Union workers at newspapers owned by Gannett in Indiana and across the country say the company is failing to fairly negotiate their contracts. Journalists at many of those papers began a coordinated nationwide action on Monday, which included strikes for some.
The actions were coordinated by the NewsGuild, a national union that represents more than 50 unionized Gannett papers. The Guild aimed to draw attention to these issues as shareholders met Monday morning and voted on whether to keep CEO Mike Reed as chairman of the board. Gannett is one of the largest newspaper chains in the country and owns USA Today.
Indianapolis Star employees were supposed to have a new contract almost three years ago. Since their last contract expired, investigative journalist Tony Cook and other union IndyStar staffers say they have made many sacrifices to help Gannett’s bottom line.
“We've had furloughs where we've had to sacrifice pay. We've had buyouts where we've lost really talented journalists. And the company stopped contributing to our 401Ks,” Cook said. “And during that time, there's been no real decrease in productivity because our members are working so hard. We won a Pulitzer Prize. We've increased digital subscriptions. And despite all of the sacrifices and all of those successes, the company hasn't even been willing to agree to modest pay increases.”
The Guild asked shareholders to vote “no confidence” in Reed as chairman of Gannet’s board and wanted the coordinated actions Monday to bolster that. In a letter to shareholders, the union argued that since he took over in 2019 “newsrooms have been hollowed out, local news coverage has dwindled, and Gannett share prices have fallen nearly 70 percent – far more than peers in the industry like the New York Times and Lee Enterprises.”
They also pointed to a compensation package that paid Reed $3.4 million in 2022. That’s less than the over $7 million he received in 2021, but the Guild said that still puts the ratio of his pay to the median Gannett worker’s pay at 66 to 1. They told shareholders the company should limit his pay to a ratio of 20 to 1.
In an email, a Gannett spokesperson said all the votes from Monday morning’s shareholder meeting have not been tabulated yet, but “based on the number of votes cast in person or by proxy” Reed and the other directors have “been duly elected” and shareholders “approved, on an advisory basis, the compensation of the company’s executive officers as well as the company’s 2023 stock incentive plan.”
Union employees at the South Bend Tribune said they have also been working for about three years to get their contract. But unlike the Star’s union, journalists at the Tribune never had a previously bargained contract. Ed Semmler and his union colleagues at the Tribune said they’ve been waiting for a contract since they joined the NewsGuild’s Chicago Local in 2020.
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Semmler was an editor at the paper for about 20 years. He took a buyout under Gannett and then returned as a reporter, a position he’s held since 2017.
“I have just watched this paper continuously shrink over my career here. We had probably 100 newsroom employees 20 years ago. We're down to 10 now,” he said. “Most of us are concerned about the lack of reporters, meaning our community, which we all live in, is not being covered. With ten people, we cannot do an adequate job as watchdogs and inform, entertain, everything that media does.”
Gannett declined an interview request and ignored a request to explain why. In a written statement, a spokesperson said the company “strives to provide competitive wages, benefits, and meaningful opportunities for all our valued employees. Our leadership is focused on investing in local newsrooms and monetizing our content as we continue to negotiate fairly and in good faith with the NewsGuild. ”
Gayle Bell, South Bend Tribune sports content coordinator, said she feels like Gannett has just been paying lawyers to “stall” negotiations, particularly by not bringing decent pay proposals to the bargaining table.
“Most of us haven't had a pay raise in at least 10 years. And so we're fighting to save our newsroom, basically. And we'd like a decent wage where we can hire people,” Bell said. “If you don't have a decent wage, it's not an attractive job for people.”
The South Bend Tribune’s union journalists went on a day-long strike Monday. The Indianapolis Star’s workers, however, are not allowed to go on strike due to their previous contract, said Jenna Watson, president of the Indianapolis NewsGuild Local and Star photojournalist.
Instead, Watson and her colleagues will be withholding their names from their work.
“You don't get what you want and you don't get a fair contract without extra pressure,” Watson said. “And so by drumming up some publicity and kind of withholding our names to show that we're not proud to have our names on our work right now, we hope that will help us get there.”
This is not the first non-strike action the Star’s union employees have taken during the extended contract standoff with Gannett. In August, they picketed briefly around Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis to draw attention to the same issue.
“We noticed more urgency and willingness to set up bargaining sessions [after that August action],” Watson said. “But again, that tends to dwindle over time. We've been at this for several years and so it sometimes does feel like one step forward, two steps back, even after doing the most visible, public, aggressive, you could call it, action we had done yet.”
Getting the community to see what is going on can help the union push Gannett to take action, Watson said.
In the emailed statement, Gannett’s spokesperson said, “Our goal is to preserve journalism and serve our communities across the country as we bargain to finalize contracts." But workers at the Star and Tribune say they have seen the company do the opposite.
“I don't expect fighting the erosion of local news to be everyone's battle, I would certainly hope it’s Gannett’s battle, the largest newspaper company in the country,” Watson said. “And so when we see them investing their resources in a way that worsens that issue instead of making it better, it's extremely frustrating and we want them to do better.”