Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Feb. 18, 2009, 11:20 a.m.

Unions: Time to step up with ideas

Newspaper bosses and media companies can be short-sighted. Dull of wit. Evil, even. This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.

Myself, I’ve taken an active role in meetings where the topic — stated or unstated — was “We need to save a pantsload of money, and if that means we create less expensive ways to cover the news, then so be it.” Yes, I have been a suit, running the online division of The Baltimore Sun until August of last year.

And yet, to the chagrin of some of my employers at the time, I do believe that unions have a proud history in this country and have continued to be necessary and to contribute value to their members into this century, if only to negotiate slightly better severance packages when jobs are eliminated.

But if the newspapers of America are going to crawl out of the bomb-crater they currently find themselves in, unions like The Newspaper Guild are going to have to lose some of the Norma Rae routine and come to the table as true negotiators, with real ideas. The time for the same old posturing is over. 

I’m thinking about this announcement from the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild at The Washington Post, which takes issue with the creation of a new “community reporter” position, starting at $34,000, which is close to the mean ($37,010, 2006 Census data) salary for people in metropolitan areas.

The Bulletin serves to continue the counter-productive knife fight between worker and publisher that goes on oblivious to the fact that the house they’re fighting over is totally engulfed in flames.

Union members in cities across the land are contributing mightily toward the advancement of modern newspapers — they’re the people blogging, and shooting video, and networking with readers through Facebook and Twitter — but where are their leaders? Union sites catalog the collapse of the business, but there’s little — if anything — about building for the future. Where are the official union versions of Jeff Jarvis or Alan Mutter or Mark Potts or Gina Chen? Newspapers have been investing in online — some would say not enough, but at least it’s something — for 13-15 years now. Can unions say the same? If just one-tenth of the dues-money spent litigating grievances went to an innovation prize or to fund a digital news skunkworks, imagine what might be accomplished.

Please — prove me wrong. Link to union sites in the comments that are suggesting new solutions and helping to build a new way. Nothing would make my day better than to realize this entire rant was misplaced.

POSTED     Feb. 18, 2009, 11:20 a.m.
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