Preserving quality was a rallying cry this summer at The Baltimore Sun, the lone guild paper in Tribune, where sixty newsroom jobs (and a hundred companywide) were eliminated. The departures were mourned at a July union protest in front of the newspaper that featured one hundred black chairs with pink slips attached to them and chants of “Sell, Zell.” For Lynn Anderson, a forty-year-old former Sun reporter who co-chaired the Baltimore guild unit, the protest was an emotional high-water mark. “We were sad,” she says, “but making a public statement together made us feel strong. For that hour, I think we felt very determined. And I think that determination has carried over.”
Anderson, though, decided she had had enough. She took a buyout and signed on with a public-relations firm. “This is a window where a lot of journalists are saying, ‘We’ve got to get out of the industry for a while,’ ” she says. “This is the first time I’ve seen people under thirty taking a buyout.”
In Philadelphia, after two contentious years, there were signs of a tentative, and perhaps temporary, management-labor rapprochement. At the company’s request, the guild, along with a majority of the blue-collar unions, voted to defer the $25-a-week raises that were due to kick in September 1. Philadelphia Media Holdings, the private, debt-ridden company that owns The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News, still was planning to trim “as many as forty” guild members, says Diane Mastrull, an Inquirer reporter who chairs the Inquirer/Daily News bargaining unit. Those cuts were to flow mainly from the consolidation of the two papers’ copy desks and photo departments. But Mastrull says she told company officials that she “would not consider even going to our members and asking them to defer the raise if I was not assured that there would be management cuts.” She says she got a commitment for the dismissal of “up to fifteen managers” in the two newsrooms.
Mark Frisby, whose titles include executive vice president of Philadelphia Media Holdings and publisher of the Daily News, said in an interview that there was no explicit quid pro quo. But he says he did tell the guild that seventy-four “independents” (managers and supervisors) had been let go companywide over the past two years, and that such cuts would continue. With advertising revenues already down 18 percent this year, the exact number of management layoffs is “a moving target,” he says. Though the company plans to slash expenses by $50 million this year, Frisby says ominously, “we can’t take expenses out as quickly as the revenue is going away.”
The guild is optimistic that the payoff for playing nice this time around will be a voice in the company’s future. Says Mastrull: “I said to them, ‘It appears our members have better ideas than you guys have. We want to begin working with you to find ways we can come up with new products, better ways to grow revenue here, so we’re not constantly having to look at ways to just cut and cut and cut.’ ”
Frisby says he’s open to the guild’s ideas. But don’t look for the cuts—ongoing since at least the early 1990s, under Knight-Ridder—to stop anytime soon. The current contract expires next September, and Frisby says the company will be seeking yet “more efficiencies” in its next contract.
“If you look at the competition—Philadelphia Magazine, Philadelphia Weekly—any of those reporters are probably making twenty grand less than these reporters here,” says Frisby. “We’re working every day to make sure that the doors stay open. And, quite frankly, raises are pretty low on my list of priorities right now. The main focus is surviving during these tough economic times.”
Daily newspaper journalists may eagerly embrace new technologies and the multitasking that they require. They may seek accommodation with management or protest managerial incompetence, fight for unions or make do without them. But for the foreseeable future, they also need to accept the grim reality of their own declining economic clout.