Journalists stand up to vulture capitalists at GateHouse Media

Sep 21, 2016 by

Across the New Media Investment Group/GateHouse Media empire, journalists are standing up for their craft and the vital role news-gathering operations fill in their community.

Not long after newsroom employees at the Lakeland Ledger voted to join The NewsGuild, their GateHouse colleagues at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune voted to do the same. These are the first two newspapers in the state of Florida to join the Guild.

The United Media Guild assisted in both campaigns. We represent workers at five GateHouse newspapers in Illinois: the Peoria Journal Star, the State Journal-Register, the Rockford Register Star, the Pekin Daily Times and the Freeport Daily Standard.

We are still fighting for first contracts for our members in Springfield, Rockford and Freeport, but we have already gained significant protections for them. Better yet, we have given them a voice in their workplace.

The organizing drive in Sarasota met heavy resistance from Herald-Tribune executive editor Bill Church. In fact, management’s attempts to intimidate our activists there led to an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the company — and strengthened the resolve of the journalists seeking representation.

(Memo to newsroom managers everywhere: If you’ve hired the right journalists, they aren’t going to buckle when you threaten them. They will dig in. Just saying.)

Church subsequently got a big promotion to Senior Vice President for News at GateHouse Media and will move to Austin to oversee the company’s sweatshop, er, Center for News & Design.

It must be noted that the Sarasota organizing drive was never about Church or his commendable leadership of the newsroom, which produced Pulitzer Prize-winning work. It was more about what GateHouse Media and its parent company, New Media Investment Group, have done to great newspapers across the country.

To recap the GateHouse story:

  • Fortress Investment Group bankrolled the formation and expansion of GateHouse Media, ran it into bankruptcy, then re-launched it under the New Media Investment Group umbrella and resumed buying newspapers. New Media is one of several private equity vehicles pouring money into Fortress coffers.
  • The company plan is simple: Buy up properties at a good price in the depressed media marketplace, slash staffing and maximize quarter-to-quarter cash flow. Part of that cash flow pays dividends to investors and part helps underwrite more acquisitions.
  • Under its external management agreement with New Media, Fortress earns hefty fees for raising capital and building scale. If New Media stock eventually crashes, as GateHouse stock crashed earlier, Fortress will still come out ahead.
  • In the meantime, the company hopes to prop up its stock by showing digital advertising growth, expanding the business of Propel Marketing (its one notable “growth lever”), adding more properties and total revene to help offset staggering losses in print advertising . . . and even more cost-cutting.
  • Along the way, the company has churned journalists, ad salespersons, editors, publishers and even high-ranking executives. In Springfield, for instance, the State Journal-Register is on its seventh publisher under GateHouse. As the Illinois Times noted, the SJ-R employed just two publishers between 1968 and 2005.

GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis trumpets Church’s promotion as proof that the company cares about journalism.

“It is essential for GateHouse to have a corporate advocate for its news employees, enterprise-wide, who appreciates the diversity of our markets, who can engage our news leaders in the ‘conversation’ about how we evolve our news organization, and who possesses the ability to communicate effectively and consistently about our journey,” Davis said in a GateHouse memo.

Church’s promotion further cleansed the company of its ugly Las Vegas stain, which involved one of the most egregious lapses in journalism ethics in memory.

Journalists across the company are doubtlessly heartened by this move. But if the GateHouse reality remains the same — eternal pay freezes, staffing cuts, journalists hiring on for less than a living wage — then news-gathering operations will continue eroding and communities will keep suffering as a result.

And more GateHouse newsrooms will organize with the Guild. As industry analysts Rick Edmonds told the Columbia Journalism Review, “I don’t know if this is two in a series of two or two in a series of 12. But it’s not a good thing for your business if your journalists are saying, ‘We can’t really serve our community.’”

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UMG to hold Local Meeting Sept. 22

Aug 23, 2016 by

The United Media Guild will hold a Local Meeting and social event at from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22, at the Flamingo Bowl at 1117 Washington Ave. in St. Louis.

This event is for all active members of the UMG. Free Food and drink will be provided in the Palm Room and we promise the agenda will beumglogo very short.

We’ve added a lot of new members since our Local Meeting and Awards Dinner, so this will be a good chance for folks from our various units to get acquainted.

