By Randy Furst (Illustration by Steve Sack)
May 4, 2020 – On April 3 and 10, 28 union reporters and four management editors were permanently laid off at the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Rachel Dissell, whose break-through investigative journalism had a big effect on Ohio and Cleveland, was one of the reporters laid off.
“I’m heartbroken that I am not able to do this job,” said Dissell, who was vice chair of The NewsGuild unit at the Plain Dealer.
Layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts are stalking the news industry at a time when America needs journalists and journalism more than ever.
With plummeting advertising, hardly a news organization nationwide has not been hit by staff reductions, either temporary or permanent. In some cases, newspapers have been completely shut down as the economic fallout from the pandemic continues to spread.
Dissell’s journalism made a difference in people’s lives.
One of her investigations, initiated in 2013 with reporter Leila Atassi, who is now a columnist at Cleveland.com, led to 14,000 rape kits being tested in the state that had not been previously tested. It led to 800 arrests or prosecutions. Many cases were solved that were past a statute of limitations.
Most recently, Dissell and another reporter, Brie Zeltner, published an investigation of Cleveland’s lead-poisoning problem, which was worse than many other cities in the country and was disproportionately causing harm to black children.
Their reporting led to a city ordinance that rental units be tested for lead before the units can be rented. The investigation also led to the creation of a fund of more than $18 million and a lead-safe resource center that will allow landlords and families to access funds to keep their homes safe from lead.
Cleveland.com, which is non-union, will continue to supply articles to the Plain Dealer along with four Guild reporters who remain, Dissell said.
Losing a vital watchdog
The Los Angeles Times shut down three of its community newspapers in April — the Glendale News-Press, the Burbank Leader and the La Canada Valley Sun. It permanently laid off 11 people, seven members of the bargaining unit and four managers,
“It was a shock,” said Andy Nguyen, one of the reporters who was laid off.
Nguyen said the Times’ community reporters were the only journalists who regularly covered local city council, public-works and school-board meetings in Burbank, Glendale and La Canada Flintridge (a city in Los Angeles County).
“Now there will be pretty much no one going to these meetings from the media,” he said. “These communities are going to lose a vital watchdog over local government.” Nguyen noted that the community publications also highlighted different aspects of the community and neighborhoods.
“People say journalists always write about the negative things, but we also wrote about the good works that happen,” such as local businesses helping out schools, he said.
Three other Guild staffers were transferred to other positions in the Times bargaining unit, said Anthony Pesce, president of the Media Guild of the West in Los Angeles and a graphics and data journalist at the Times.
NewsGuild seeks help from Congress
The deepening crisis facing journalism and journalists has prompted The NewsGuild union to call on Congress to include the news media in an upcoming stimulus package that can put journalists back to work and keep others on the job.
“Our members are fighting against these draconian cuts any way they can, but we need Congress to step in and help,” said Jon Schleuss, international president of The NewsGuild.
Ironically, Schleuss said reports indicate that readers are turning to news organizations in record numbers as digital subscriptions soar. They want to know which hospitals are at capacity, he said; what nursing homes are in crisis; how many cases there are in their city, county and state; how many people have died in their neighborhood; is the curve peaking or flattening out; what stores are open or closed; what’s happening to the billions of dollars being appropriated by Congress.
Digital traffic “going through the roof”
“People are saying that digital traffic” at local newspapers “is going through the roof,” said Kristen Hare, who reports on the nation’s local news industry for the Poynter Institute in Florida.
Unfortunately, as the public’s need for news has surged, advertising has fallen sharply.
Hare has kept a running list of furloughs, layoffs and closures at U.S. papers that now totals about 200, along with major cuts at about a dozen digital sites and a dozen magazines nationwide.
Using his own formula, reporter Marc Tracy of the New York Times estimated that 36,000 workers at news companies in the United States have been furloughed, laid off or taken pay cuts.
“You have this substantial increase in the demand for news and yet a decrease in news organizations’ ability to earn revenue,” said Philip Napoli, a professor of public policy at Duke University, in an interview. “This is a prime case for what economists call market failure, the market is not working efficiently. [Newspapers] are an important resource, and we are letting them wither and die and that is incredibly frustrating.”
