Indianapolis Star journalists picketed around Monument Circle on Thursday to call attention to a union contract dispute with parent company Gannett.
“Our contract proposal is pretty big. But, we've been at it for a couple years,” said Jenna Watson, photojournalist and Indianapolis NewsGuild president. “And we are here to say ‘enough is enough.’ We want Gannett to cooperate and show up with respect and make movement toward us in getting our next contract ratified.”
The Star’s union alleges Gannett has delayed or shown up “unprepared” to negotiating sessions and “belittled” proposals related to workplace safety and diversity, leading to a two-year gap without a contract.
Gannett declined a request for an interview and would not explain why. But, in a short written statement, a spokesperson said the company “values and respects” IndyStar’s employees, negotiates in good faith and expects to have a contract “soon.” They didn’t answer further questions.
The union is asking for an updated pay scale, yearly cost of living raises, more protections for workplace health and safety, a better severance package and practices for diversity in hiring and retention, Watson said, among other things.
“We want the company to do a pay study, because we believe there's some pay inequities among different journalists, particularly of different racial backgrounds, gender identities,” she said.
This contract dispute should matter to people who don’t work in the newsroom too, Watson and others said, because “when we're supported, we can do better work, we can report on our communities better.”
“If we can enshrine better pay in our unions, and in our workplaces, we can keep local journalists here for a long period of time. They can get to know the communities,” said Kayla Dwyer, transportation reporter and guild steward. “And communities want that. They're sick and tired of all this turnover and people constantly leaving.”
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Gannett CEO Mike Reed made $7.74 million including a massive bonus in 2021, according to the Boston Business Journal, 160 times more than the company’s median employee salary of $48,419. That has been a point of contention for NewsGuild members across the nation.
“Sometimes you just have to take a more visible step and have the community see what's going on, because then the community can also put pressure on the company,” said Jennifer Proffitt, Florida State University communications professor. “And I think it can be very effective.”
Part of Proffitt’s research has focused on labor in newspapers. Gannett owns 10 newspapers across Indiana. According to Poynter, an August round of layoffs hit three of those papers: Courier & Press (Evansville), The Herald-Times (Bloomington) and Times-Mail (Bedford).
Nationwide, more than 400 reporters were laid off and another over 400 open positions were cut as Gannett reported losses in the second quarter of 2022. It is not the first time jobs were cut by the company in the past few years. In a 2019 lay-off round, the Star lost four journalists.
The Star was not among those that lost staff this time, likely because it was still in contract negotiations. Of the over 100 newsrooms where Poynter has tracked layoffs, the most were non-union.
Collective bargaining efforts are increasing across Gannett’s papers. The South Bend Tribune voted to unionize in February 2020 and staff at the Courier Journal in Louisville announced they plan to join the Indianapolis NewsGuild Local on Tuesday. More than 20 Gannett newsrooms have at least started to unionize since 2020, according to Poynter.
“There are fewer and fewer newspapers, fewer and fewer positions because of the consolidation of ownership occurring across the U.S.,” Proffitt said. “[Unionized journalists] want to make their newsrooms a place where people want to stay, that they are able to cover the communities in a way that is beneficial … But having that seat at the table is really important. Because let's face it, the owner's primary job is to make money for shareholders or for investors. It's not necessarily providing the best journalism for a community.”
Proffitt said the layoffs and high turnover as a result of limited pay and upward mobility is likely driving this unionization wave across many news organizations owned by large corporations or private equity firms. Though the trend is not limited to journalists employed by such groups.
“Just constantly watching your colleagues leaving is really demoralizing. And, of course, that also affects the kind of content you can provide,” she said. “When there's fewer people trying to cover various beats, something has to get dropped, right? You can't cover everything. And so that affects … the ability to do investigative news reporting and so on.”
The Star’s newsroom has broken major stories over the years, including being the first to uncover the sex abuses of convicted USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and earning a Pulitzer Prize in 2021 for its role in an investigation into police K-9 units, while also reporting on many day-to-day political and community events in Indiana.
Indiana Public Broadcasting's Violet Comber-Wilen contributed to this story.