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May 13, 2020, 4:58 p.m.

Cleveland is where the American newspaper union was born, and it’s the latest place where it’s been beaten

The owners of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer have been bleeding its (unionized) newsroom in favor of its (non-union) website for nearly a decade. While organizers have made major gains in new newsrooms, it’s a stinging defeat on labor’s home turf.

Cleveland is where the modern union movement in American journalism began.

It was there back in 1878, future newspaper magnate E. W. Scripps launched his first daily, The Penny Press. As the name implied, the Press — soon renamed the Cleveland Press — was aimed specifically at the city’s working class.

As one newspaper historian put it: “The Scripps papers, from the beginning, were low-priced, popular evening papers designed to appeal to what Edward W. Scripps called the ’95 percent,’ the plain people.”1 Or as another put it: “Scripps targeted his papers toward the working class because he believed that newspapers needed to serve the entire population if democracy were to survive.”2 Scripps was also small-d democratic when it came to ownership; employees were given shares of the company and owned about 40 percent of it by the 1920s. The Press’ working class orientation at a time when organized labor was at its peak make it the dominant newspaper in Cleveland for the first 60 or so years of the 20th century.

Still, management at even the most worker-friendly newspaper is still management, and staffers at the Press complained about low pay, long hours, and bad working conditions. (Familiar refrains for journalists.) Some experienced reporters were making $20 a week (equal to about $20,000 a year today). So in 1933, two newspapermen, Robert Bordner and Garland Ashcraft, called a meeting to discuss forming a union.

“We in the editorial department of the Press had had our pay cut 15 percent — then another 10 percent — then another 10 percent,” Bordner, the city editor, wrote later. “There was no such thing as hours. It was a 10- to 18-hour day, six days a week, and often on Sundays you got assignments.” Typesetters, engravers, and other printing employees couldn’t be forced to take random pay cuts because they had a union contract. “The conclusion was plain. We needed a union, too.”

They rented a ballroom at the Hollenden Hotel; 102 newspaper employees showed up. They decided at first to call themselves the Cleveland Editorial Employees Association, but that soon became the Cleveland Newspaper Guild and included workers at the rival Cleveland News. It was the first newspaper union in America.

Quickly thereafter, Bordner and Ashcraft started using their contacts at newspapers around the country, asking them to organize their own newsrooms. A few months later, they called a national convention at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. and asked popular columnist Heywood Broun of the New York World-Telegram — another Scripps paper — to be president of a national union if one could be founded there.

On the afternoon of the convention, December 15, 1933, after hours spent drafting a constitution, Broun got an unexpected phone call from the White House: “FDR would like to see us.” He, Bordner, and a few others went to meet the president, who told them he supported their cause: “My blessing on you and more power to you.” On that day, the American Newspaper Guild — later The Newspaper Guild, then today’s NewsGuild — was born.

To honor the role of the Cleveland organizers, their guild unit was retroactively named the national organization’s Local No. 1.

E.W. Scripps died in 1926. Later generations of his company’s management proved less worker friendly, and the chain’s politics drifted to the right. In 1962, during a newspaper strike, Scripps management ordered editor Louis B. Seltzer to come out strong and publicly against the guild’s desire for a closed shop, saying “I do not wish to be editor of a newspaper where such an arbitrary condition — such an intrusion on unlimited allegiance to the freedom and integrity of our special profession — is interposed.” That angered Cleveland’s union members and lost the Press much of what remained of its working-class cred. That loss — along with its status as an afternoon paper while evening TV news ate away at its audience — led to its steady decline. The Cleveland Press closed for good in 1982.

Its demise opened up room for what had been its smaller rival, the morning Plain Dealer. (Plain Dealer employees had been invited to join Press and News staffers at the formation of the Cleveland Editorial Employees Association and were present at the writing of its constitution. But, according to Bordner, “this constitution had earmarks of a union. Press and News were for that. Plain Dealer men were not. It was a fight. We won. The Plain Dealer group withdrew and washed its hands of us.”)

