Storm Breaks Over Pittsburgh Journalists

By Neil Cosgrove

During this past May and June, tensions between Pittsburgh print journalists and their publishers erupted into full-blown confrontation, to the extent that even the most casual of readers had to have noticed.

Over the past several months, The NewPeople has described the fraught state of contract negotiations between the Post-Gazette’s owners and the 150 reporters, editors, photographers, and graphic artists belonging to the Newspaper Guild’s Pittsburgh chapter, and those journalists’ growing discontent with the first gradual and then abrupt rightward shift of the paper’s editorial pages.

Matters came to a head when editorial page editor Keith Burris decided to first serially reject cartoonist Rob Rogers’ submissions and then to fire Rogers outright on June 14th. Preceding this event were a downtown demonstration in support of Rogers and CNN’s interview of the cartoonist; following it were stories in the national press and much uproar on social media. On June 19th, both the Guild and a slew of editors took out ads in the newspaper that employed them, openly declaring their independence from the Post-Gazette’s editorial pages, while keeping their fingers crossed that angry readers wouldn’t cancel their subscriptions.

When the storm clouds finally broke, it was easy to forget how long they had been gathering, and the atmospheric conditions that brought them about. In a Facebook post following Rogers’ firing, former editorial page editor Tom Waselewski recalled that in January, 2016 “the publisher demanded that I … begin to shift the PG ed board and its opinions toward the positions of candidate Trump.” Waselewski refused, and quit the paper two months later. Eventually, columnists Tony Norman and Dan Simpson resigned from the editorial board, and Keith Burris was brought on in March to merge the editorial pages with those of The Toledo Blade, the other paper owned by Block Communications.

Fellow feeling for publisher John Robinson Block is scarce, given his obvious loyalty to President Trump at a time when refugee children were being torn from their parents at our southern border. He and Burris keep protesting that Rogers’ cartoons had become more angry than funny, oblivious to the truth that what irritates an egocentric rich guy may strike many others as bitterly hilarious.

But Block may also have less obvious motives. Pushing the Post-Gazette’s editorial pages to the right coincides not just with Trump’s presidential candidacy, but with the death of Tribune-Review publisher Richard Mellon Scaife and the cessation of that publication’s print edition, which often reflected Mr. Scaife’s conservative views and that of a more right-leaning subscriber base than that of The Post-Gazette. Regarding Rogers’ firing, Block admitted to Politico that he was trying to hold onto the conservative readers he had picked up from The Trib.

Block complains The Post-Gazette has lost $161 million over the last 10 years, while avoiding specifics about the timing or sources of the losses, and ignoring his company’s healthy profits from its other enterprises. At the same time, his news employees haven’t had a raise since 2006, have endured significant benefit cuts, and have been working under a contract that expired in March, 2017. It’s possible Block sees discontent with his editorial pages as another way to drive a wedge between readers and P-G’s journalists, thus preparing the way for significant staff cuts like those that have severely weakened other regional papers.

Both politics and profits also may have motivated the May firing of City Paper (CP) editor Charlie Deitch. The firing came less than two weeks after Deitch published a scathing criticism of State Representative Daryl Metcalfe, and after an affiliate of the paper’s owners suggested he ease up on his coverage of Metcalfe. Dietch later told The Columbia Journalism Review he was “informed” by the CP’s general manager “that his critical coverage jeopardized business between Metcalfe and The Butler Eagle,” owned by the same parent company.

Deitch has admitted to supporters that his departure from the CP was probably inevitable. “I had watched the paper become sanitized over the past two years… steadily moving away from content that may anger advertisers or ruin political relationships.” (Eagle Publishing bought the CP in 2016.) The Incline reports that alternative weeklies have been losing both circulation and advertisers in recent years, but Deitch thinks part of the problem is that alt-weeklies have lost “that sharp tongue and the unapologetic editorial stance,” once the hallmark of publications like The Village Voice and The Boston Phoenix.

Moreover, Deitch is seeking to eventually replace the CP as Pittsburgh’s alt-weekly. Using contributions from a Kickstarter fund and “a few associates-slash-friends,” he plans July 11th publication of what will be, for now, an alt-monthly entitled Pittsburgh Current, accompanied by digital content that “will range from blogs and stories to podcasts and video.” Former employees of both The City Paper and The Post-Gazette are on staff or contributors.

Amidst the onslaught of “fake news” charges and fiscal pressures, the P-G journalists hope to preserve what they see as their unique, irreplaceable civic role, while Deitch and his colleagues set off on a more independent but no-less-risky path. Their readers suffer apprehension while clinging to hope.

Neil Cosgrove is a member of The NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.

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