U.S. Newsroom Woes Shape


Across the country, many readers are picking up their local newspapers to discover with dismay that some of their favorite writers have disappeared from the news pages.

 

They are also finding that the amount of space set aside for news continues to shrink. Today, more than ever, readers in most parts of the country who want a decent picture of the nation and world must buy national papers or scour news websites.

 

In many cities, local news coverage has been compromised by smaller papers, shrinking news space, and staff reductions. Quality investigative journalism is harder to find, and is likely to become more scarce, as media barons slice the “fat” from their news budgets.

 

Newspaper workers face major challenges as some participate this month in a nationwide referendum vote for top officers of The Newspaper Guild, (TNG), an affiliate of the Communication Workers of America (CWA). The Guild represents about 30,000 workers in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico, mainly at daily papers, in units covering newsroom personnel, advertising sales and circulation workers, technicians, and other staff.

 

In the last couple years, the Guild has taken some big hits in its membership rolls due to buyouts and layoffs as newspapers were bought and sold and the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain, Knight Ridder, changed hands.

 

The cutbacks, say media owners, are essential. Staffs are being slashed with buyouts and layoffs. During just the first 10 months of 2007, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported newspaper employment dropped by about 10,000, shedding almost 3 percent of the workforce. 

 

Publishers are playing hardball with the Guild and other unions at newspapers—but the price is paid by everyone. By putting the squeeze on hometown newspapers, corporate conglomerates are depriving local communities of the kind of news communities need to make informed decisions.

 

A year and a half ago, the Guild called nationwide demonstrations against the continued slashing of newspaper jobs. “Throughout the country, these cuts mean there are fewer journalists, less diversity of media voices, less news and a public that is increasingly more under-informed,” said TNG president Linda Foley. “That’s why we’re asking the public to join us—for democracy’s sake—to say no to cutting jobs of journalists and all workers whose jobs support good journalism.”

 

While the value of newspaper stocks have declined, publishers continue to make huge amounts of money. (USA Today publisher Gannett charted a $1.06 billion profit last year). Profit margins for newspapers were once in the low 20 percent range, but are now in the low teens, according to financial analysts. That is still the level of many successful corporations.

 

Inside newspapers, management has been hustling to expand online news and advertising, although placing an ad on the Internet still costs only about 5 percent as much as the news pages. More TNG-represented workers are employed in the online news business, which is important if the Guild is to grow. But online work must continue to be a key target for new union organizing drives.

 

 

UNION ELECTION LOOMS

 

Into this mix comes the current Guild election that will be decided by May 12. President of the union since 1995, Foley is facing a challenge from Bernie Lunzer, the TNG’s secretary-treasurer, who was elected to that post as a member of Foley’s slate 13 years ago.

 

Lunzer calls for “a new direction and a new vision” for the union. It’s a posture that was never much reflected in his past leadership in the Twin Cities Guild local, where he was, at best, an uninspired administrative officer. But his current campaign has tapped into the disquiet among some members and local TNG officials feeling relentless pressure from publishers, who push a gloom-and-doom scenario in order to tamp down expectations and wrest more concessions from the unions.

 

In fact, Foley has exhibited an energetic leadership style to support and encourage some important developments within the union. Despite the tough organizing environment, during Foley’s tenure, the Guild has organized more than 4,000 members in new units, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Hudson News, the Spanish news agency EFE, Radio Free Asia, and Dow Jones Harborside and the organizing of nearly 1,000 California court interpreters. IAPE, the independent union representing 1,700 Dow Jones employees, and two other independent unions representing 400 employees at the Quincy (Mass.) Patriot Ledger also affiliated with the CWA and Guild. WashTech, a unique Guild local, has 1,000 members and allows most of them to join and participate through a web-based structure. It has become a leading voice for tech workers.

 

Meanwhile, the Guild’s international representatives help locals to develop mobilization efforts and contract campaigns during negotiations.

 

Foley has been in the forefront of First Amendment issues, building large united front campaigns when journalists have come under fire for refusing to disclose their confidential  sources.

 

Lunzer has criticized Foley for the lack of democratic processes within the union, although The Guild Reporter, the monthly newspaper of the Guild, has been scrupulously neutral during the election campaign. Reflecting a fair-mindedness almost unheard of within the labor movement, the Guild paper has published accusations from both sides. Lunzer has been lately on the defensive following revelations that he made a very risky investment four years ago when he authorized buying stocks on margin. The union’s defense and mobilization fund lost $500,000, before Foley learned about it and put a stop to it.

 

 

PRINT IS DEAD, LONG LIVE PRINT

 

There have been signs that newspaper workers are ready to fight back. In February, reporter-bloggers at The Honolulu Advertiser launched a three-day byline strike that ended when Gannett, the newspaper’s owner, returned to the bargaining table. Workers at Dow Jones staged a national half-day walk-out last June to support negotiators bargaining for a new contract. A three-year pact with 3 percent raises in each of the next three years was ratified in October.

 

Although Lunzer says he wants to work with the CWA, he has used his campaign to defeat Foley to whip up suspicions about the CWA. It is an unfortunate tack, since the CWA’s 650,000 members, organizational expertise, and financial clout have given the Guild an important boost in their face-off against employers. In mid-March, the CWA’s top three officers, led by Larry Cohen, the International president, announced their support for Foley.

 

“The attacks on the media industry are unprecedented and we feel deeply that Linda Foley is the best qualified leader for these challenging times,” they said in a statement.

 

 

Randy Furst is a reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and a member of the Guild Representative Assembly in the Twin Cities. Steve Early is a former CWA International representative and past TNG member as well. Both are supporters of Linda Foley’s slate.

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