By Neil Cosgrove
Twenty-two months into so-far fruitless contract negotiations, the drama at Pittsburgh’s only daily newspaper continues to unfold. Post-Gazette journalists sought to present their side of the story by distributing leaflets at two December events—at a Rotary Club meeting in which newspaper publisher John Robinson Block was arguing his side, and at a Post-Gazette-sponsored “Health Forum.”
“We find it incredibly hypocritical that the Post-Gazette would sponsor a forum on health-care disparities,” opined Michael Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, “when it has chosen to illegally slash the health-care benefits of about 400 members of the Guild and other PG unions.”
Fuoco was referring to the P-G’s refusal to fund a 5% increase in their employees’ 2018 health insurance premiums, even though the paper is required by contract to do so, and even though the regional National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and an administrative judge have said the Post-Gazette is in violation of the law by not doing so. Moreover, the publishers have decided they will not fund an additional 5% premium increase scheduled for 2019; the journalists’ union has filed a second complaint with the NLRB.
Meanwhile, Executive Editor David Shribman, a former Pulitzer-Prize winner respected and trusted by his fellow journalists, stunned the newsroom in late December by abruptly resigning. What most surprised staffers was that it was previously no secret Shribman was planning to retire at age 65 in August, 2019.
Maybe Shribman, like many others, grew tired of a conflict with no end in sight. Block Communications keeps citing yearly losses incurred by the Post-Gazette, though the publishers are notably vague about the exact sources of those losses. For their part, the journalists are fed up with not having a pay increase in 13 years, with cuts in both pay and benefits, and with the tactics of King and Ballow, a law firm from Nashville with a reputation for union-busting at newspapers.
The Newspaper Guild met with King and Ballow for the 19th time in 23 months on January 31st, but so far the only way the firm appears to be earning their fees from the Blocks is through appeals of the NLRB ruling.
The sharp turn to the right of the Post-Gazette’s editorial pages, highlighted by the June firing of long-time P-G cartoonist Rob Rogers, has in the meantime created some anxiety and mistrust among NewPeople readers in particular and progressives in general. Has there been a less obvious but similar shift in the paper’s news content? Are readers receiving the same level of coverage generated by local reporters as previously?
“We actually have added staff (to fill some vacancies) and enterprise and investigative reporting continues as in the past,” Fuoco told us. “We are doing the same amount of local and regional reporting and still have reporters in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C.”
A rough analysis performed by the NewPeople of four Post-Gazette editions during a recent week appears to support Fuoco’s statement. We examined the main and local news sections for Sunday, January 6 and Monday, January 7, and the main, local, and business sections for Wednesday, January 9 and Thursday, January 10. Regarding the front page of the main news section, 14 of 20 by-lined or otherwise attributed articles were written by Post-Gazette reporters.
The Sunday main front page is usually reserved for in-depth work by local reporters, although a Thursday front-page piece on air pollution from the Clairton coke works demonstrated the value of having beat reporters cover a breaking story.
Predictably, 18 of 19 clearly attributed articles on the local front pages were done by P-G staff. One by transportation beat reporter Ed Blazina described how the Port Authority was using research by Merton project Pittsburghers for Public Transit for mapping rider routes in the Mon valley. In all, 24 different Post-Gazette reporters were by-lined in the sections we examined.
As for articles attributed to outside news sources, the Associated Press led with 18, followed by the New York Times with nine, CNN with eight, and the Washington Post with six. “We follow the national template, which comes out of the New York- and Washington-based media,” John Robinson Block told WESA, while ruefully adding
he thought that coverage was “shamefully biased against the President.”
On March 31, 2019, it will be two years since the Post-Gazette’s contract with the 150 members of the Pittsburgh Newspaper Guild expired.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.