When Pittsburgh City Paper Editor-in-Chief Lisa Cunningham resigned in October, she publicly called for “another entity to purchase the paper away from its current owner,” the Butler Eagle.
She couldn’t have had in mind that it would be sold to the parent company of the Post-Gazette. The deal closes today, Jan. 6.
“It’s a worst-case scenario,” Cunningham told me this week after the announcement. “I had long hoped for an ethical buyer of the paper. … It’s really sad.”
Newspaper strikes often have unexpected and unintended consequences. The last time Pittsburgh had one, it ended up with not only the dominant publication, The Pittsburgh Press, going away forever, but also the arrival of the Tribune-Review in the city.
I’m not saying that the Post-Gazette’s parent company wouldn’t have gone ahead and purchased City Paper from the Butler Eagle without the strike, but few people saw this narrative twist coming when workers walked out three months ago.
Cunningham’s concerns reach back to the reasons she quit her job after nearly 25 years. She raised questions then about not being able to report that the Eagle is publishing the PG’s print editions during the strike. That led to a blowup with management, and she left.
“I’m hoping for the best,” Cunningham said. “Maybe the City Paper employees will be able to join a union. Maybe the Post-Gazette will end the strike and give its employees a fair contract, and keep City Paper independent. But I’m not optimistic.”
I reached out to the PG for additional insights, but a spokeswoman said they would not have anything to say beyond the statement they released.
Eagle publisher Ron Vodenichar said he decided to sell City Paper to cut his losses. Eagle Media paid $2.1 million for the alt-weekly in 2016 because a grandson of the company’s patriarch wanted to run it, Vodenichar said.
“We spent way, way, way too much,” he said. “Since that time, we have invested $3.5 million in City Paper, and they haven’t been able to pay their own bills for even one week.”
The Eagle started looking to sell its subsidiary over the past four to five weeks, he said, adding that he personally reached out to three potential local buyers, including Block Communications Inc., which owns the PG.
“The Post-Gazette gave me by far the best offer of the three, and that’s why we chose to sell to the Post-Gazette,” he said.
Vodenichar added that he thinks the PG has the best shot of making the City Paper financially successful.
It was tough to manage the City Paper from Butler because it would take so long to come into Pittsburgh, meet and get back to Butler, he said.
“I do believe it’s best owned by the Post-Gazette because they have the money to put into it,” he said. “They also have the ability to be there.”
Asked how Eagle Media decided to print the PG during the strike, Vodenichar said he made the decision on his own and did it to ensure Pittsburgh continues to have a print newspaper at least a couple of days a week.
“Our decision to help the Post-Gazette is the only possible way that the Post-Gazette as a print product stays in business. Period,” he said. “In all honestly, if they stop printing and shut it down for weeks, they’ll never start their presses back up. You can’t do that. You can’t come back. It doesn’t play out that way.”
The change in ownership signals what has become apparent: The Block family is not sitting by idly waiting for the striking unions to come back.
The PG has welcomed journalists who crossed the picket lines and hired replacements, sometimes from out of town. It continues to publish a print edition two days a week (just like before the strike) and it still tells important stories, even under reporters’ bylines.
Many of the strikers have decided not to wait for an outcome either. City Paper, which has done some of the most robust reporting on the PG’s labor strife in recent years, reported in October that 40 employees had almost immediately gone back to work. Other former employees have simply moved on: Some big-name journalists such as Bill Schackner and Jonathan Silver, who was a labor leader, took jobs across town at the Trib.
And the city? Some politicians — notably Mayor Ed Gainey and some council members — are refusing to talk with PG reporters until the strike ends.
Many people on social media also raised concerns about the City Paper announcement, saying they would stop making donations to it or questioning if it can maintain an independent voice (more to come on that below).
But the average person does not seem fazed. I recently heard a radio ad in which two people talk about the strike and remind Pittsburghers why we should care. This is a union town, after all, they said.
Unlike 30 years ago, you don’t hear people clamoring to find out what’s going on, who died or where to find the comics. Part of that is the result of the massive disruption that continues to roil journalism: People have gotten used to having less news, and they have become more resourceful at looking for information online (whether it’s quality or not).
Where does this leave us?
For one, we should feel empathy for the strikers who remain on the picket lines. None of what has happened takes away from the fact that these people deserve fair wages and an amicable place to work. These are people who have mentored me, former students, friends, colleagues and people whose work I admire. I sincerely hope they can get back to work soon.
The strike also has meant we have fewer journalists telling our daily story at a time when we cannot afford to lose even one reporter. The dozens of people standing on the picket lines would have told hundreds of stories over the past three months.
The strikers are attempting to fill this gap with the Pittsburgh Union Progress strike publication. The site has a lot more content now than it did at the start, and it slowly continues to add more followers on social media. Maybe the publication will become another unexpected fixture of this strike season.
For City Paper, the question will be what happens to its voice.
Block Communications Inc., the parent company, said it plans to run the PG and City Paper as separate subsidiaries. But will the employees feel as free to cover the strike as they did before?
When striking Post-Gazette workers showed up at publisher John Block’s Shadyside home in October, City Paper was there to record the scene and write about it. If you were editor of the publication, would you do that now?
Zack Tanner, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, responded to a question about the purchase by noting the City Paper’s coverage too: “It’s pretty disappointing to see the Blocks buy an independent media outlet in Pittsburgh, especially one that’s covered the PG labor news so thoroughly over the years.”
From the outside, the Block Communications purchase seems to make a lot of business sense.
In the short term, the sale eliminates a local competitor and gives Block a nonunion newsroom in the city. Even if the company runs the newsrooms separately, it can look for ways to save money behind the scenes by consolidating some back-office operations.
It’s also not hard to imagine the company eventually approaching advertisers with a sales package that includes spots in City Paper, the PG’s Weekend Magazine insert and both publications’ websites.
If that approach makes money, the purchase will benefit advertisers — and readers. Pittsburgh needs an alt-weekly newspaper.
The Butler Eagle made it clear that City Paper was on the brink. Vodenichar said City Paper was not a good fit for his company and a challenge to manage from a distance. He added in a statement that the BCI purchase “saved the publication from a potential closing.”
When Cunningham, the former City Paper editor, issued her statement in October, she ended it with a plea: “please help me make sure that City Paper survives.”
Ironically, the BCI purchase might just do that. But Cunningham now questions whether it will remain the same independent voice where she worked for so long.
“People trust City Paper,” she told me, “and I don’t know if that’s going to continue.”