By Neil Cosgrove
It isn’t nostalgic feelings for print journalism that convinces us the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette must hold onto its 150 reporters, photographers, artists, page designers, web and copy editors, and pay those professionals a wage commensurate with their skills and dedication.
And it isn’t a conviction that the Post-Gazette’s value is similar to national newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post that recommends support for those 150 journalists in their current conflict with the management of Block Communications, Inc. No, it’s our realization that the Post-Gazette’s regional value exceeds those two august publications, because only a fully-staffed daily newspaper can comprehensively cover the activities of governments, institutions, and even peace and social justice organizations like the Thomas Merton Center within a region that aspires to a growing, progressive future.
The truth is, no other institution, business, or random set of individuals has demonstrated the ability to play the role newspapers play every day in the life of a metropolitan area. It doesn’t take more than a moment of reflection to reach that conclusion.
For more than a decade an awareness of their role’s importance has convinced the Post-Gazette’s journalists they had to go along with cuts in staff, pay and benefits during contract negotiations with the paper’s owners, Block Communications. They accepted that the paper was losing money because advertisers were spending less on print, and because readers were getting more and more of their news content from on-line platforms (even though the bitter truth was that much of that content originated from print journalists).
Since the first give-backs, according to the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, its “members have earned 10 percent less than in 2006, pensions have been frozen, benefits have been cut; health care coverage has decreased.” The journalists have been working without a contract since the end of last March, and Block’s aggressive, disrespectful negotiating tactics since that time finally caused their union to go public with their fears about the future of the paper on January 25th.
To dramatize their plight, Guild members initiated a “byline strike” on that day, meant to illustrate that without the content they produced daily the Post-Gazette would not exist. For four days, with 100% participation, no bylines appeared with stories, columns, photographs and graphics on either the paper’s print edition or its web-site.
What caused workers characteristically reticent when it comes to publicly describing their struggles as employees to make such an unusual statement? First, Block has hired as its chief negotiator a Nashville-based attorney, Richard Lowe, from a law firm notorious for busting newspaper unions, including at the Houston Chronicle. When Block used the firm for contract negotiations at the Toledo Blade in 2006, a lockout resulted that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled illegal.
Second, Block has stuck with their initial demands that the company have the right to make Guild members part-time, to hire “freelancers, managers and third-party vendors” to do work now under jurisdiction of the Guild, and to “unilaterally change health-care benefits at any time,” Michael Fuoco, the Pittsburgh Guild President, reports. In fact, the Guild has filed a charge of unfair labor practice with the NLRB, following the company’s decision not to pay a 5% increase in health insurance premiums, which the expired contract requires Block to pay. Guild members’ health-care benefits will be cut on April 1 if Block continues to refuse to pay the premium increase.
As of this writing, Block appears to be sticking by its original negotiating stance, and the journalists may initiate further job actions. If they do so, they are hoping for strong support from local institutions, politicians, and social justice organizations such as the Merton Center. The journalists are now convinced that any further give-backs to Block will permanently damage the quality of the publication to which they have devoted their professional lives.
A strong argument exists that Block Communications can manage quite well without further gouging its newspaper employees. The company, private, family-owned, and therefore free of common shareholder pressures, owns only two papers—the Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade—along with several TV stations and holdings in cable, telephone, high-speed internet and even a construction company that specializes in “optic installation.” Regardless of money lost at their newspapers, the company made over $100 million in profits in the past year, Fuoco points out.
Rather than wreck a community asset an entire region with millions of residents depends upon, the Block family and their company need to push for fair and appropriate compensation for the work of their employees. If, for instance, Facebook really wants to make up for the damage done during the 2016 election, it will go beyond inserting local news reporting into user news feeds and start paying publishers for the content their publications produce, every time such content appears on the platform. After all, cable companies, and subscribers, must pay “carriage fees” for the right to host TV channels. That is one more just way to finance the journalism necessary to a functioning democracy.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.