The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has called on local newspaper groups to withdraw the threat of temporary layoffs and review cutback decisions already taken as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.
Employees of Iconic Newspapers, which publishes more than 20 titles including the Limerick Leader, Dundalk Democrat and Kilkenny People, were told this week that a number of editors and reporters will be laid off from April 1st for a six-week period, with editorial roles combined across certain titles.
Celtic Media Group, which employs about 90 people, last Friday said some publishing staff would have their employment suspended, while others would see a reduction in their pay and hours.
The group, which publishes five paid weekly titles, also said it would cease printing the free Offaly Independent title for the duration.
The NUJ has now asked the newspaper groups to reconsider these moves in light of the wage subsidy scheme announced by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Tuesday.
“Layoffs should be a last resort,” said Séamus Dooley, the NUJ’s Irish secretary.
Mr Dooley said Iconic's response had been "a devastating bolt from the blue" as staff had previously been assured by owner Malcolm Denmark that the company had sufficient cashflow and was "in a stronger position than most".
Formpress Publishing, the Iconic subsidiary behind the titles, made a pre-tax profit of €1.13 million last year.
An amalgamation of editorial posts across titles and diminishing editorial resources could have “damaging long-term consequences for the titles”, Mr Dooley said.
He asked Mr Denmark to avail instead of the payments available under the wage subsidy scheme, which is designed to help employers keep people on the payroll. Under the scheme, the State pays 70 per cent of an employee’s wages, up to a sum of €410 a week, with the employer encouraged to pay the balance.
"We do not underestimate the difficulties confronting the regional press sector in Ireland and the Irish Government needs to consider specific supports for the sector," Mr Dooley added.
The layoffs at Iconic Newspapers and Celtic Media Group reflect a wider crisis for the newspaper industry amid a plunge in already fragile print advertising revenues and a drop in footfall in places where newspapers are sold.
The difficulties are hitting local media hardest. Newsquest Media Group, which owns hundreds of titles in the UK, emailed staff on Tuesday night to announce a 20 per cent pay cut for workers placed on forced leave and a 15 per cent cut for other employees. The move affects employees of the Impartial Reporter in Enniskillen.
In a joint letter to members of the Oireachtas, Johnny O'Hanlon, director of umbrella group Local Ireland, and Linda O'Reilly, editor of Celtic Media title the Anglo-Celt, have urged the State to take action to stop local titles going out of business.
“Some publishers fear their ability to survive beyond the next few months without immediate Government support,” the letter states.
“We cannot overstate the scale of the crisis facing the news publishing industry in the coming weeks and we are asking the State to ensure we can continue to fulfil our public service role in society.”