D&C journalists stage one-day walkout

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Last November, a small band of Democrat and Chronicle reporters staged a one-day walkout.(Photo courtesy of Newspaper Guild of Rochester)

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]

12 thoughts on “D&C journalists stage one-day walkout

  1. What we see here is another company being destroyed by a private equity corporation. These
    corporations are not the companies of the past, started by a businessperson wishing to build a successful business based, in this case, of being the best in a free press. We have seen private equity firms destroy all manner of companies, bleeding them of profits, capital investment, and jobs, to enrich themselves and stockholders while destroying a company. In the case of the Fourth Estate there seems to be no upside for Democracy. We all know the old saying that all politics is local. Where democracy starts is also local. Like here, Gannett, the largest nationwide newspaper chain, no longer has enough reporters to cover the local scene and the effects of national and state laws on the local scene. We need in depth reporting on police, crime, the courts, school boards, local politicians, who funds them, and who gets the government contracts, just for starters. Once our biggest concern was Gannett shading stories to not anger large advertisers. Now, Gannett’s actions for over a decade are a real threat to Democracy itself. I stand with our local reporters, present and those that have left.

  2. Wonder why there was no coverage of this walkout in either the print edition of the D&C or on their Facebook page?

    Reminds me of how there was no coverage in 2016 of the $13.8 million Gannett had to pay to settle a class action lawsuit for their “alleged” violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), a suit that resulted when Gannett “allegedly” attempted to increase newspaper subscriptions by directing telemarketers to make unsolicited calls to tens of thousands of cell phones, neglecting to obtain prior express consent from consumers to make the calls, and even ignoring consumer requests to no longer be called.

    And it reminds me of how the D&C didn’t provide any coverage of Gannett’s 2021 $650,000 employee settlement for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act when they “allegedly” required off-the-clock work from a number of employees.

    Of course the D&C might have provided the sort of coverage of such matters that they provide when companies other than Gannett are involved, and I just happened to miss it.

    • I think you have hit on a major part of the problem, I happen to read multiple Gannett papers, none of them mentioned any hint of a work stoppage. (Credit to the Beacon for scooping that) . We may be seeing a vicious cycle here, Editorial bents serving their own agenda, less or no interest in what subscribers think (substantiated by their terminating of public comments on their articles via their websites by subscribers, ironic for a industry that has so much of a stake in the 1st Amendment, again kudos to the Beacon for bucking the trend) . This drives subscriptions down, thus necessitates cost/staff reductions, thus less local coverage and more AP syndicated articles, basically Federalizing news coverage. A corporate acquirer sees opportunity by stripping even more costs out, thus diluting local coverage even more and making editorial bent even more uneven. I recall when + the D&C there was the Times Union, daily. I had the experience of working in the Gannett building downtown in the 70s, what a impressive behemoth of a stereotypical big city news room and print factory it was to a green teenager. Unfortunately like Kodak & Xerox, the industry let the future get away from them

  3. While I find that the local news is very important, useful and contributes considerably to any local community, today it is still a business. The reporter on the front line or the boots on the ground are the life blood of this business. The executives in the high rise only look at the bottom line. In addition they tow a political line. When the bottom line or the finances hit their pay check they become concerned and will reduce the boots on the ground. A CEO worth the money paid knows that and adjusts, manages and leads their team. Just cutting is the easy way out and any executive taking that route ought to consider another profession or career. I believe that the local news will soon become a local business. The Rochester Beacon is a great model for that future but it will need to slowly transform itself from all volunteer to a mix. At the moment the Beacon is a “sniper news and informational site.” I believe that strategy to a mix is already on the table. I would inject an add now and then. Not the irritating flashing type, but an informed add. Partnership adds. Then slowly accelerate the Beacon to include the daily staples such as education, sports and a balanced political message. It will take volunteers to make this happen. That said, I believe there is enough community talent to realize that opportunity.

    • Just for grins-and-giggles, give us your definition of what constitutes, “a balanced political message”. And provide a few examples of print, broadcast or internet media sources which conform to your definition.

      • Be glad to. I wrote the newspaper a while back when it appeared the readership was faltering. If there is a balance of reporting you keep readership “alive”. I recommended that they outline the political items/articles/news in red or blue. That would at the very least give one a ‘space allotted’ to each political viewpoint. If you do that today you would run out of blue ink. I believe that you feel that there aint no balance because what you believe to be the political solution or political issue of the day is ‘thee’ only way it could/should be addressed/discussed/supported. That is where the problem resides. Opinion comes into the media arena and since you and I don’t have the pen in our hands….we are reduced to just reading a side of the issue. Like you, those who write the news have their opinion. Worse, the malmanagement of those news outlets are governed by opinion. You want a job working for our paper, it had better reflect our stand on the issues. I treat out current political, social, military and economic challenges of the day seriously. That said, you’re grins-and-giggles already tells me you are perfectly happy with the current balance. Be happy to send you an example of balance absent in our current administration. Not opinion, bare fact.

    • Very amusing screed. I really enjoyed how you responded to statements I never made and issues I never raised rather then addressing the two points I did make. Let’s try again. 1) please give us your definition of what constitutes, “a balanced political message”. And 2) please provide a few examples of print, broadcast or internet media sources which conform to your definition.

    • The anybody you refer to will be the vast majority. You know why? Along with the paper reader loss is the loss of those tuning into the media in general. That is especially the case in the urban communities. Our populous is incredibly poorly informed on the issues of the day. Few know any American history. Even less world history. Way too many don’t even know how many states there are. At the moment there are a host of people and organizations hell bent on destroying this nation. Tearing things down. Bashing and discrediting. I wonder how many of those individuals would last to see the morning in a Muslim country, Russia, China, North Korea, etc. Careful what one wishes for.

      • As a D&C subscriber , i expressed no “wishes” in my post. (Simply a question/ observation)

  4. Excellent, detailed reporting by Will Astor. It’s sad to see the D and C become a skeleton of a paper.

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