UMG retirees and alumni are invited to attend our annual luncheon for them Oct. 18 at Lombardo’s Trattoria, 201 S. 20th Street. Please R.S.V.P to the Guild office at 314-241-7046 by Oct. 13 so we can give the restaurant a head count.

This event is free for UMG retirees and alumni and $15 for guests.

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Lakeland votes in the Guild!

Aug 11, 2016 by

The United Media Guild congratulates the journalists of the Lakeland Ledger for voting in The NewsGuild 22-3 Thursday afternoon.

That becomes the first newsroom organized in Florida — and we expect more to follow, especially at papers owned by the asset-stripping New Media Investment Group/GateHouse Media.

Our members at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Truthout, Peoria Journal Star, State Journal-Register, Pekin Daily Times, Rockford Register Star, Freeport Journal-Standard, St. Louis Review and the St. Louis/Southern Illinois Labor Tribune consider this fight to be their fight.

The Lakeland campaign was developed by Dean Olsen, a reporter at the State Journal-Register and the chairman of the UMG’s Springfield unit. (The UMG has received inquiries from GateHouse employees at countless newspapers across the country inquiring about representation.)

Lakeland journalists gained collective voice in their workplace and in their community. As Guild members, they will able to bargain for important job protections and rally public support for the essential work they do.

Post-Dispatch journalists supported the Lakeland campaign.

Post-Dispatch journalists supported the Lakeland campaign.

Like other newspapers operated by GateHouse Media, the Ledger has suffered drastic newsroom cuts. Its parent company, New Media Investment Group, strips down its newspapers, maximizing cash flow to pay dividends and fund more purchases. Journalism suffers greatly under this business model.

Employees of the Pekin Daily Times fought back against GateHouse by organizing with the United Media Guild. So did journalists at the State Journal-Register and the Freeport Journal-Standard.

Union membership has had its benefits:

  • The Pekin Daily Times survived the consolidation of GateHouse publications in its area while some non-union operations went away.
  • Peoria Journal Star journalists fought off the outsourcing of their copy desk in their last two contracts.
  • Our members at all of these newspapers gained critical “just cause” protections against unfair firings.
  • In Rockford and Freeport, journalists gained the right to address newsroom problems with the grievance/arbitration process while still negotiating a first contract.
  • Our members the State Journal-Register fought for journalism integrity in its first contract — gaining, among other things, protection from writing advertorial copy.
  • While non-union employees at the Register Star, Journal-Standard and State Journal-Register suffered annual increases in their health care premiums, premiums for UMG members were frozen during contract negotiations.

These are just some examples of how unionization helped our members at other GateHouse newspapers. Now journalists at the Lakeland Ledger will gain such benefits too.

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UMG mourns the loss of Robert Steinke

Aug 10, 2016 by

During his two decades at the helm of the St. Louis Newspaper Guild, Robert A. Steinke built one of the strongest and most enduring local unions in The NewsGuild.

He represented workers at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the St. Louis Labor Tribune, the St. Louis Review and KSDK-TV  with distinction from 1968 until his retirement in 1988.

Mr. Steinke died Aug. 10. Visitation will be held Friday, Aug. 12, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Kutis Funeral Home South County, 5255 Lemay Ferry. In lieu of flowers donations to the  American  Kidney Association would be appreciated.

Mr. Steinke became active in the local union while working in the Post-Dispatch circulation department. He joined the TNG’s international staff in 1967 and became executive secretary of the St. Louis local the following year.

“His contributions to The Newspaper Guild’s membership in St. Louis and throughout our international union have been unequaled throughout our history,” TNG president Chuck Dale told the Post-Dispatch when Mr. Steinke retired.

Robert Steinke (right) with predecessor Rollin Everett in 1968.

Robert Steinke (right) with predecessor Rollin Everett in 1968.d in 1988.

Mr. Steinke, a former Marine, was known for his no-nonsense negotiating style.

Robert Steinke (right) retired in 1998 and was replaced by Herb Goodrick (left)

Robert Steinke (right) with Herb Goodrick (left).

“Bob is big a gruff, but beneath that he is one of the gentlest people I’ve ever met,” Dale told the Post-Dispatch. “He is a very soft-hearted person. When somebody is in real trouble, he reaches way down to be helpful.”

