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Jan. 25, 2023, 11 a.m.
Business Models

The first newspaper strike of the digital age stretches into a new year

When staff at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette walked off the job 100 days ago, they became the first newspaper to strike in decades. They’ve already been followed by more.

— Scabby was wearing a bridal veil.

The blow-up rat — a staple at union protests — was joined by dozens of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette employees outside the Duquesne Club, a “premiere private club,” where Post-Gazette publisher John Robinson Block was celebrating his wedding.

The mid-November rally was one of dozens of protests the Post-Gazette workers have held since walking off the job on October 18, 100 days ago — and becoming the first American newspaper to strike since journalism entered the digital age.

Even as newspaper profits have plummeted and job losses have piled up, newsroom employees in the U.S. have stopped short of open-ended strikes for more than 20 years. But the Post-Gazette is ending that streak. Strike actions have included picketing the newsroom, running radio ads in Pittsburgh, calling for C-SPAN to remove a Post-Gazette owner from its board of directors, encouraging sources to sign a solidarity pledge, and asking subscribers to cancel their Post-Gazette subscriptions until the strike ends.

This isn’t a case of a rapacious hedge fund draining local news’ profits from a distance: The Post-Gazette has been owned by the same family, the Blocks, since 1927. In a statement released in response to the strike, their family company, Block Communications, said the Post-Gazette last turned a profit in 2007. Over the past 17 years, the paper has lost nearly $264 million, according to the statement.

Despite those economic headwinds for newspapers, frustration over stagnant wages, disappearing benefits, and newsroom cuts is spilling over into action in Pittsburgh. Post-Gazette union members say the paper’s financial outlook has improved, especially as it has cut printing to two days a week, reduced its headcount, and surpassed 50,000 paid digital subscribers. (A spokesperson for the Post-Gazette declined to comment on the paper’s finances or confirm subscription figures.)

The strike may be inspiring others. In the weeks since the Post-Gazette union went on strike, hundreds of journalists from 14 Gannett-owned newspapers walked off the job to protest low wages, layoffs, and other cost-cutting measures in local news. Journalists at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram went on strike for 24 days. And The New York Times saw its first major labor protest since 1981.

“I feel like we’re the canary in the coal mine,” said Andrew Goldstein, who, when not on strike, writes about education for Post-Gazette. “What happens here could go a long way to predicting what’s going to happen in other disputes.”

Goldstein, who’s been at the Post-Gazette since an internship in 2014, serves on the executive board of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh.

“We’re here fighting because we love Pittsburgh and we love the Post-Gazette, but we also know that the eyes of the journalism community across the country are on us,” Goldstein said. “Yes, we’re fighting for ourselves, but we’re also out here fighting because we want journalists everywhere to be treated fairly.”

“A trigger for us”

There are a couple of ways to tell the story of how the Post-Gazette strike started.

The first is that Post-Gazette journalists narrowly voted (38-36) to follow about 60 colleagues in distribution, production, and advertising, a couple of weeks after those groups went on strike over a health plan that members say costs more for less coverage. (At the protest in November, one Post-Gazette employee wore a “will work for healthcare” sign. Another said the health care plan would “blow a $10,000 hole” in his family’s budget.)

“When you’re part of a union, you’re supposed to honor picket lines. When the advertising and other groups went out, that was a trigger for us,” said Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-CWA, the national organization for the Post-Gazette’s union.

(Nearly five months after that narrow initial vote, a number of Post-Gazette journalists, including some of the paper’s most high-profile sports reporters, still have not joined the strike. I reached out to a handful of union members still working for the Post-Gazette and all declined to comment.)

The other story of how this strike began starts farther back. Journalists at the Post-Gazette have been working without a contract since 2017. The newsroom hasn’t seen an across-the-board pay raise in more than 16 years.

“We were called into a solidarity strike with [the other unions], and then decided to go on strike for our own unfair labor practices with the company,” said Natalie Duleba, a news designer and digital news editor at the Post-Gazette.

Duleba said she didn’t believe a work stoppage — “something you’d prefer to keep in your back pocket” — could have been avoided, even if the newsroom union hadn’t followed the other Post-Gazette unions on strike in October.

“It was probably always going to happen sometime,” Duleba said.

