Time for Statesman workers to organize

The other night I attended a dinner for Wisconsin alumni at Salt and Thyme, a Sconnie-owned restaurant on E. 7th Street. In addition to good food and lots of friendly Badgers, the event featured a talk by a retired UW journalism professor Jim Hoyt about the current and future state of the media.

The Q&A session inevitably led to a question about Sinclair Media, the conglomerate that has been gobbling up local news stations and turning them into #MAGA propaganda arms, as well as the equally disturbing trend of corporations buying up local outlets and turning newsrooms into ghost towns. The most notable instance of the latter is the Denver Post, whose editorial page recently took the remarkable step of publicly pleading with the hedge fund ownership to sell the paper to somebody who isn’t intent on destroying what little is left of the publication.

I asked Hoyt whether he looked at the moves by reporters to resist management –– whether by criticizing or defying management (as some Sinclair anchors have done) or by unionizing –– as an encouraging sign that reporters are recognizing that their corporate overlords don’t have their interests at heart. Hoyt agreed that the interests of publishers don’t always align with those of journalists, but added that in the past many publishers decided that promoting solid, independent journalism would ultimately benefit the bottom-line of the company.

Whether or not their thinking is misguided, many of the major corporate players in the media have concluded that bad journalism is more profitable than good journalism. One of the most notorious champions of this model is Gatehouse Media, the company that last month purchased the Austin American-Statesman. The Statesman itself reported:

On Tuesday, (GateHouse’s Jason) Taylor told Statesman employees that no major changes will take place immediately, and said GateHouse “will be super transparent” about changes as they are rolled out over time. Taylor said “there will be some layoffs, that’s inevitable,” but said there would also be job gains as company finance, human resource and other “supplemental support” functions for other divisions are consolidated in Austin.

Statesman reporters who I talked to were hoping that the paper would be sold to Hearst, and dreaded the prospect of being taken over by GateHouse, which has gutted a number of papers in recent years. From Texas Monthly:

At one point last year, the Amarillo newspaper was down to a single reporter. The same thing occurred at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri, which last month due to layoffs and attrition only had one reporter. The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville — one of the stops in my own journalism career — let go 50 production people just before last Christmas, and then let go at least nine seasoned journalists earlier this year.

So far it’s not clear what is going to happen at the Statesman. A source there tells me that they expect to receive a budget over the summer from GateHouse and if it’s not enough to sustain current operations, it will be up to local managers to make cuts.

It’s key that Statesman reporters begin talking to each other and developing a plan to react to the cuts.

I would strongly recommend that Statesman employees unionize, so that they have a strong, collective voice to protect their wages and benefits as well as their right to criticize management. Unionization used to be common in the news industry and the country’s best newsrooms –– NYT, WaPo, AP, Reuters, Wall Street Journal –– are all union-represented. In recent years, frustration over low pay as well as an overall heightened awareness of income inequality has led to successful union drives by young reporters at new media outlets, such as Vox, Salon, Vice and Gawker Media. The most recent victory came with a 248-44 vote in favor of unionization at the Los Angeles Times, a notoriously anti-union paper whose writers were fed up with a steady erosion of benefits and attempts by management to undercut investigations of Disney, a treasured local advertiser.

LA Times employees celebrate unionization. Credit: Capital and Main.

Full-scale unionization, however, is not the only method of organizing and resisting the destruction of the paper by management. If nothing else, employees need to keep talking to each other about what might be coming and how they might react if the worst comes true. The decision by the Denver Post staff to openly rebuke their owners was inspiring, but it also likely came way too late in the game. The key is for Statesman employees to appeal to each other and to the community to prevent the evisceration of the newsroom.

Austin is in a much better situation in terms of news than most other cities. At City Council meetings, there is almost always reporters from at least four different print publications: the Statesman, the Monitor, the Chronicle and Community Impact. KUT also does lots of good local reporting. The TV stations are a mixed bag but Jeff Stensland of whatever that cable station is called now does good work.

As great as it is that we have multiple news sources besides the Statesman, it would be a great loss to this city if the Statesman were to go away. I am very proud of the work we do at the Monitor, but we’re not going to be able to reach anywhere near as many readers as the Statesman anytime soon. No matter how much you love ragging on the local daily, it would be a major disaster for local democracy if it were to go away.

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