By Neil Cosgrove
At this moment, the journalists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Denver Post have a lot in common. Both groups work for the only daily newspapers in their mid-size metropolitan areas, struggling to produce the kind of reporting no other media entities in their regions can replicate. And both are now in open conflict with owners more interested in profits than in the unique civic functions performed by their publications.
One significant difference between the two publications is that the Post has an editorial page editor who still supports the Post’s basic mission, as evidenced on April 8th by the publication of editorials sharply criticizing the paper’s owners for debilitating cuts in staffing. “News Matters,” read the headline of the main editorial, while “describing executives at Alden Global Capital, the paper’s hedge-fund owner, as ‘vulture capitalists,’” the New York Times reported.
In contrast, John Robinson Block, owner of the Post-Gazette, refused to publish a letter from the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh critical of an editorial that ran on Martin Luther King Jr. Day entitled “Reason as Racism.” The piece began by characterizing criticism of President Trump’s racist description of African and Central American countries as “shit-holes” as “the new McCarthyism” and went downhill from there. The Guild local’s executive committee wanted readers to know that none of their 150 members “had anything to do with that editorial and we stand together in solidarity against the bigotry, hatred and divisiveness it engenders.” Block apparently wanted those same readers to remain ignorant of the wide gap that had opened between himself and the vast majority of its employees.
In early March, Block Communications dug its heels in further by combining the editorial pages of the two newspapers it owns—the Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade—under a single editorial page editor—Keith Burris. Burris, it turns out, was the author of the infamous “Reason as Racism” piece, which he wrote while working for the Blade, and which Block insisted both papers publish.
An observation made by Bill Moushey, a long-time investigative reporter for the Post-Gazette and now a Point Park University journalism professor, reflects what many in the Pittsburgh region are now thinking. “A newspaper is supposed to be the voice of a community,” said Moushey. “Not thumb their noses at us.”
But some readers’ knee-jerk reaction of cancelling their P-G subscriptions remains highly problematic, threatening the economic viability of an enterprise that, as mentioned above, cannot be duplicated by any other entity, not by a weekly publication like the Pittsburgh City Paper, not by an on-line news source like The Incline, and not by any of our local television stations. Instead, progressives need to support the reporters, photographers, print and web editors, and graphic artists who, as Guild members, are fighting ownership’s insistence on the right to make them part-time and to hire as many freelancers as they wish. Currently, staffing is still at a level that allows for valuable investigative reporting and for beat assignments in which reporters can build expertise and credible sourcing.
In the midst of their difficult contract negotiations with Block, and a struggle for the very survival of big-city daily newspapers, the Newspaper Guild local hopes the public can discern the significant differences between what Post-Gazette journalists do each day and the content found on its editorial pages. For example, while many progressives chafed at the P-G’s endorsement of losing candidate Rick Saccone in the Pennsylvania 18th Congressional District special election, Michael Fuoco, Guild President, wants readers to remember “there would not have been a Congressional race in the 18th but for the investigative work of the Post-Gazette in exposing Republican Tim Murphy as a hypocrite regarding abortion.”
Since owners of the supposedly “liberal media” are often supportive of right-wing political agendas, keeping separation between op-ed content and the news operation seems more important than ever. At the end of March, Sinclair Broadcast Group forced their local news anchors to read a company-generated editorial on the air, word-for-word. During the 2004 presidential campaign “all Sinclair stations had to run an hour-long program attacking John Kerry’s service in Vietnam,” writes Matthew Dessem of Slate, and the company promptly “fired their Washington bureau chief” when he took note of the program’s inaccuracies.
If Sinclair is now allowed to merge with Tribune Media it will gain access to 72% of U.S. television viewers, Slate notes. In the Pittsburgh region, Sinclair already owns WPGH (Ch. 53) and WPNT (Ch. 22). Those facts alone speak to the absolute necessity of the Post-Gazette remaining viable, and of the journalists employed by the paper holding on to their independence.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.