That’s because in the years since the last contract expired, disputes between the newsroom and management have only grown more contentious. In 2019, a staff exodus took place even as the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. (That same year, Rob Rogers was a Pulitzer finalist in the Editorial Cartooning category. The Post-Gazette had fired him in 2018, allegedly for being too anti-Trump.) Toward the end of the year, the union voted “no confidence” in management and went on a byline strike.

In July 2020, the Post-Gazette declared an impasse with the union and unilaterally imposed changes to wages, vacation time, severance packages, and health benefits. The National Labor Relations Board eventually intervened, finding that the Post-Gazette management had “bargained with no intention of reaching an agreement” before “prematurely declaring impasse.”

Duleba, who started her job during the pandemic and worked some evening hours as a designer, met several of her coworkers in person for the first time when the strike began. Duleba said fair wages are probably the most important issue to her, but when she was picketing outside or sitting in drawn-out meetings, she found herself thinking about colleagues trying to raise kids or take care of ailing parents.

“I want them to be able to take care of their families,” she said. “The longer you’re with a company, you should be able to take more vacation and build wealth — but we’ve found the opposite, that we’re just losing all that.”

In 2022, a federal court ruled that the Post-Gazette had to reimburse workers more than $100,000 after refusing to cover union contract–required health care costs for nearly four years. That history does little to instill confidence in the new health benefits that newspaper management is trying to impose.

“Under the imposed conditions, our company has set it up [so] they can change anything they want to, at any time, with no notice and no recourse for us,” Duleba said. “They could raise the costs every week.”

“Continuity at the top since early 1989”

In 2019, a Washington Post column declared the storied Post-Gazette was becoming a “chaotic circus.”

“What makes Pittsburgh’s situation particularly regrettable,” columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote, “is that the Blocks are a family who seem to have the resources — if not the wisdom — to do much, much better.”

The Block family has been in the media business for nearly a century and has owned the Post-Gazette since 1927. Post-Gazette employees who worked under former publisher William Block, Sr., say the union was able to conduct fair negotiations during his tenure and that he treated journalists as worthy partners in his newspaper business.

Those values, they say, have not been passed down from generation to generation intact.

The Post-Gazette and its sister paper, the Toledo Blade, are now controlled by William Block Sr.’s twin nephews, Allan Block and John Robinson Block, now in their late 60s.

“I was in charge and that’s one of the things that some people these days can’t seem to grasp,” John Robinson Block wrote in his “life’s accounting” in the Pittsburgh Quarterly in 2018. (Block did not respond to requests for comment.) “Nothing has changed at the Post-Gazette through the years because there’s been continuity at the top since early 1989 — almost 30 years.”

Both of the papers have lurched to the right under this generation of leadership. (“I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t vote for Donald Trump,” Block wrote. “I did.”) In 2018, a racist editorial prompted a disavowal from employees and some Block family members. The next year, Block, apparently “both intoxicated and enraged” and accompanied by his preteen daughter, visited the newsroom at night to scream and repeatedly punch a union sign that read “Shame on the Blocks.” In 2021, newsroom employees complained that the papers edited stories to downplay coverage of the January 6 United States Capitol attack, as Susan Allan Block, Allan Block’s wife, openly voiced support for violent insurrection.

Allan Block has indicated that he’s ready to part ways with the newspaper business entirely, and his brother has said he’s the one preventing the Post-Gazette from falling into the hands of hedge funds that now control so many local newspapers.

“What people in Pittsburgh must understand is that, in my family, I am the one who stood in the way and said, ‘We will cut our costs, but we will cut them with a minimum impact on the product,'” John Robinson Block wrote in the Pittsburgh Quarterly. “I assure you, my brother and cousin would have been much more abrupt in their changes, and would have cut much deeper. But I am proud of our product, much of the time.”

The Post-Gazette union has acknowledged that the newspaper business is not exactly booming but points to profits at Block Communications — which also has internet, telephone, and cable television holdings — when making their demands. (Even with its diversified business, Block Communications still leads with Pulitzer Prizes won by the Blade and Post-Gazette on its website.) The union’s argument has, to put it mildly, irked the Block family.

“In the estimation of our unions, our company is successful, despite today’s intense challenges,” wrote Block. “They think that the resources we earn in other businesses should subsidize our newspapers. Well, guess what? That’s what’s been happening but, again, it can’t continue.”

