too many details about their job security, the non-compete agreement stands only to cloud their futures further. One journalist rehired by Halifax told The Atlantic Wire that the benefit cuts were "a major sticking point for some." For others, the extent to which employees have been kept out of the loop has led to a sense of betrayal. This source, who asked not to be identified, wrote in an email:
In our newsrooms, most people are upset about the total lack of warning, the company’s secretiveness and the lack of any kind of reassurance from Halifax. Even people accustomed to the downturns in the news business and the attendant blood-letting in newsrooms are discouraged by this treatment. Shame on us for thinking better of the Times.
We all liked the idea of working for The New York Times, though our interaction with the flagship paper was pretty minimal, and after a few years in the RMG, you lost any illusion that it could be a path to the Times or The Boston Globe. Some feel a little betrayed, enduring years without raises and pay cuts because we believed in the company’s digital strategy (which we were constantly told would filter down to us soon, including a metered pay system for our local news websites) and were confident they would resist the brutal cuts that other newspaper companies have instituted.
We're sure that not all employees are as upset as those talking to the press, but the situation doesn't sound like much fun.