As part of a nationwide labor action protesting what they say are long-stalled contract talks, Democrat & Chronicle reporters, photographers and producers staged a one-day walkout Monday.
The walkout is the second in 7 months by the NewsGuild-CWA, a union representing journalists and other newspaper workers nationally. The Monday action coincides with the annual shareholder meeting of the D&C’s owner, Gannett Co. Inc.
In addition to D&C staff, journalists at Gannett-owned papers at other New York papers and their peers at Gannett papers in California, Arizona, Texas, Indiana, Florida and New Jersey are walking off the job. Some plan to stay out for two days or longer. D&C staff planned to be back on the job Tuesday.
A main theme of the job action is a call for Gannett shareholders to urge the company’s board to oust Gannett chairman and CEO Mike Reed, whom the NewsGuild accuses in a statement of “decimating local news coverage around the country and shrinking pay and benefits for journalists.”
In the Rochester area, the NewsGuild represents 23 newsroom staffers. That’s down from 86 in 2011, says Justin Murphy, D&C education reporter and local NewsGuild spokesman. Murphy and other local NewsGuild members have been working without a contract since 2019. The company has made no serious attempt to negotiate, Murphy says.
Over the past four years, Gannett has maintained a steady drip of layoffs and job eliminations, cutting staffs at local papers around the country including the D&C.
The Rochester-area NewsGuild membership breaks down to 14 D&C and three Canandaigua Daily Messenger reporters plus photographers and producers of online content at each local newspaper.
“During a very challenging time for our industry and economy, Gannett strives to provide competitive wages, benefits, and meaningful opportunities for all our valued employees,” the newspaper chain said in a statement. “(Gannett’s) leadership is focused on investing in local newsrooms and monetizing our content as we continue to negotiate fairly and in good faith with the NewsGuild.
The work stoppage would have virtually no effect on its local papers’ output, Gannett maintained in the statement, which added that “our goal is to preserve journalism and serve our communities across the country as we bargain to finalize contracts.”
Murphy scoffs at the response.
Gannett’s staff cuts have far exceeded reductions of reportorial staff at all other “legacy” newspaper chains, he says. If the work stoppage would indeed have no impact on local coverage, Murphy maintains, it would be only because staff cuts have already degraded local coverage to a point where it would be hard to sink lower.
Last month, NewsGuild journalists from several Gannett papers—including Murphy—held a 40-minute webinar with Gannett shareholders, hoping to convince them to urge the board to cashier Reed.
To provide a roadmap for what he characterizes as the degradation of local coverage in Gannett’s relentless and systematic hollowing out of local news coverage under Reed, Murphy told webinar attendees about his own experience as a D&C reporter.
“When I got hired at the D&C in 2012 as an education reporter,” Murphy said, “I concentrated entirely on the Rochester City School District. After a few years, they eliminated all the suburban beats, so I took on the other 18 surrounding school districts. Shortly after that, they eliminated the higher-education beat, so I took on the dozen or so colleges and universities, including the University of Rochester, which also happens to be the largest employer in the area.
“At the same time,” he added, “they were cutting elsewhere—health and environment, other government beats, general assignment coverage—and so (now) I’m technically only supposed to dedicate half my time to education and the other half to filling gaps in our coverage.
“What that means in practice is that most things go uncovered altogether.”
Left last month to singlehandedly cover Monroe County school board elections, Murphy said, he put together as complete a package as he could. In the past, he noted, such elections were handled by an eight-reporter team whose members would interview candidates and do in-depth analysis of budget proposals.
His effort to cover all the school-board bases, said Murphy, was “due more to my stubbornness than any editorial directive. No one ever asked me about writing a preview story of any kind.”
As working conditions at the D&C deteriorated, not all of his colleagues have been as stubborn as he, Murphy told shareholders. While much of the D&C’s downsizing has been the result of layoffs and job-beat eliminations, some have quit in quiet discouragement.
Of all the past few years’ departures, the frustrated quitters, Murphy said, have been “the most troubling to me. We had a sports reporter leave to become an assistant manager at a gas station. A promising young multimedia journalist left to become an assistant field hockey coach. A number of people have left for nothing at all. They didn’t have another job lined up. They just knew it was time to go.”
In addition to the webinar, the NewsGuild last month submitted a lengthy filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, in which it urged Gannett shareholders to back ousting Reed, who the union accused of having “dangerously mortgaged the future of our company by assuming debt with high interest rates and quarterly payments that are extracted from stakeholders.”
Nationally Gannett controls 200 local newspapers. The number is down from 261 in 2019, when the Perinton-based GateHouse Media, headed by Reed, took over Gannett, assuming the Gannett name for the merged company.
GateHouse was established in 2005 by Fortress Investment Group, a New York City-based private-equity firm that acquired an Illinois-based newspaper chain. In 2006, Fortress acquired the Rochester-area Messenger Post Group, relocating to Perinton.
In 2013, GateHouse filed a prepackaged Chapter 11 bankruptcy, emerging as a new, publicly traded company called New Media Investment Group, also headed by Reed. In 2017, Fortress/New Media was acquired by Japan-based SoftBank for some $3.3 billion.
Flush with SoftBank cash, GateHouse went on a newspaper-buying spree, acquiring publications including the Rochester Business Journal and the Rochester legal publication, the Daily Record. After GateHouse/New Media acquired Gannett, the RBJ and Daily Record spun off under a deal in which GateHouse sold its BridgeTower media subsidiary to the Transom Capital Group.
Upon GateHouse’s $1.9 billion 2019 takeover of Gannett, the merged firm hired Paul Bascobert, a media and marketing veteran who now heads Reuters, as Gannett’s operating CEO. When the merger kicked off with a layoff of some 300 Gannett workers including editorial staff, Bascobert, whose hiring was a condition of the sale, promised no similar moves would lie ahead. In less than a year, Gannett eliminated Bascobert’s position, installing Reed as New Media’s and Gannett’s CEO.
While local Gannett-owned papers like the D&C “need support and resources to make sure our communities have the local news needed to keep our democracy thriving,” said NewsGuild president Jon Schleuss in the NewsGuild statement, “Reed doesn’t care one bit about a long-term strategy to invest in the company by investing in journalists.”
Instead, maintained Schleuss, “Reed’s singular focus has been on stuffing his own pockets. Reed has overstayed his welcome at Gannett and needs to go.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].