UMG ratifies new contract at Pekin Daily Times

Jul 26, 2017 by

United Media Guild members at the Pekin Daily Times unanimously approved a new two-year collective bargaining agreement with GateHouse Media.

In face of plummeting circulation at the newspaper and ongoing employee turnover, our members favored expedited bargaining that focused on a few key issues.

In an addition to providing a signing bonus, the new contract included several important points:

  • The addition of seven new paid days off — five personal days and two floating holidays.
  • A new monthly stipend for the use of a cell phone on the job.
  • The continuation of the GateHouse company incentive bonuses, which our members have collected several times.
  • A new minimum rate established for the company’s adjustable mileage reimbursement, which rises and falls according to prevailing fuel prices. Previously their was no reimbursement floor.
  • Strengthened seniority protections. In the absence of employee evaluations, layoffs will occur in inverse order of seniority.
  • Strengthened vacation request policy. The company must now approve or reject vacation requests within 14 days. Due to concerns created by short staffing, management had put off ruling on some requests for months.

Once again the UMG’s primary objective during negotiations was keeping the Daily Times operating in Pekin in the face of GateHouse consolidations in the region.

Due to our contract in place there, the company earlier rolled the operations of neighboring weekly properties into the Daily Times, not the other way around.

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New Media shareholders share UMG’s concerns about GateHouse management

May 31, 2017 by

Wes Edens

GateHouse Media’s buying and slashing spree has led to the wholesale deterioration of once-great newspaper properties.

The United Media Guild sees this damage daily while representing members at the Peoria Journal Star, State Journal-Register of Springfield, Rockford Register Star, Pekin Daily Times and Freeport Journal Standard.

Major shareholders in GateHouse’s parent company, New Media Investment Group, are taking note.  They voted overwhelmingly in favor of the UMG’s non-binding proposal for an annual election of directors instead of staggered elections.

Shareholders also withheld votes for New Media Investment Group board chairman Wes Edens by a 2-to-1 margin, signaling considerable unrest.

UMG president Jeff Gordon presented the good governance proposal at New Media’s annual shareholders meeting in suburban Rochester, N.Y., May 25. UMG business representative Shannon Duffy and NewsGuild-CWA sector representative Tammy Turnbull also attended the meeting.

Earlier in the month NewsGuild-CWA supported this proposal with letters to top New Media shareholders, seeking to create a more responsive board.

In its letter to shareholders, TNG-CWA noted that: “At a time when newspaper publishers and employees must work together to promote the value of real news and find revenue solutions in a distressed industry, New Media has demoralized its workforce with an eternal wage freeze (up to a decade at some properties), constant layoffs and a more hostile negotiating stance at NewsGuild-represented units. In our opinion, cost-cutting through headcount reductions has reached the point of negative returns.”

While the cuts maximized cash flow to pay stock dividends and fund further acquisitions, it also undermined the whole enterprise. Circulation is down, print advertising is way down and the gains in digital advertising and the Propel Marketing initiative haven’t offset that decline.

Not only has the company lost great journalists to layoffs and voluntary departures, it has also churned salespersons, advertising managers, publishers, regional executives and even national-level managers.

Against the backdrop, UMG’s proposal won in a landslide, 35 million to 7.2 million. Edens, a principal in Fortress Investment Group, received 14.3 million votes “for” and had 28 million votes withheld.

New Media’s buy-and-slash newspaper strategy has worked great for Edens and Fortress, the company’s external manager. Fortress has collected more than $60 million in management fees and incentive compensation since launching and expanding the company from the ashes of GateHouse Media’s $1.2 billion bankruptcy.

The strategy has been less great for shareholders, producing healthy dividends but driving down the stock price. After topping $25 per share back in March, 2015, New Media stock was trading at about $13 on May 31.

Analysts began souring on New Media stock last year, changing “buy” ratings to “hold” or “sell”. Earlier in May, New Media’s board of directors authorized a $100 million stock buyback during the next year to shore up the stock’s price.

Hence the shareholder interest in creating a board of directors more aligned with their interests rather than the interests of Fortress. Although the UMG proposal was non-binding, the Council of Institutional Investors notes that 75 percent of majority-supported proposals are implemented withing three years.

And while Edens remains the board chairman, the Council of Institutional Investors believes directors failing to receive a majority vote in uncontested elections should resign.

“CII’s corporate governance policies state that in uncontested elections, directors should be elected by majority vote; directors who fail to receive a majority support should step down from the board and not be reappointed,” it notes on its website.