Since 2004, the United States has lost 2,100 newspapers, including 70 dailies, said Professor Penny Abernathy, Knight chair in journalism and digital media economics at the University of North Carolina. “Those tended to be the prime if not the sole source [of news] for people living in small or midsize communities, including inner-city neighborhoods, suburban towns on the outskirts of major metros as well as rural areas.
“Going into the pandemic,” she said in an interview, “we had a news ecosystem that was very fragile and in danger of collapse’ … I think 2020 is going to be the turning point.”
Here’s a sampling on what’s taking place across the United States and Canada:
Workers at the Arizona Republic voted to join The NewsGuild in October, said Rebekah Sanders, chair of the unit and a consumer-protection reporter. When Gannett notified the Guild at the end of March that it was going to announce furloughs across the country, the union asked to bargain jointly with other unionized Gannett newsrooms, Sanders said, a request that Gannett rejected.
Without a contract with the Guild yet, the company cannot legally impose furloughs at the paper without bargaining an agreement with the Guild. Gannett imposed it anyway, Sanders said. Negotiations are continuing, and the company could face legal consequences for its unilateral actions, she said. “It is putting a lot of stress on members,” Sanders said. Workers, she said, are taking on extra roommates, refinancing their mortgages and taking extra jobs to make ends meet. “We need more reporters, not less,” said Sanders. “The heartbreaking thing is being benched while this public health crisis is threatening our community.”
After a five-month union drive, the Guild was voluntarily recognized in July as the union representing editorial employees at BuzzFeed News. More than 90 percent of eligible staffers signed cards supporting the union. Rachel Sanders, the Guild unit chair, said that the unit, which represents 75 to 80 members, does not have a contract yet. The union agreed to the company’s plan that will temporarily cut salaries. “People in our unit want to be able to continue the work we’re doing, so rather than suggesting furloughs as an alternative, we decided to stick with the salary cuts and push for additional protections,” Sanders said. “Non-executive salaries were cut on a graduated scale, from 5 percent to 13 percent, with those earning higher salaries seeing larger reductions,” she said. “Salaries might be restored sooner if the economic outlook improves, but at this point it’s hard to know how likely that is.”
The Tribune company has made a demand for a 4.5 percent pay cut for bargaining-unit employees making $67,000 or more per year, said Darryl Sclater, staff representative for The NewsGuild. This past week the company added an additional demand for three weeks of furloughs over the next three months for employees making between $40,000 and $66,999 per year, Sclater said. “The Guild has made an information request to the company for financial information to justify the need for what they are asking for and to justify their right to seek to bargain over it,” he said. “We will be evaluating any information provided to determine our next steps.”
The Guild represents 140 staffers at the Chicago Tribune. Among the other affiliated newspapers facing the same Tribune Co. demands are the Baltimore Sun, The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., Hartford Courant, Virginian-Pilot and the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md.
At the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, a Gannett newspaper, most workers earning more than $38,000 a year have been put on unpaid furlough for one week a month for the next three months, said reporter Katherine Burgess, president of the Memphis Newspaper Guild, which represents 25 employees in the newsroom and sales. Four reporters, one photographer and two other editorial workers were furloughed during the week of April 13, and four more reporters and a photographer were furloughed during the week of April 20, including three not covered by the Guild. The reduction, she said, has resulted in less coverage.
Denver, Wyoming, Colorado
“Effective April 17, four newsroom employees and nine employees in advertising and circulation were laid off,” said Tony Mulligan, administrative officer for the Denver Newspaper Guild. The Denver Post newsroom staff is down to 46 and the non-newsroom staff has fallen to 81. “On top of that our folks are serving three weeks of unpaid furloughs between now and the end of June,” he said. “Like other papers, the page views have increased dramatically during the pandemic. This is still the largest newsroom in the state, so it is still the trusted go-to source for information concerning the pandemic and everything else.” But with the cuts in staff, he said, the public is going to receive less information.
In February 2018, the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune voted to join the Guild. The 13 members of the bargaining unit face two weeks of furloughs between now and June 27, Mulligan said. The Guild also represents workers at the Pueblo (Colo.) Chieftain, a Gannett newspaper, where there are negotiations with the company over its proposal for three weeks of furloughs, Mulligan said.
