Journalists stand up to vulture capitalists at GateHouse Media

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 analyst 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.’”