Edens did not attend the shareholders meeting. Gordon, Duffy and Turnbull engaged New Media CEO Michael Reed in an informal discussion after the brief shareholders meeting. Reed listened to the Guild’s concerns about the state of his newsrooms and expressed his own concerns about the negative impact of the Guild’s community and corporate campaigns.

Almost every Guild contract at GateHouse-operated newspapers is currently open with little to no progress being made in negotiations. As a result, TNG-CWA locals in that fight have joined forces in a multi-faceted initiative against the company that includes joint mobilization, joint bargaining strategies, community campaigns, organizing efforts at unrepresented newspapers and a broader corporate campaign with shareholder outreach.

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Wall Street sours on New Media Investment Group as its asset-stripping accelerates

May 15, 2017 by

So why did New Media Investment Group trade for $12.61 per Monday, down from nearly $20 per share last July?

Investors are starting to share the dim long-term assessment the United Media Guild offered back in 2014, after the this company rose from the ashes of GateHouse Media’s billion-dollar bankruptcy. Fortress Investment Group launched New Media Investment Group as a exercise certain to pay Wes Edens and Co. handsomely for several years while bleeding as much cash as possible from struggling newspaper operations.

That scheme has sped the decline of newspapers across the country, including the UMG-represented Peoria Journal Star, State Journal-Register, Rockford Register Star and Pekin Daily Times in Illinois.

Fortress doubled down on its GateHouse Media bet, raising capital to re-launch the company under the New Media Investment Group umbrella. While Fortress doesn’t actually own much New Media stock, it operates as its external manager and collects huge fees to do so.

(It has run this gambit successfully in other industries. That success is just one reason why  Japan’s SoftBank opted to purchase Fortress for $3.3 billion.)

By committing to a $1 billion spending spree, New Media buys properties from bailing owners, then its GateHouse Media management team strips them down to maximize cash flow.

New Media uses this cash flow for two primary purposes: paying generous dividends to attract institutional investors and to fund more acquisitions. By getting bigger and bigger, New Media pays Fortress greater and greater managerial fees.

The flurry of acquisitions (and the lucrative resale of the Las Vegas Review Journal under dubious circumstances) allowed the company to build revenues and give the appearance of growth — even as revenues at individual properties declined precipitously.

To distract investors from plunging print advertising revenues, New Media hyped the growth of Propel Marketing and digital advertising. Propel does deliver growth, but not nearly enough offset the print decline. Digital advertising growth stalled as the more consumer traffic shifted to harder-to-monetize smart phone applications. The GateHouse Live events business offers growth, but at a very small scale.

Still, New Media CEO Michael Reed insisted organic growth would come some day. That promise, along was hefty dividends, was supposed to drive up the price of its stock.

And here is the harsh reality of New Media Investment Group:

By gutting the news-gathering operations at its properties, the company has greatly diminished its core product. While New Media touts its properties as a “trusted news source” with long community standing and limited competition, readers and advertisers recognize the precipitous decline in quality.

With paid circulation plunging across the chain, New Media’s strategy is to charge more and more for less and less real content. Circulation revenue accounts for more than one-third of the company’s revenue. When will that bubble finally burst?

Reed keeps promising organic growth, but then keeps pushing the timetable further down the road.  Many experts on media stock began souring on New Media last year, shifting their “buy” tag to “neutral” or even a “sell” recommendation.

At a time when all newspaper companies must work with its employees to promote their products and the craft of journalism — which is under assault from every angle — New Media has taken an hard-line stance against members of The NewsGuild. This has led to:

  • Increased worker mobilization within GateHouse-managed newspapers.
  • Joint union mobilization across various newspapers in the chain, such as the recent joint action with Digital First Media workers.
  • Unionization of previously non-represented properties — including two in Florida, which was previously unheard of.
  • Several successful unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, resulting in pricey legal battles.
  • Guild outreach to readers and advertisers through well-publicized community campaigns in key markets, encouraging consumers to demand more from their newspaper’s owner.
  • Guild outreach to investors and analysts as part of its expanding corporate campaign to highlight the street-level impact of managerial strategy.

All that has put even more stress on New Media’s business, with no end in sight.

Writing for the Seeking Alpha site, Vince Martin offered this overview:

The story at New Media (NYSE:NEWM) is one of the strangers in the markets. First, it’s a roll-up of local newspapers, a seemingly odd target, given the obviously secular decline in the space. NEWM pays a double-digit dividend, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear: after distributing nearly $100 million over seven quarters, while talking up extensive acquisition opportunities in the space, the company executed a $120 million stock offering in November. This came at the same time NEWM management was talking up its undervalued stock – even citing a $25 price target . . . .

