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2 LEO Weekly Staff Writers Decline to Sign Contracts, But New Owner Says He's Confident They'll Stay

Eleanor Hasken

Just days aftera round of layoffs at LEO Weekly, concerns on Monday shifted to the future of the remaining editorial staff.Peter Berkowitz and Joe Sonka, the only staff members left in LEO's editorial department, declined to sign new contracts Monday morning as requested during a staff meeting, said Aaron Yarmuth, the alternative weekly's new owner and the son of the publication's founder, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth.“They are not currently employed until they sign the contract,” Yarmuth told WFPL early Monday afternoon.Yarmuth announced in April that he intended to purchase LEO SouthComm.  On Friday, that became official. Among his first moves, Yarmuth laid off editor and longtime columnist Sarah Havens and staff writer April Corbin, as well as members of the sales staff.Sonka served as LEO's news editor; Berkowitz served as the music and culture editor.Insider Louisville, citing an unnamed source, reported Monday that Sonka laid out a list of demands to be met  before he signed his contract.  Those demands include hiring additional editorial staffers (two within two weeks and a third within two months), the hiring of an additional sales executive and the firing of LEO publisher David Brennan.Yarmuth said he is “confident” Berkowitz and Sonka want to work for LEO and he can “present a structure that works for everybody.”He said he views Sonka's reported comments as beliefs for what LEO needs to be successful, not an "absolute" condition for working at the publication.In regards to boosting the editorial staff, Yarmuth said he'll hire by finding the “right person for the right job, and that needs to be done with the longview at heart.”As for publisher Brennan, Yarmuth said: “He is my guy.”“I couldn’t do this without him,” he said.  “He will be acting as sales manager in addition to publishing.  He is a company-first guy.  He is doing everything he can to make LEO successful, viable, he is absolutely on the team.”Yarmuth said he was unsure of exactly how many editorial members will need to be on staff in order to provide enough content for publication.  He added that LEO will rely heavily on freelance work.“That seems to be a trend in other markets,” he said.Yarmuth himself will also be putting in “the hours of an employee,” though he said he will be forgoing any compensation for 18-months.  He said he will serve as executive editor and fill a “utility” role—that can encompass providing editorial content or assisting with publishing duties.But he acknowledged that he has limited editorial experience.“Outside of family connections, family associations and growing up around it, I don’t have professional institutional experience,” he said.  His father, John, founded LEO in 1990 and served as owner until 2003.Before the Sonka and Berkowitz situation, John Yarmuth on Monday told WFPL he was “in no position to comment” on the issues surrounding the LEO.He said his son and the investors “developed a model for the paper that is different from the way it’s been.”Despite Friday’s layoffs and the turmoil surrounding Sonka and Berkowitz, Aaron Yarmuth said there will be a LEO issue on newsstands this week and next week. Aaron Yarmuth said LEO will be fine even if Sonka and Berkowitz do not sign contracts.“LEO has a tremendous history of finding true gems that can contribute both to the paper and the community,” he said.  “I am sure that some of the talent and eccentric side of Louisville will be able to help contribute to keeping LEO eccentric and keeping LEO weird.”

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.