Stevie Blanchard, administrator of the Newspaper Guild of Detroit, said the local is dealing with furloughs of one week per month for three months at four papers, the Detroit Free Press, a Gannett newspaper, which has 75 members, the Detroit News with 65, the Observer and Eccentric with six and the Macomb Daily with 16. In mutual agreement with the local board, Blanchard is taking a three-week furlough, too. She said the local was “right on the line” on whether it could afford an administrative officer. She said there is concern among the members whether layoffs or more furloughs will follow. “There is so much uncertainty,” Blanchard said.
Twenty-one members of the 24-member unit at Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union, a Gannett newspaper, have been furloughed. They will endure a 25 percent cut in hours for April, May and June, said Andrew Pantazi, co-chair of the Guild unit. Anyone earning more than $38,000 is subject to the furloughs, plus all local managers, he said.
Pantazi had created a web page for the newspaper that was tracking the rise of the coronavirus in the whole of Florida and by county. He is the only data reporter at the paper so his editors told him to scrap the project because he would have to put the page on pause every time he went out on furlough. “It was one of the most popular things we had on our website,” he said.
“The public will get less information. There are a lot of emergency orders and emergency procurements and with fewer people covering the breaking news stories, it means more of the accountability work is going to fall through the cracks. We need journalists who are tracking what our city halls and state governments are doing with their emergency powers.”
“Everyone throughout the company is doing two-week furloughs between now and July 15,” said Dan Truttschel, a general-assignment reporter and president of The NewsGuild at the Kenosha News in Kenosha, Wis. There are eight Guild members. “We lost two members of the Guild and a non-union editor in a buyout in March,’ he said. At the same time, demand for pandemic coverage is high, he said. “Everyone wants information. There’s a huge spike in interest. We are doing a lot of COVID-related stories. We are charting the daily count of cases. I just did two stories in the Sunday paper about mental health and the impact on people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.”
Los Angeles Times
Besides the shutdown of three community newspapers, the Los Angeles Times also announced it was suspending 401(k) contributions for all non-union members including managers. Some managers were taking between a 5 percent and 15 percent pay cut. The Guild-represented employees reached an agreement to avoid layoffs using California’s work-sharing system.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a Gannett newspaper, has instituted one week of unpaid furloughs for each month for April, May and June, including managers, said Ashley Luthern, president of the Milwaukee NewsGuild and an investigative reporter. As with other Gannett papers, workers earning less than $38,000 a year will not be furloughed. The furloughs affect more than 75 percent of the Milwaukee Guild’s bargaining unit, which has more than 90 newsroom staffers.
“I don’t think there has ever been a more critical need for local journalism than during this pandemic,” Luthern said. “I think we need more journalists covering the story, not less. People are hungry for coronavirus information.” The furloughs will save the company at least $250,000 from the bargaining unit, according to the Milwaukee NewsGuild.
“While the news industry, like many other industries, has been hit very hard, there has certainly been prior decisions by corporate owners that have made us more vulnerable to this massive economic disruption,” Luthern said. Though the company has temporarily suspended dividends during the pandemic, Gannett had taken $329.2 million in advertising and subscriber revenue and given it to shareholders in the form of dividends in 2018 and 2019 under its two prior companies, according to The NewsGuild. “Those are funds that could have been put back into our local newsrooms serving our local communities,” Luthern said.
Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth
At the Duluth News Tribune, owned by Forum Communications, there was grim news. Nine employees in advertising and circulation are being permanently laid off. Forum also announced it was closing its weekly papers in Hastings and Woodbury, Minn.
Workers at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis have been furloughed for four days in the year’s second quarter and four days in the third quarter. Candace Lund, executive officer of the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild, said that Guild members at the St. Paul Pioneer Press will face one week of furloughs in April, May, June and July. Since Alden Global Capital took control of the Pioneer Press, there has been nothing but cuts, said Dave Orrick, a unit officer.
Orrick, who covers state government, said there has been steady attrition and voluntary buyouts. There are now only about 45 newsroom employees, compared to 200 when Orrick started at the paper in 2006. “The Pioneer Press has been profitable for a number of years, but Alden has not reinvested in the Pioneer Press or any of their newspapers,” Orrick said. The furloughs would be the equivalent of a 25 percent pay cut but most of the workers will be made whole or close to it through state unemployment insurance, supplemented by a $600 a week payment under the CARES Act.