And, again, it’s a rollup of local newspapers and using a strategy that its predecessor GateHouse Media rode straight into Chapter 11. The irony is that an investor unfamiliar with the NEWM story might assume that it was essentially a ‘cigar butt’ type of play: local newspapers could add value if they’re a) acquired cheap enough and b) can contribute enough cash flow (either through existing business and/or synergies/cost cuts) to repay the acquisition cost in a matter of years. But New Media’s version of the story is that organic revenue trends will improve, as digital revenue growth offsets ever-shrinking legacy print business.

I’m highly skeptical on that point, and Q1 results last month support that skepticism.

The United Media Guild has been skeptical for years. Now Wall Street is finally catching on.

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GateHouse, Digital First Media workers unite to fight for quality journalism

Apr 28, 2017 by

Springfield journalists stand up for their craft.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 28, 2017) – A broad coalition of 1,500 unionized news workers will conduct a joint day of action on May 3 – World Press Freedom Day – as part of a national campaign to protest the corporate-led assault on quality journalism. The coordinated effort by NewsGuild members will span 29 newspapers owned by GateHouse Media and Digital First Media.

It will support the fight for quality journalism at those papers and highlight the damage wrought by draconian cuts in their newsrooms and other departments. Now, union leaders say the focus on profits threatens journalism at a critical time of politicized attacks on the news media.

“Reliable information is the foundation of our democracy,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of The NewsGuild-CWA, based in Washington,D.C. “Corporate owners have a duty to invest in the essential work done by newspaper workers and not to simply strip-mine newspapers for profits.”

Rockford Newspaper Guild outside of the Rockford Register Star news tower.

The joint effort by GateHouse and Digital First Media workers marks an unprecedented NewsGuild campaign to demand that corporate owners invest in quality jobs and fair contracts after years of layoffs, furloughs, pay freezes and benefit cuts. Contract negotiations are under way or expected to resume soon at both companies, but managements have shown little interest in changing course.

Workers at GateHouse and Digital First Media have endured some of the most vicious staff reductions in the news business. Alden Global Capital, a secretive New York hedge fund, owns DFM and has slashed staffing levels by more than twice the national average during the past five years, while pocketing millions by selling off the company’s real estate assets. GateHouse owns and/or manages 564 community print publications, including more than 130 daily newspapers, under the New Media Investment Group umbrella.

New Media is a publicly traded company, externally managed by Fortress Investment Group. Under New Media’s business model, the company buys newspapers, strips them down to maximize cash flow, and uses that money to pay dividends, pay bonuses to corporate officers and fund more acquisitions. As the company gets bigger, Fortress collects larger management fees – roughly $54 million the previous two years alone.

The 13 Digital First bargaining units represent workers at 12 newspapers, including the Denver Post, San Jose Mercury News, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and suburban publications in the Bay Area, Philadelphia, and Detroit markets. Last week, DFM announced that it would lay off more than 20 percent of the Guild-covered newsroom staff at the East Bay Times, just one week after it was awarded journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, for breaking news coverage of the deadly “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire in December.

The 15 GateHouse bargaining units represent 580 workers at 17 newspapers, including the Providence (RI) Journal, Worcester (MA) Telegram and Gazette, Erie (PA) Times-News, Peoria (IL) Journal Star, Springfield (IL) State Journal-Register, Rockford (IL) Register Star, Utica (NY) Observer Dispatch, The Herald News (Fall River, MA), The Enterprise (Brockton, MA),The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA), Lakeland (FL) Ledger, and the Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribune.  The staff of the Herald-Tribune, a newly organized Guild unit, shared the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting with the Tampa Bay Times for their five-part series “Insane. Invisible. In Danger.” That collaborative project detailed horrific conditions in Florida’s mental hospitals.

In the new campaign, the Guild is pushing back nationwide before media profiteers cause further wreckage to the communities they are supposed to serve. The May 3 World Press Freedom Day action will include the display of pro-journalism literature at desks and other work stations, and appeals for public support in local communities and online. The theme: “Democracy Depends on Journalism” and “Invest in Us.”

The action will mark the first coordinated effort by news workers at the two companies to demonstrate solidarity in the workplace and remind the public that quality journalism matters. NewsGuild members are reaching out to allies, including journalists working for other employers – both union and non-union – as well as community advocates concerned about the corporate gutting of newsrooms across the United States.

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New Media/GateHouse keeps buying and diminishing newspapers

Feb 28, 2017 by

Early on in his fourth quarter earnings call for investors, New Media Investment Group CEO Michael Reed singled out the Sarasota Herald-Tribune for its award-winning investigative reporting.

