NEW YORK: Journalists at two dozen local newspapers across the U.S. walked off the job Monday to demand an end to painful cost-cutting measures and a change of leadership at Gannett, the country's biggest newspaper chain.
The strike involves hundreds of journalists at newspapers in eight states, including the Arizona Republic, the Austin American-Statesman, the Bergen Record, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, and the Palm Beach Post, according to the NewsGuild, which represents workers at more than 50 Gannett newsrooms. Gannett has said there would be no disruption to its news coverage during the strike, which will last for two days at two of the newspapers and one day for the rest.
The walkouts coincided with Gannett’s annual shareholder meeting, during which the company’s board was duly elected despite the NewsGuild-CWA union urging shareholders to withhold their votes from CEO and board chairman Mike Reed as an expression of no confidence in his leadership. Reed has overseen the company since its 2019 merger with GateHouse Media, a tumultuous period that has included layoffs and the shuttering of newsrooms. Gannett shares have dropped more than 60% since the deal closed.
Susan DeCarava, president of the The NewsGuild of New York, called the shareholder meeting “a slap in the face to the hundreds of Gannett journalists who are on strike today.”
“Gannett CEO Mike Reed didn’t have a word to say to the scores of journalists whose livelihoods he’s destroyed, nor to the communities who have lost their primary news source thanks to his mismanagement,” DeCarava said in a statement.
In legal filing, the NewsGuild said Gannett's leadership has gutted newsrooms and cut back on coverage to service a massive debt load. Cost-cutting has also included forced furloughs and suspension of 401-K contributions.
“We want people in our local community to know what this company is doing to local news, and we want Gannett shareholders to know what Gannett is doing to local news,” said Chris Damien, a criminal justice reporter and unit guild chair the Desert Sun, which covers Palm Springs and the surrounding Coachella Valley in Southern California.
Gannett Chief Communications Officer Lark-Marie Anton said the company disagreed with union's recommendation to vote against Reed.
“During a very challenging time for our industry and economy, Gannett strives to provide competitive wages, benefits, and meaningful opportunities for all our valued employees,” Anton said in a statement.
Some of the striking newsrooms are negotiating contracts and accuse the company of dragging its feet and negotiating in bad faith, but Anton said the company continues to negotiate fairly.
Among the contract demands are a base annual salary of $60,000. The median pay for Gannett employee in 2022 was $51,035, according to the company’s proxy filing. Reed’s total annual compensation was valued at nearly $3.4 million, down from $7.7 million in 2021.
At the shareholder meeting, NewsGuild-CWA President Jon Schleuss said the union proposed lowering Gannett's median CEO-to-employee ratio from 66:1 to 20:1. But Schleuss said the meeting last just eight minutes and Reed didn't address any questions.
"What a complete joke. Mike Reed needs to go,” Schleuss said in a series of tweets.
Gannett, which owns USA Today and more than 200 other daily U.S. newspapers with print editions, announced last August that it would lay off newsroom staff to lower costs as it struggles with declining revenue amid a downturn in ad sales and customer subscriptions.
The newspaper industry has struggled for years with such challenges, as advertising shifts from print to digital, and readers abandon local newspapers for online sources of information and entertainment. Major newspapers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have gained substantial digital audiences for coverage of broad topics, but regional and local papers have struggled to replicate that success in narrower markets.
In its first quarter earnings report this year, Gannett said its digital subscriptions had grown 15% year-over-year, and revenue from digital circulation grew 20%. The company reported a $10.3 million profit versus a $3 million loss in the same period last year, although revenue fell by 10.6%. The company also reported repaying $37 million in debt.
According to the NewsGuild, Gannett's workforce has shrunk 47% in the last three years due to layoffs and attrition. At some newspapers, the union said the headcount has fallen by as much as 90%.
The Arizona Republic, for example, has gone from 140 newsroom employees in 2018 to 89 this year, the NewsGuild said. The Austin American-Statesman's newsroom shrunk during that period from 110 employees in 2018 to 41 this year.
Some newspapers have forsaken coverage of local sports or business, the union said. Reporters have had to take on several unrelated beats. Some publications have dropped local news coverage altogether to focus on regional news.
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, said that while the union isn't powerful enough to prevent layoffs, the strike shows it has gained momentum.
Schleuss said 18 Gannett newsrooms have unionized in the last five years. Two more newsrooms voted to unionize Monday: the Athens Banner-Herald and the Savannah Morning News, both in Georgia.