“It’s a terrible time to be cutting journalism,” Orrick said. “This is the biggest story of our generation for a lot of us.” The positive side, he said, is that during the furlough he has been able to spend more time with his 9-year-old son, helping him with school in the morning and taking him fishing in the afternoon.
New York Magazine
After a card check conducted by the American Arbitration Association in February 2019, editorial employees at New York Magazine were certified to be represented by The NewsGuild. There were 165 members at last count, said Brittany Brown, a copy editor and Guild unit chair. The unit is still negotiating its first contract.
“Last week we were bargaining on furloughs and pay cuts for the highest earners,” Brown said. As a result, Vox, the magazine owner, is going to furlough 11 staffers from May 1 to July 31. “Vox will pay all of their health care premiums including the part that the employee will pay and [workers] will be reimbursed for any deductibles and co-pays,” she said.
“If Vox wants to extend the furlough, they have to negotiate over it. Pay cuts between 15 and 25 percent will be instituted for about a dozen workers earning over $130,000 from May 1 to July 31. “The reason we were given [for the reductions] was the financial hit they were taking because of COVID-19, mainly advertising dollars,” Brown said. “Our page views have actually never been higher, and we were told subscriptions were way up.”
In October 2018, workers at the Omaha World-Herald voted 71-5 to join the Guild, said Todd Cooper, president of the local Guild. With the onset of COVID-19, Lee Enterprises, which owns the newspaper, has attempted to furlough workers. “We did some math,” said Cooper. The furlough of two weeks per staffer over the next three months would save them $120,000, he said. The company and its predecessor have long paid millions of dollars to its executive team, although not this year. “There are cost savings to be had at that level before you start cutting the people who actually are covering the crisis of our lives,” he said. Members voted unanimously on Saturday to ratify their first contract.
Workers at the Orlando Sentinel are currently voting on whether to join the Guild, said Gabrielle Russon, a senior reporter and a member of the organizing committee. The Sentinel is owned by Tribune Publishing, which announced that workers making $67,000 or more will face pay cuts between 2 percent and 10 percent. Journalists paid between $40,000 and $67,000 are on unpaid furloughs for three weeks that are taken in one-week increments in May, June and July. “We work so hard to cover the news,” said Russon, who covers theme parks for the Sentinel. “And now we’re worrying about how we are going to pay the bills, just like everyone else.” The Tribune CEO warned in an email to employees that more furloughs may come.
Michael Applegate, executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild reports that three Guild members at the Monterey Herald face furloughs through the end of the Monterey County “Shelter in Place” plan. The 13-employee staff at the East Bay Times faces an eight-week furlough. Twenty-one employees of the San Jose Mercury News are receiving eight-week furloughs and four have been permanently laid off.
Two employees in advertising are receiving three-month furloughs at the Sacramento Bee. Rolling week-long furloughs are implemented for all members at the Maui News. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo unilaterally imposed a reduction of 40 to 32-hour work weeks in addition to furloughing seven workers at the Honolulu newspaper and two workers at Hilo with no end date. The Honolulu and Hilo papers were recently awarded relief money through the Paycheck Protection Program. Applegate said the Guild was eager to get to the bargaining table to make sure the unilateral changes are reversed.
The Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, Wash., a Gannett newspaper, has had one of its 10-unit members laid off, and has had a one-week-per-month furlough implemented over the next three months, said Brad Sherman, administrative officer for the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild. Workers at the Skagit Valley Heraldin Mount Vernon, Wash., have had their hours cut from 40 to 30 for about a month. Hours have been reduced by 22 percent to 50 percent for some employees at the Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., which voted to join the Guild last October, he said.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Southern Illinois
About 100 members in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newsroom and advertising department face two-week furloughs over the next three months at this Lee Enterprises newspaper, said Jeff Gordon, a sportswriter and president of the local, the United Media Guild. “Page views are way up,” he said, “and we are doing somewhat better on digital subscriptions. Print advertising has gone through the floor.”
He said the Post-Dispatch is the No. 1 source for news in the greater St. Louis region. “We have by far the largest newsroom,” he said. “We are doing daily updates [on the pandemic] and how the government is responding. Like a lot of our newspapers, we don’t put that coverage behind a paywall.”
