Like someone diagnosed with a serious illness, the Post-Gazette has to hold on as long as it can, publisher John Robinson Block said Wednesday after speaking to the Downtown Rotary Club.
“It’s like surviving illness,” Block said. “The longer you hold on, you hope for the cure.”
Even after a cluster of his employees had protested outside the Omni William Penn Hotel where he was speaking, Block described himself as a long-time friend of unions. He said he knows all of the guild members who were on the street handing out fliers. But he also said the Post-Gazette loses too much money to afford what the union wants in a new contract.
“It’s very upsetting to all of us to have it going on forever, but we’re losing money and they know it,” Block told me after his speech. “They know that we don’t have the happy kind of negotiation that was possible when we were making money.”
The guild’s fliers blamed the Post-Gazette for not offering journalists a raise in 13 years, for refusing to meet health insurance obligations in violation of federal law and for using a union-busting law firm.
The street protests were just the first step in a program to make the union’s grievances more visible to the public, Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh President Michael Fuoco told me. The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh represents journalists at the newspaper and has been working without a contract for nearly 22 months, Fuoco said.
Yes, he said, the Post-Gazette loses money, but its parent company, Block Communications, remains profitable.
“We feel that part of the responsibility of having the public trust of owning a newspaper is to provide quality journalism,” Fuoco said. “We’re providing the talent. They need to pay us as if we are talented and we are.”
Newspapers everywhere are hurting as readers move to free, online outlets and advertisers follow them. Still, Block said things wouldn’t be so bad in Pittsburgh if local companies such as UPMC and Giant Eagle would just buy more ads. He said UPMC has been boycotting the Post-Gazette, and that the grocery store needs to do more.
“I guess that [UPMC CEO] Jeffrey Romoff doesn’t like us,” Block said. “I mean, I’m a really nice guy. I wish he would sit down with me.”
Already, the Post-Gazette has stopped publishing on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and more cuts could be coming. Block said some members of the family that owns the newspaper want to stop printing on more days, but he remains committed to ink on paper.
In fact, he loves print so much that he insisted the Post-Gazette install a 6,000-pound antique hand press in its North Shore offices when it moved from the Boulevard of the Allies. The machine was so heavy that it had to be dismantled, loaded into the freight elevator and then reassembled in the upstairs offices. It actually works and would crank out four copies a minute, if anyone wanted.
Instead, the Post-Gazette is looking at one strategy that would eliminate the printed newspaper on weekdays and leave only a large printed edition on the weekends. That could happen, Block said, but he added that no major changes are imminent.
“In the meantime, my role has been to try to maintain our reputation,” Block said, adding that newspapers in other cities such as Philadelphia, Cleveland and Hartford are “ghosts” of what they had been.
“I am still confident that what we’re going to put on the street tomorrow, and deliver, is something that approaches what we’ve been,” Block said. “Is it everything I’d want it to be if times were better and if the revenue base hadn’t changed? No. But it’s still something I’m willing to be associated with.”
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.