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Journalists at Gannett newspapers walk out over deep cuts and low pay

Journalists at two dozen Gannett Co.-owned newspapers across the country staged a walk-out Monday and Tuesday to protest pay and working conditions. The NewsGuild  noted their ranks have been decimated by cuts required to finance a merger with another major newspaper company four years ago.
Richard Drew
Journalists at two dozen Gannett Co.-owned newspapers across the country staged a walk-out Monday and Tuesday to protest pay and working conditions. The NewsGuild noted their ranks have been decimated by cuts required to finance a merger with another major newspaper company four years ago.

Hundreds of journalists are walking off the job Monday and Tuesday at two dozen newspapers owned by the Gannett company. They're protesting working conditions at their papers and launching a lacerating attack on Gannett's chief executive.

The newspapers, in seven states, include The Arizona Republic, The Austin American Statesman, The Florida Times-Union, The Asbury Park Press and others. The journalists and representatives at their union, the NewsGuild, accuse Gannett of undercompensating them for years. And, they note, they are now being asked to do more than ever.

According to Jon Schleuss, the president of the NewsGuild, corporate executives have eliminated 54% of the combined workforce of Gannett Co. since it merged with GateHouse Media four years ago to make a newspaper behemoth. Financing for the merger loaded up the new Gannett Co. with debt that led to hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts.

The walkout is said to be the largest labor action in Gannett's history. Workers are focusing their ire on Mike Reed, the former GateHouse chief who now leads the new Gannett Co. The staff demanded that shareholders at an annual meeting Monday morning cast a vote of no confidence in Reed's leadership. The meeting, however, was brief with no questions taken by Reed, according to Schleuss, who said he attended the meeting.

Shareholders approved the compensation packages for all executives, Gannett Head of Investor Relations Matthew Esposito told NPR. Gannett paid Reed approximately $11 million over 2021 and 2022, according to disclosure forms, even as the company's stock continued a sharp decline.

While Gannett says it is "bargaining to finalize contracts" at union-represented newsrooms without pacts, journalists say those talks have been slow walked.

Veteran reporter Joe Strupp of the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey tweeted, "We have been negotiating for two years and have seen no valid offer from management." DeclaredThe Arizona Republic Guild: "Gannett claims it's going to 'save journalism.' We're not sure how overworking and underpaying journalists accomplishes that goal."

Gannett heralds a new strategy, but concrete details are sparse

Gannett says it is committed to a new strategy that will unlock public service journalism that appeals to readers — but has offered few details.

"Together, we will experiment with purpose, extend the impact of our journalism, and better serve the readers, viewers and listeners who depend on us for the highest-quality news and information," Gannett Chief Content Officer Kristin Roberts said in a statement upon her appointment in March. "We will do it in ways that support the sustainability of local news and create the path to growth."

Back in 2019, just after the merger of Gannett and GateHouse, Reed said the combined company would have the scale to provide important journalism while cutting the costs needed to handle its financing debts and address the headwinds besetting the newspaper industry.

"If we don't provide unique, relevant, comprehensive local news to our consumers, we won't have a business," Reed told NPR in 2019. "It's easy to throw stones. But everybody is in a different position and has to do what they think is the best thing to position the company for long-term success."

More recently, Gannett's executive team has suggested that it will seek to focus primarily on its 100 largest titles, and it is open to shedding hundreds of smaller outlets.

In the meantime, the repercussions have been stark. The Salinas Californian no longer has any locally based reporters in a city of about 160,000, according to reporting by Los Angeles Times and others. Stories are taken from other Gannett papers more than an hour's drive away.

Distant editors, fewer reporters

The State Journal-Register, despite serving the state capital of Illinois, is being led by the editor of a sister paper in Lakeland, Fla., four states and 1,000 miles away. In some smaller publications, top stories routinely include the outcomes of Powerball drawings, which can be done by bots rather than human reporters.

Gannett has added respected news leaders in recent days. The company hired NPR vice president and executive editor Terence Samuel to be editor in chief of its flagship national paper, USA Today, which is not part of this week's work action. And it also lured Imtiaz Patel, chief executive of the non-profit startup site The Baltimore Banner, to join its corporate executive ranks.

The NewsGuild has drawn strength from the intensity of dismay in newsrooms around the country, adding new members who lack faith in the companies that control their destinies — increasingly concentrated at the Gannett Co., and the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which owns scores of papers.

Union action has garnered mixed results. A months-long strike at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has yielded few tangible victories to date, as the Block family that owns the paper appears intransigent. Meanwhile, journalists at the Guild-represented digital news site Insider just went on a full strike.

But at The New York Times, which has enjoyed flush coffers, labor actions were followed by a recent contract agreement promising a minimum 10% pay and other elements including signing bonuses and other benefits and guarantees.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 4, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this article incorrectly labeled the State Journal-Register newspaper in Illinois.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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