Fight for great journalism continues in Springfield

Reporters, editors and photographers at the State Journal-Register in Springfield continued to fight for their craft during collective bargaining this week.

Contract negotiations between the SJ-R unit of the United Media Guild and GateHouse covered a variety of topics Tuesday and Wednesday, but a consistent theme emerged. The Guild is urging GateHouse to make a stronger commitment to quality content in the SJ-R’s print and on-line products.

The top economic issue is the substandard pay for all of the part-time journalists and some of the full-timers. Many hired in at rate much lower than the entry-level rates paid to new hires at the Peoria Journal Star and other Guild newspapers in GateHouse.

These lower-paid journalists have also worked under a perpetual raise freeze instituted by the financially strapped GateHouse chain. Good young journalists come and go due to this scenario, diminishing the quality of the news-gathering operation.

Journalists struggle to see a future for themselves at the SJ-R. As the workforce becomes smaller and more transient, the institutional knowledge needed to do good work (contacts, sources, familiarity with local and regional issues) dissipates.

Journalistic quality is also a key non-economic issue during these negotiations. With fewer supervising editors at work in the newsroom and more copy being handled at an out-of-town design house, more errors and misrepresentations are getting into print and onto the web site.

The Guild is proposing contract language that protects the integrity of the journalism several ways. Reporters don’t want to write “advertorial” stories designed only to drive revenue. They want SJ-R editors to consult with them on any corrections or clarifications before they appear. They need the right to remove their byline from stories if editors rewrite them to create a different meaning.

These obvious and fundamental rights are codified in many Guild contracts. Yet initially, at least, GateHouse is resisting them.

The company’s future depends on its ability to produce compelling content for its various markets. Its ambitious digital initiative creates the need for more content delivered in innovative forms.

And yet GateHouse has hamstrung its content producers by slashing newsrooms to a fraction of their former size, freezing the pay of surviving journalists, decreasing news holes, diminishing employee morale and building customer dissatisfaction.

The Guild will raise these issues with our public campaign in the Springfield region. It kicks off April 10 with an informal meeting with regional labor leaders at the IBEW Local 193 hall.  Terry Reed, a field-service director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers and president of the Springfield Trades and Labor Council, is organizing this event.

During a meeting with key newsroom personnel Wednesday night, the Guild discussed reaching out to faith groups, business leaders and politicians interested in maintaining a quality newspaper in Springfield. Soon we will begin formally seeking their support in our quest.

The Guild ran successful public campaigns in Pekin to get a first contract for the Daily Times and in Peoria to get a new collective bargaining agreement at the Journal Star. Both communities rallied behind the journalists covering their issues and make newspapers important institutions in their region.

We trust that Springfield will do the same, based on the informal pledges of support we have already received.