Also facing two-week furloughs in the region are the Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale, Ill., the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star, the Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star, the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., and the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.
Bloomberg Industry Group
Formerly known as the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), Bloomberg Industry Group has carried out several mass layoffs in recent years, said Steven D. Cook, president of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. The company, in a bargaining unit with 443 workers, permanently laid off an additional 16 employees April 20, including Cook, a senior editor, he said.
“It’s demoralizing to get laid off in the middle of a pandemic,” he tweeted that day. In an interview, Cook said his layoff was not related to the pandemic, but rather a prior decision by the company to close his section. However, Cook said it could have been worse for him. “I am represented by The NewsGuild,” he said. “I’ve been with the company 20 years and I’m entitled to 52 weeks of severance. I will have a full pension, and that also gives me peace of mind. I am in much better shape because of The NewsGuild.”
Cook remains deeply concerned about others in the news industry who are losing their jobs during the COVID-19 outbreak. “Hedge funds and private-equity groups already have devastated the news business and staff with mass layoffs. With this pandemic, they are poised to strike the final blow in many cases,” he said.
The federal government is offering a 75 percent Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) for 12 weeks retroactive to March 15 for companies that see a 30 percent drop in revenues. Some companies are just below the 30 percent threshold and CWA Canada is urging the feds to help them—and quickly. Two publishers told the CWA Canada that if they do not get help in the next couple of weeks, they will have to proceed with cuts.
Postmedia announced April 28 that it will lay off 50 sales people, temporarily cut pay for employees, and permanently close 15 of its 95 community newspapers. “The cuts do not affect any of the media union’s 281 members who work at nine of Postmedia’s 15 daily newspapers,” CWA Canada reported. “In fact, unionized staff cannot be forced to take a pay reduction; that would have to be agreed to by the union,” said Martin O’Hanlon, president of the NewsGuild’s Canadian branch said.
Red Deer Advocate (Black Press Group Ltd.) laid off five members on March 20. A grievance was filed because those laid off did not receive severance, vacation owed or notice. They are able to keep their benefits. A work-sharing-program was agreed to.
The Medicine Hat News (Alberta Newspaper Group) laid off seven members, most effective April 13, including two reporters in editorial, several in advertising sales and related jobs. Hours of all full-time and part-time staff was reduced as of March 23. Full-time has gone from 37.5 hours to 30 hours. Part-timers are seeing a one-day per week reduction in hours. Commission salespeople have been offered different options: from layoffs to reduced commission and minimum-wage combinations. There is a system in place where employees will be able to keep their benefits.
Nearly the entire mailroom, which is non-union, at the Moncton Times and Transcript (Brunswick News) has been laid off. Two union members are being given what the company calls temporary layoffs.
At the Victoria Times Colonist (Glacier Media), members agreed 88-0 to accept reduced hours to avoid any layoffs. Hours have been cut from 20 percent to 60 percent.
SaltWire, which includes the Halifax Chronicle Herald and Cape Breton Post, laid off 40 percent of its work force. CWA Canada launched a grievance because no notice was given, and no severance paid. A small number of editorial staff will be brought back out of seniority and it will be added to the grievance. Hours and pay were cut for the rest of the workforce. There was a temporary closure of all weekly papers.
VICE Canada enacted a four-day workweek for the top 50 percent of earners which would result in a 20 percent pay cut for those affected. It will last 90 days.
The 22-member unit at the Boston Herald has been hard hit by furloughs. Full-time editorial employees are taking two unpaid days off per week for 11 straight weeks, starting April 13, said Scott Steeves, president of the Boston local of the NewsGuild. Part-time editorial employees are taking one day off per week; advertising employees are being furloughed for five weeks over the next 11 weeks; circulation workers are being furloughed one day per week for 11 weeks. Negotiations on furloughs are continuing at the Herald News in Fall River, Mass., and the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass., Steeves said.
Randy Furst is a member of The NewsGuild and a reporter at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. He reported and wrote this article while on furlough from the Star Tribune.
This post was updated to reflect that The Southern Illinoisan is facing a two-week furlough and updates from the Boston NewsGuild.