Darth Vega

Frank Vega is one hell of a guy. The president and chief executive officer of Detroit Newspapers Inc. says his company has a plan to help heal the festering wounds caused by the vicious labor dispute that officially ended earlier this week. You’ve probably heard by now: After more than five years of contention, all the unions at the DN and two papers it represents, the Detroit News and the Free Press, finally have ratified contracts.

The “healing” plan Vega hailed in Sunday’s Detroit News will pay union workers $5 million in bonuses if they bring back 200,000 subscribers by Oct. 1, 2001.

There’s no doubt the two papers sorely want those readers back. Detroit Newspapers lost about a third of its subscribers when the unions called for a boycott after going out on strike in July 1995. The current combined circulation for the daily papers is about 603,000, and 748,300 for their joint Sunday edition.

How likely is it that the paper’s workers will actually hit Vega’s mark?

“It as likely to happen as me becoming a Jedi warrior,” says Ben Burns, who heads Wayne State University’s journalism department. “We should always shoot our sights high, but it strikes me as insurmountable.”

Susie Ellwood, Detroit Newspapers vice president of market development, says it can be done. Besides, if the papers get a mere 100,000 readers back by next October, workers will each get a $1,000 bonus, says Ellwood.

But Burns says the unions are unlikely to bring back even 50,000 readers by next fall.

“The primary chunk of circulation are the 50,000 papers they used to sell in the auto plants and they are probably not going to get all those back,” he says.

The man workers derisively call Darth Vega says he wants to heal old wounds. And he starts by offering bonuses tied to goals that are impossible to meet, which seems more like jabbing a sharp stick into the eyes of unionized workers than any attempt at honest reconciliation.

Way to go, Frank. Nice to see you haven’t lost your touch.

Ann Mullen contributed to News Hits, which is edited by Curt Guyette. He can be reached at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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