His commanding leadership got the Local through difficult times, such as the great newspaper strike of 1978-79, the Herald Company’s 1983 decision to fold the Globe-Democrat and the subsequent Globe struggles under the ill-fated ownership of Jeff Gluck.

He was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO in 1982, but he stepped down to resume his work for the Guild.

Members of St. Louis local, now known as the United Media Guild, still benefit from his stewardship today. Successors Herb Goodrick and Shannon Duffy worked from a position of strength after inheriting strong contract language, high activism levels and outstanding financial resources from his tenure.

“Mr. Steinke spent his life building this union and fighting for the rights of workers,” Duffy said.  “Our Local today continues in the path he helped carve out and we are all better off because of his service.”

We are all indebted to Mr. Steinke and his outstanding work on behalf of members. His legacy will loom large for decades to come.

 

 

 

 

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The harsh truth about newspaper company consolidations

Aug 3, 2016 by

The consolidation of the newspaper business continues. Gannett hasn’t given up on purchasing Tribune Co. as part of its ongoing expansion.

The money guys behind New Media Investment Group/GateHouse, Fortress Investment Group, remain in “buy” mode they can maximize the management fees they collect.

Prices have dropped for newspaper properties, making them more attractive targets. Companies like Gannett and New Media/GateHouse have centralized production facilities, so they can “gain efficiencies” with properties they acquire.

That is a nice way of saying “fire a lot of people to increase profits.”

The expressed New Media/GateHouse plan is to maximize cash flow at its properties, then use the money to pay dividends and to buy more properties, cut more costs, generate more cash flow, pay more dividends, buy more properties . . . you get the idea.

Revenues are sinking for newspaper properties and will continue to sink. New digital initiatives like New Media/GateHouse’s Propel Marketing generate some new revenues, but not nearly enough to offset all the decline.

And bleeding these properties for cash flow speeds causes newspaper and websites to   deteriorate, which accelerates the loss of readers, advertisers and, of course, revenues.

CBNC commentator Kevin O’Leary noted the ongoing consolidation of newspaper companies will not solve the core problems.

“The best analogy is two smaller ice cubes melt faster than one bigger block of ice,” he said during a report on Gannett’s bid for the Tribune Co. “These are both melting.

“This is a just long end game of cutting costs, banging together all the ice you can, consolidating, slashing costs The long trend is to zero.”

He did not see the wisdom in Gannett’s bid. “This sounds like a business plan that is handed to you when you finally descend into hell and you know you have to live there in perpetuity,” O’Leary said. “Who would want this challenge? I mean, it is brutal.

“I’d like to have a moment of silence for the money that’s going to die in this project because it deserves that respect.”

What would an honest description of a consolidation plan sound like?

“Sometimes you have to say, ‘Look, it’s going to go to zero eventually. I am going to milk as much cash as I can out of it on the way by combining all the zero candidates together and put them on life support, try to make the refrigerator a little colder so the ice melts a little slower and suck out every dollar out before you turn out the lights.

“Listen, let’s tell the truth. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Here is what John Oliver has to state of the newspaper industry:

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Attention Mike Reed: The battle escalates

Jul 27, 2016 by

Earlier this month United Media Guild business representative Shannon Duffy sent this letter to Mike Reed, the CEO of New Media Investment Group — the parent company of GateHouse Media and its four newspapers that we represent in Illinois:

Dear Mike,

Thanks for taking the time to meet with Phil Luciano and me at the New Media Investment Group shareholders meeting on May 25.

As we told you in New York City, we are concerned about the future viability of the Peoria Journal Star, State Journal-Register, Rockford Register Star and the Pekin Daily Times in the face of eternal wage freezes and newsroom cuts. Excessive cost-cutting is taking a heavy toll in the workplaces where the United Media Guild represents journalists.

That is taking a toll on the news product which, in turn, will cause premature loss of readers and advertisers.  This is troubling to our members who love their craft, their newspaper and their communities.

Recently the State Journal-Register imposed its “last, best and final” offer on our members at that newspaper, which will extend the current wage freeze to nearly 12 years. That seems an absurd working condition, particularly at a newspaper that has helped fund New Media Investment Group purchases and dividend payments with its positive cash flow.

