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New Bedford editor stepping down to spare paper layoffs

Bob Unger
Bob Unger(AP Photo/The Standard-Times, Mike Valeri)

Like many newspaper managers these days, Bob Unger entered the end-of-year budgeting process knowing he would have to cut newsroom expenses. Again.

But the top editor at New Bedford’s Standard-Times decided to do something different this time: He put his name at the top of the layoff list.

Unger, 63, plans to leave Jan. 6 after nearly a decade of leading the 164-year-old daily’s newsroom. Unger said he is hoping his sacrifice will save two or three lower-paying jobs. He shared the news with about 30 people who gathered at his Fairhaven home on Saturday for a staff holiday party, and SouthCoast Media Group publisher Peter Meyer officially announced the pending departure in a company memo Monday.

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“We have had job losses in recent years because of the state of the newspaper industry and, I think, the local economy here in Southeastern Mass.,” Unger said. “To accommodate the expense reductions I had to deliver, it would have required me to make personnel cuts that I think really would have been damaging, not only to the newspaper but also to the community.”

Unger’s departure is the latest shake-up at New Media Investment Group, the new parent company of GateHouse Media that has been growing its New England presence. Last year, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. sold the Standard-Times, the Cape Cod Times, and affiliated weeklies to the company that is now New Media.

The company’s more recent local acquisitions include deals to buy The Providence Journal, the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, and Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire. GateHouse earlier bought a number of daily papers in Massachusetts, including The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the MetroWest Daily News in Framingham.

In many cases, the takeovers have been followed by job cuts. But Unger said he isn’t blaming the company’s management for a shrinking newsroom.

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“They’re trying to find the right answer for both their owners as well as for their individual communities,” Unger said. “It’s a tough balance. . . . Everybody in this business is making hard decisions based on a disruptive new technology.”

When Unger joined the Standard-Times as editor in 2005, he said, there were 56 full-timers in the newsroom and a dozen part-time employees. Now, there’s a full-time equivalent of 36 people, he said.

The group also publishes five weeklies and the Southcoast Business Bulletin.

The Standard-Times’ average weekday circulation was 19,635 in September, as reported to the Alliance for Audited Media, a 3 percent drop from a year ago. The group also has a website, SouthCoastToday.com.

Unger said he did not know whether there would still be newsroom cuts in 2015 following his resignation.

“Whenever somebody leaves, there is an expense savings, but we save expenses in a number of different ways,” said Meyer, the publisher. “Personnel reductions are the last place we turn. . . . Certainly, his departure does take some pressure off.’’

Meyer said he hopes to soon promote someone from among several internal candidates for the editor’s job.

Greg Torres, president of Boston-based nonpartisan think tank MassINC, said Unger’s departure represents a major loss for the New Bedford area and for the state’s journalism industry. The Standard-Times has taken a leadership role in crusading for issues that are important to the city such as public education and immigration, Torres said, and Unger has been key to those efforts.

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“This is a guy who can walk the docks of New Bedford and understand what’s going on with those in the fishing industry,” Torres said. “But he can also sit with (US Senator) Elizabeth Warren . . . and have a very high level of discussion about policy.”

Torres described Unger’s decision to resign instead of laying people off as “classic Bob.”

“He values the street-level reporting and would rather see that preserved than his own position,” Torres said.

Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the nonprofit Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the paper’s struggle is the latest indication of continued rough times facing most newspaper companies.

Print advertising revenues have typically fallen by 5 to 10 percent at many papers in each of the past few years, he said, and more declines are expected across the industry in 2015. He said other revenue sources, such as digital marketing services, have not grown enough to compensate. In New Media’s case, the company recorded a 2.3 percent, year-over-year increase in overall revenue in its most recent quarter, after the results of its many acquisitions in the past year are excluded.

Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy said this is not the first time an editor has quit to avoid implementing job cuts. But Kennedy said such moves can be futile gestures, particularly at large media companies that often adhere to staffing formulas and ratios.

“It’s just another day in the shrinkage of legacy newspapers, unfortunately,” Kennedy said. “For every Boston Globe and Washington Post that’s building up, there are hundreds of papers that continue to shrink. It’s a sad thing to see.”

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.