The last time Pittsburgh had a newspaper strike, many people didn’t know who died or where to send flowers, even though TV stations broadcast a nightly obituary program with the names, ages and hometowns of the deceased scrolling along with reverent piano music.
The Pirates sold fewer walk-up tickets because fans couldn’t read about the team — although they could call a phone number to get updates: “Thank you for calling the Pirates hotline. The defending National League East champs [seriously] open a three-game … ”
Downtown offices received news briefs from the Post-Gazette by fax machine and distributed copies to employees, with a different second page each day of the week for sports, theater, business, etc.
Even Mayor Sophie Masloff, then 74 years old, missed the City Hall reporters: “Even if they’re saying bad things about me, I want them back on the street,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “I believe in free speech.”
As Pittsburgh sits on the cusp of another newspaper strike, nearly 30 years since the previous one in 1992, the way people find out information obviously has changed dramatically. Readers have multiple methods for finding obituaries, baseball box scores and other news. It seems many people wouldn’t even miss the newspaper now — especially the printed one that comes out only three days a week.
But a newspaper strike today could still send seismic ripples across the local news media landscape, dramatically changing the ways Pittsburghers find out about what goes on.
Five of the Post-Gazette’s unions are working without contracts and deciding now whether to go out on strike. The members of two unions, Pittsburgh Typographical Union #7 and Mailers Local M-22, have unanimously voted in favor of a strike, while the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh is conducting a vote by mail. All three would need approval from their parent union, the Communications Workers of America, before going off the job. It’s not clear how long that could take.
The other two unions are the Teamsters and the pressmen (who are also Teamsters).
Even if members vote in favor of a strike and the parent union authorizes one, workers might not immediately walk out, Newspaper Guild President Mike Fuoco told me. The unions are still hoping to avoid a strike by negotiating with the Post-Gazette on new contracts.
“If we do authorize a strike, that doesn’t mean one is imminent,” Fuoco said. “We have always wanted to negotiate a fair settlement. We feel that a strike is a last option. We feel we can reach a negotiated settlement if the company would negotiate. We’re nowhere near an impasse.”
Actually going on strike could cause unpredictable consequences. During the last newspaper strike, the city’s dominant newspaper, The Pittsburgh Press, owned by Scripps-Howard, never reemerged. The Teamsters’ 600 employees walked off the job in May of 1992 because the company wanted to change circulation practices to eliminate 450 jobs and get rid of all 4,300 boys and girls who delivered the newspaper. (Remember when kids used to deliver the newspaper?)
The Teamsters’ strike also put a temporary halt to the Post-Gazette, the smaller morning newspaper, which participated in a joint operating agreement with the Press, sharing the same building and facilities. Ten unions at the newspapers had been operating without a contract since the end of the previous year.
The impact on Pittsburghers was big since it was pre-Internet days. TV stations ran horoscopes in addition to the obituaries, and resident Joe Mixter complained that he couldn’t advertise his 1980 Impala for sale in the classifieds. When the Penguins won their second back-to-back Stanley Cup that summer, the Post-Gazette ended up selling glossy posters of how its cover might have looked if it had been able to put out a newspaper.
By October, Scripps-Howard had decided it could not come to terms with the Teamsters. It put the Press up for sale, and the Block family, which owns the Post-Gazette, bought the larger rival newspaper to put it out of business. By the time it reached a deal with the unions and started printing again in January 1993, new competition had sprung up.
Two suburban newspapers — the North Hills News Record to the north and the Tribune-Review in Greensburg — had used the lull during the strike to step up their publications. The two newspapers eventually merged, and the combined Trib continued printing in Pittsburgh for more than two decades, until 2016 when it went digital in the city.
During the strike, management and the unions had attempted to put out newspapers with mixed results.
The Press brought in workers from other Scripps newspapers and set up a makeshift dormitory inside its Boulevard of the Allies offices with dozens of cots and a washer and dryer. On publication day, it hired private security guards and enlisted city police officers to clear a path for trucks to break through the picket lines.
As delivery drivers attempted to leave the parking lot, striking workers started throwing bricks and bottles, and they tousled with police, which led to 20 arrests. The newspapers gave up trying to print after two days.
The unions put out their own weekly publication called the Greater Pittsburgh Newspaper.
During a strike this time around, management and the unions could simply go online. The most significant change to come out of a strike this time, however, could be the economic one. A strike will impact both readers and advertisers.
Back in the early 1990s, the Los Angeles Times interviewed a woman named Cora Scott who said she picked up the Post-Gazette nearly every day before the strike — but only half as often afterward. Once they broke the daily habit, many people never came back or at least not as frequently.
Similarly, advertisers quickly realized that they didn’t necessarily need the newspaper to reach their customers. Pizza shops and movie theaters printed up fliers during the 1990s strike that they handed out in grocery stores, and Giant Eagle started mailing advertisements directly to homes.
Thirty years ago, newspaper owners worried that readership and revenues were starting to decline. Both have cratered in the decades since. Newspaper readership, which peaked nationwide in the 1960s at around 62 million, and advertising revenue, which peaked at $49 million in 2006, have both fallen by about half, according to the Pew Research Center.
That makes the situation much more fragile this time around.
Comings & Goings
Just days after leaving the Post-Gazette with a tear-wrenching goodbye, courts reporter Paula Reed Ward announced via Twitter that she has a new home at the Tribune-Review. She will still be covering Allegheny County courts.
The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.