The Post-Gazette union chose to protest the Block wedding reception — and bring Scabby and a “congRATS” cake along — to put pressure on the family with the power to sign a new contract. Outside the reception, Post-Gazette writer and editor Bob Batz Jr. was clear about one thing: he’d really rather be back in the newsroom.

“We want to save the paper and we want to go back to work,” Batz said. “If [Block] came out right now and said, ‘Come in and have a brandy and work it out,’ that’s what we’d do.”

And now?

It looks as if the newspaper industry’s first strike in decades won’t end anytime soon.

After four negotiating sessions — the most recent one was held on Dec. 20 — no agreement has been reached. Post-Gazette marketing director Allison Latcheran confirmed that there are currently no additional meetings scheduled.

Alex McCann, secretary of the Pittsburgh Newspaper Guild and a digital news editor at the Post-Gazette, said the company has continued to “bargain in bad faith” and has yet to bring “a meaningfully different proposal,” despite the union offering concessions on job security, layoffs, and health benefits.

A lawyer representing the Post-Gazette in negotiations seemed to confirm that assessment. In December, Richard Lowe told assembled union members that he hadn’t been coming to bargaining sessions with new material because leadership would prefer to keep the contract imposed on workers in 2020. (“When I say I like it, it’s because it’s worked for us,” Lowe said.)

The last time Pittsburgh had a newspaper strike, more than 30 years ago, the largest newspaper in the city at the time, The Pittsburgh Press, didn’t survive. The Block family bought the rival newspaper in 1992 and quickly announced the Press would no longer be published. The Blocks are adding to their media empire this time around, too. They announced earlier this month that a subsidiary company had purchased the Pittsburgh City Paper.

A pending labor unemployment claim, if won, would give striking workers a weekly check in addition to the few hundred dollars they receive each week from the NewsGuild’s $400 million strike fund. Some Post-Gazette employees already had second jobs, from refereeing soccer games to working in retail to freelance work.

Since the strike began, several Post-Gazette journalists have left for other outlets rather than cross a picket line. The departed include Gillian McGoldrick, a statehouse reporter who staged a one-woman protest from Harrisburg at the beginning of the strike, and veteran journalists Bill Schackner and Jonathan Silver, who both moved across town to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Other striking workers have started something new.

Meet the Pittsburgh Union-Progress

Here’s something you hear over and over again in Pittsburgh: “It’s a union town.”

Talk to Post-Gazette staffers and it’ll feel as if each one has a story of a parent or grandparent who was active in a union — whether they were a mill worker or baker, worked in insurance or steel or as a fellow journalist.

Many of the remaining newsroom employees have been channeling their journalistic skills into a digital strike publication called the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Hometown support for their union-backed news org has been strong, and more than 1,000 people have subscribed for free updates.

Local elected officials have shared Union Progress stories and promised not to speak to the Post-Gazette as long as the union’s labor disputes go unresolved. As a candidate, U.S. Senator John Fetterman declined to cross the picket line to meet with the Post-Gazette’s editorial board and U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio refused an election day interview with non-union reporters.

At the Union Progress, journalists are publishing multiple stories a day online. One vertical is dedicated to strike news, but the bulk of work is the kind of coverage the journalists would normally be filing to the Post-Gazette. And, unlike some of their predecessors, strike publications in 2023 can start up without acquiring printing presses or delivery trucks.

“That’s what I keep telling people: we don’t need anybody else to do what we do,” said Batz, who serves as interim editor. “It’s a WordPress. Just fire it up and go.” (They have office space, too.)

Even as the Union-Progress enters its fourth month of publication, the striking workers say they’re committed to not crossing any picket lines. Many mentioned not wanting to let down a long line of guild members who have fought for fair conditions at the Post-Gazette.

“What I tell a lot of the young people is — some of you don’t want to strike because this is your dream job. You’ve never made more money. You’ve never had better benefits. You’ve never done such great work with such great editors. Why do you think that is?” Batz said. “We’re a good place to work because people before us helped set those standards.”

Photo of Post-Gazette workers protesting in downtown Pittsburgh by Sarah Scire.

POSTED     Jan. 25, 2023, 11 a.m.
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