“We are so proud of the role our publications play within the communities they serve as the dominant sources of comprehensive high quality local news and information,” Reed read from his script. “These local brands are the cornerstone to our organic growth strategy allowing us to leverage our strong community standing in ties, our highly recognized brands, and our large in market local sales force, which is helping us further expand our digital and service offerings for small businesses.”

Of course, Reed didn’t mention the round after round of cuts the Herald-Tribune newsroom has suffered under New Media ownership and GateHouse Media management. Nor did he mention that the Herald-Tribune was an award-winning newspaper long before New Media bought it and began the wholesale bloodletting of journalists.

Reed addressed that payroll slashing with typical CEOSpeak: “Subsequent to the quarter close, we have implemented a cost reduction program that is expected to reduce expenses over $3 million in the first quarter of 2017 and over $27 million for the full year of 2017.”

In other words, expect the layoffs to just keep coming. Expect to see fewer and fewer reporters working in the communities and less and less reporting on topics vital to the residents.

Here are some other highlights:

  • For a change, Reed didn’t claim that New Media stock is undervalued by Wall Street. Its share price has been hovering in the $15 to $16 range, a far cry from the $40 or more some experts predicted for the stock when it was first issued.
  • Reed talked up the increased New Media dividend ($0.35 this time around), which is funded by the cash flow from local newspaper properties. Rather than reinvest in its news-gathering operations and reader retention, the company bleeds profits from these properties through round after round of cost reduction.
  • The company is still banking heavily on circulation revenue. While print circulation continues to plummet across the chain, the company offsets that with price increases and paid digital subscriptions. That is not a sustainable model, particularly given the dramatic newsroom reductions across the chain. People won’t keep paying more for less. They just won’t. Also, newspaper reader demographics skew old. Younger people are getting the information in other places.
  • Reed noted the company suffered massive declines in print advertising, led by the industry-wide decline in “pre-print” advertising from major retailers and classified advertising. While that decline may slow in the years ahead, Reed admitted that it won’t reverse.
  • He once against talked up “organic growth” in the company, but this time he didn’t put a timeline on it. Instead Reed stressed the diversification of revenues, including growth in digital ad sales, Propel Marketing, commercial printing and event presentation.
  • Reed also talked up the company’s expanding BridgeTower Media group of business publications. Those properties aren’t subject to the steep retail advertising declines that imperil the newspaper business.
  • Some of the company’s healthy cash flow will continue flowing into acquisitions. One by one, New Media/GateHouse is picking off family-owned operations and stripping them down for cash flow. That “inorganic growth” will feed the revenue bottom line for years to come as the grand consolidation of newspapers continues.

Fortress Investment Group, now owned by Japan’s Softbank, will continue reaping huge external management fees from New Media/GateHouse for as long as company lasts. Such is the reward for raising capital for expansion. Fortress earned $19.4 million in compensation last year from New Media after raking in $39.7 million the year before.

Fortress owns about 1 percent stake of the New Media stock, so it is not overly concerned about the stock price tanking. And yet Fortress employs Reed as the New Media CEO, raising reasonable questions about his commitment to producing shareholder value. (Although it should be noted that Reed has bought 60,000 shares of the stock the past few months at a cost of nearly $800,000)

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UMG contract with Peoria Journal Star rolls over for another year

Feb 14, 2017 by

The United Media Guild’s collective bargaining agreement with the Peoria Journal Star has extended for another year, until March 31, 2018.

Article XVIII of the CBA (as extended through March 31, 2017) includes a rollover clause that extends the full CBA year by year, in the absence of timely written notice of an intention to change or terminate the CBA. The definition of timely notice is spelled out:

“Such written notice shall be presented to the other party not less than sixty (60) days prior to March 31, 2014, or any following March 31.”

The UMG decided not to request to bargain a new contract in Peoria, given the protections in place in the current CBA and the concessions GateHouse Media is demanding at other Guild-represented newspapers.

And when the company missed the notification deadline by one day, we informed the company that the contract had already rolled over.

GateHouse has maintained a strict “no raises” position in negotiations with the UMG for first contracts at the State Journal-Register in Springfield and the Rockford Register Star. The company has made no effort to negotiate fair deals at either newspaper and it imposed working conditions at the SJ-R after declaring an impasse.

Given that draconian stance, the UMG saw nothing to be gained by negotiating in Peoria. The Journal Star has protected its copy desk from outsourcing and maintained pay scales that are superior to similar GateHouse newspapers.

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