The Newspaper Guild’s byline strike at the Post-Gazette is entering its third week, and it’s getting harder to not notice.
Unlike a strike in which employees stop working, employees in a byline strike continue to create content but they withhold their names.
So far, the union says its members have withheld more than 689 bylines from stories, photographs and other content in the print and digital editions of the newspaper, not counting the website, mobile app or PG NewsSlide. Freelance writers and columnists have joined the byline strike, and guild members without bylines are wearing pins saying they support those that do.
What’s the impact? Management at the newspaper declined to comment.
From the union’s perspective, members hope the public will pay attention to the working conditions in the newsroom, Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh President Mike Fuoco told me recently. The previous byline strike in January 2018 lasted four days, and there had not been one before that since the 1980s.
“We don’t anticipate they will listen to reason,” Fuoco said about the newspaper’s owners and managers. “Once we feel like our message about working in a hostile work environment and being treated like serfs is out in the public enough, that’s when we’ll end it.”
By January, guild members will have been working without a raise for 14 years, and by February, they will have gone without a contract for three years.
In the meantime, many people simply are leaving the newspaper. Since producing its Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting a little over a year ago, the newspaper has lost 16 journalists from the Guild.
Departures from the top of the masthead include: executive editor David Shribman; managing editor Sally Stapleton; deputy managing editors Jim Iovino, for digital, and Tom Birdsong, for news, who is scheduled to leave at the end of the year; assistant managing editors Meagen Fekos and Donna Eyring, both in digital, Rebecca Droke, from photos, Lillian Thomas, news and projects, and Virginia Linn, features; and local news editor Matt Smith.
“Usually people flock to newspapers that win a Pulitzer prize,” Fuoco said. “In this case, things are so bad people are leaving in droves, both in management and staff.”
Some former employees either declined to comment or did not respond; some said they had signed non-disparagement agreements or worried about losing their severance.
“The loss of talented journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — reporters and editors — is a big blow not just to the PG, but to all of Western Pennsylvania,” Iovino wrote to me in an email. “And it comes at a time when the public needs credible, trustworthy news sources more than ever. I don’t know when the departures will end, or what the endgame is for the PG.”
Smith, who had been in charge of the Local Xtra section, said he had declined to take a voluntary buyout offered to management, but the newspaper eliminated his position anyway.
“It makes me sad,” Smith said. “I had been there more than a quarter of a century. I know what it used to be and I see what it’s like now. It’s sad to see the people who have left, and the talent that has gone.”
Just among Smith, Thomas and Linn, those editors had more than 90 years of experience in journalism and in Pittsburgh. That loss of institutional knowledge means fewer people who remember things like Wexford not being an actual place, or the differences between neighborhoods such as Highland Park and Carrick.
Linn, the former features editor, had been working at the Post-Gazette in May when the movie, “When They See Us,” came out, and some of the newspaper’s younger employees did not realize the story had a local angle: Five men in 1989 were wrongly accused of raping a Central Park jogger, who had grown up in Upper St. Clair. Linn was able to add that detail to the stories because she remembered.
Linn declined to talk specifically about the Post-Gazette but wrote via email about news organizations in general.
“A massive change in management at the top can bring a fresh perspective and different ways of doing things, but a company loses a lot of institutional memory,” she said.
With fewer senior editors to do advance planning and shaping stories, mid-level editors feel more pressure, she added. Cutbacks also mean editors have less time to spend with reporters to refine their stories.
Smith, who previously worked at the Pittsburgh Press, recalled how then, eight pairs of editors’ eyes might look at a story before it went into the newspaper; now it might be just one pair before something goes on the web. That’s true throughout journalism, he added.
“It is, unfortunately, a situation that is becoming all too common at media outlets across the country,” Iovino said. “This loss of institutional knowledge at the PG and elsewhere means the powerful aren’t being held accountable like they should, and the public isn’t being informed like it should. And that, in turn, raises many concerns about maintaining a functioning democracy.”
Among the newsroom employees who have stayed, the newspaper has reassigned some of them: Jonathan Silver, a Guild officer who had been a cops and courts editor, has been reassigned to a daytime cops beat; reporter Andrew Goldstein has been assigned to education; Rich Lord, a former enterprise reporter, has returned temporarily to city hall; and reporter Ashley Murray is covering nighttime cops for now. Fuoco had been an enterprise reporter but is now on general assignment.
In early November, the Post-Gazette separately laid off 30 Teamsters, including press operators. That union, Teamsters Local Local Union No. 211, has also been working nearly three years without a new contract. A federal judge ruled last week to block the layoffs, saying they violated the Teamsters’ existing contract.
Employees would feel better about all of the changes at the Post-Gazette if the owners and managers had outlined a clear vision for the future and steps to get there, Fuoco said.
The newspaper has cut back printing to just three days a week and shifted toward a digital-first strategy. The owners have not, however, said whether or when they might move to an all-digital format.
Comings & Goings
Family and friends of former Post-Gazette columnist and reporter Sally Kalson have created a new award in her name that will recognize a top Pennsylvania journalist with a $5,000 prize. Kalson died in 2014 from ovarian cancer after a 30-year journalism career.
The annual Sally Kalson Courage in Journalism Award Program at The Pittsburgh Foundation will honor a broadcast, print or online media journalist whose work embodies what Kalson was known for: “fearlessness, fortitude and excellence in taking on issues of our time,” according to the nomination materials.
Judges include me and six other people: Mila Sanina, executive director, PublicSource; Vernon Loeb, politics editor, The Atlantic; Jenice Armstrong, metro columnist, The Philadelphia Inquirer; James Steele, investigative reporter, Barlett and Steele; Amy Ginensky, First Amendment attorney, Pepper Hamilton; and Ed Feinstein, Kalson’s widower, and a partner with the Pittsburgh-based law firm of Feinstein Doyle Payne & Kravec.
The deadline for nominating a journalist is Feb. 22, 2020. Full details and the nomination form are available here.
Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.