Your employees have never been more important. Newsrooms must innovate and evolve on the fly to compete in a rapidly changing landscape. The business side must do the same in the face of staggering print revenue decline.

Rather than belabor the fairness issue, I’d like to caution you that maintaining an eternal wage freeze at New Media/GateHouse newspapers could cost the company far more in the long run than a relatively modest re-investment in its employees.

Here are some of the inevitable consequences:

  • Declining morale and productivity – and at a time when employee productivity has never been more important.
  • Accelerated churning of salespersons, journalists, editors, publishers and New Media/GateHouse executives.
  • Increased levels of union activism in various workplaces and communities.
  • Economic actions against individual newspapers, targeting subscribers and advertisers.
  • A national corporate campaign against New Media/GateHouse management targeting analysts and shareholders.

Last year, after you expressed your concerns during our phone conversation, we toned down our rhetoric and tried to reach a fair settlement in Springfield without intensifying our public campaign there. But that effort failed, conditions have now been imposed on our members and so here we are, ready to fight on their behalf through all lawful means.

We believe there is real economic value in labor peace. Now, unfortunately, it appears it will be our job to establish the economic cost of a labor dispute.

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Since then, we have seen another example of what happens when a company takes its cost-cutting too far: The Lakeland Ledger will soon vote on whether to unionize. We are asking all of our members to support and others that could arise in the face of GateHouse’s draconian actions.

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GateHouse declares impasse, extends SJ-R wage freeze for three more years

Jun 30, 2016 by

During our battle for a first contract in Springfield, Ill., GateHouse Media has absolutely, positively refused to negotiate raises.

The company took this hard line even though GateHouse emerged from bankruptcy flush with capital as part of its new parent company, New Media Investment Group.

The company took this draconian stance despite the positive cash flow generated at the State Journal-Register and the company overall.

GateHouse maintained its abusive pay freeze despite massive newsroom cuts that forced surviving journalists to shoulder greater workloads while trying to stem the eroding quality of the SJ-R.

Company negotiator Ali Zoibi even refused to offer bonuses tied to newsroom performance, though our members have done an outstanding job driving digital traffic and fulfilling other company initiatives under increasingly difficult conditions.

His “last, best and final” offer amounted to a pay cut for our members — many of whom had gone 8 1/2 years without  a raise. Not surprisingly, our members voted down that offer.

So the company declared impasse and imposed conditions on our members, essentially extending its wage freeze for another three years. The imposition of these conditions could result in some members going 11 1/2 years without a raise.

That’s eleven and one-half years.

While these imposed conditions includes annual bonuses, the company is jacking up medical premiums from nearly 15 percent to 27 percent, depending on the employee’s plan. This will result in an imposed pay cut for many of our members.springfield3

Meanwhile GateHouse media is vacuuming cash out of Springfield to fund New Media Investment Group dividend payments and acquisitions. By buying more properties, the company is creating greater cash flow — and masking the damage that excessive cost-cutting has done to its existing properties. Readers and advertisers have grown weary of paying more for less.

As a result of all this, the United Media Guild has no choice but to escalate its public campaign in Springfield. It will also join other NewsGuild locals across the country in a concerted corporate campaign against the vulture capitalists at GateHouse/New Media.

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UMG awards scholarship to outstanding student journalist

Jun 30, 2016 by

One of the United Media Guild’s core missions is promoting the craft of journalism during this critical time in our industry and in our society.

At the recommendation of UMG vice president Joe Kenny, our executive committee voted to restore its scholarship offered in conjunction with the St. Louis Press Club and the Journalism Foundation of Metropolitan St. Louis.

Kenny, a reporter at the St. Louis Review, serves on the Press Club’s scholarship selection committee. He has long advocated Guild currentoutreach to student journalists.

This year’s UMG scholarship recipient is Kat Riddler, a graduate student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a graduate of St. Charles High School. As editor in chief of The Current student publication, she has led the newsroom and reported on a variety of issues critical to the school and the surrounding community — including the civil unrest in Ferguson, a neighboring community of the UMSL campus.

She and the other scholarship winners were honored by the Press Club during at Thursday luncheon at the International Photography Hall of Fame. Lynden Steele, director of photography for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, gave a presentation on the craft of photojournalism and the Pulitzer Prize-winning work the UMG-represented photo staff.

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