In 1967, the Plain Dealer was purchased by Samuel I. Newhouse’s Advance Publications for $50 million — at the time, the highest price ever paid for an American newspaper.

Sam Newhouse despised unions. His newspapers harassed and fired organizing employees and even “enlisted local police to beat striking reporters and printers.”3 The generations of his family that have followed at Advance have not been known for the union friendliness either. (Though at least one member might have had a good reason: Sam’s nephew Donald Newhouse was shot in his home during a strike at The Oregonian in Portland. Newhouse blamed the union; some thought it a case of mistaken identity involving a cuckolded husband; police never found any useful clues and never made any arrests. The strike ended with a total Newhouse victory, putting the union out of business.)

Advance has battled unions with both sugar (a decades-long “Newhouse Pledge” to never layoff any non-union employee) and vinegar (refusing to hire back reporters who’d spent time working for a unionized daily). And yesterday, after a lengthy struggle, it got its way in Cleveland. The Plain Dealer News Guild is no more.

On Tuesday night, the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild Local 1 tweeted out a statement that the PD’s last four reporters would be laid off and offered jobs at its non-union sister site, Cleveland.com. “The unit will be dissolved effective May 17,” the statement says. “The Plain Dealer newsroom will no longer exist.”

In essence, Advance has now completed a years-long plan to remove resources from its union newspaper and replace them with its non-union website. Now the website will essentially be subcontracted to produce all the news in the newspaper. As in Portland decades earlier, the Newhouses have crushed a union.

The Plain Dealer will still publish daily and deliver its print edition four times a week. Both the Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com are owned and operated by Advance Local, which also owns AL.com in Alabama, NJ.com in New Jersey, MassLive in Massachusetts, among others.

Part of the agreement also says that “the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild agreed not to participate in organizing efforts to organize cleveland.com for one year, though other local unions and The NewsGuild, which represents journalists across the country, still can exercise those rights.”

The company started down this road in 2013 with this clear end goal — to get rid of the union. The Guild hoped the company would see the value of the work our members provided and the deep connections and trust we built in the community as a way to strengthen journalism in Greater Cleveland.

Instead, it chose to systematically squeeze the Guild out of existence. It was excruciating for those laid off over the past year and our members who remained to be kept in limbo…

Twenty years ago, The Plain Dealer had more than 340 journalists. In its heyday, it had even more. Today, it has four. Advance and The Plain Dealer have slashed the newsroom while creating a separate nonunion newsroom, cleveland.com.

The end of the unit, as unionization is picking up at other media companies across the country, is a sad moment in Cleveland history. Its imprint on the newsroom, and city, has been invaluable in the last century.

In early April, the Cleveland Plain Dealer laid off 22 staffers and told the remaining ones that they weren’t allowed to cover Cleveland, Cuyahoga County or the state of Ohio. That coverage would be done by Cleveland.com. PD staff could instead, nonsensically, focus only on surrounding counties far from their newsroom.

Plain Dealer editor Tim Warsinskey mentioned the union’s dissolution in one paragraph of a 942-word story on Cleveland.com about how he’ll be Advance Local’s senior editor for special projects.

“Before anyone starts pounding nails in coffins, as some of my more sensationalist brethren and harsh critics are wont to do, take a breath,” Warsinskey wrote. “This is not the end of The Plain Dealer. Far from it.”

It may not be the end of the Plain Dealer itself, but it is the end of organized protection for Cleveland’s largest newsroom.

It’s a boom time for union organizing of journalists, as newsrooms in dozens of online news organizations, magazines, and newspapers decide collective representation is important in what has become a wildly insecure industry. But meanwhile, in the city where newsroom organizing began, the Newhouses’ blow has finally proven fatal.

Postcard of downtown Cleveland in the 1930s by Butler Airphotos used under a Creative Commons license.

  1. William Bleyer, quoted in Christopher R. Martin’s No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class — a fine book on an important topic for which we rely for much of this old Cleveland history. []
  2. Gerald Baldasty, quoted in Martin. []
  3. Richard C. Meeker, quoted in Martin. []
POSTED     May 13, 2020, 4:58 p.m.
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