Another Gatehouse paper in Florida moves to unionize

Newsroom employees at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune took steps to unionize Wednesday, just days after journalists at a sister publication, the Lakeland Ledger, officially became the first newspaper in modern Florida history to form a newsroom union.

The move also comes a day after Gatehouse Media, which owns both papers, announced a round of company-wide buyouts to reduce staff again, with the threat of layoffs if reduction targets aren’t met.

In recent years, the Herald-Tribune, whose daily print circulation is now about 73,000, has produced the kinds of investigations and in-depth coverage more typically seen at larger metro newspapers. Under executive editor Bill Church, who joined the paper in 2012 and is now also the Southeast regional editor for Gatehouse, the newsroom has tackled a string of ambitious projects and creative initiatives, including a joint investigation with the Tampa Bay Times into violence at mental hospitals that won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting this year. The paper also won a Pulitzer in 2011 and was a finalist in 2008 and 2010.

But the newsroom has also lost 16 employees since Gatehouse bought the paper in a deal that closed in early 2015, according to union organizers. Leaders of the effort in the newsroom were quick to say that they are not dissatisfied with local management. Rather, they said the union drive reflected concerns that Gatehouse was not supportive of the “impact journalism” the paper has become known for, and they want a seat at the table when future changes are discussed.

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“We’ve been known to swing above and beyond what papers our size typically do,” investigative reporter Elizabeth Johnson said in an interview. “We did this to try to preserve that.”

“We have had a good relationship with local management,” columnist Tom Lyons, a 24-year veteran of the paper, said in a press release to announce the move. “We prize that relationship, and we have especially valued the leadership of our executive editor, Bill Church.”

Johnson said staffers in the newsroom had been talking about trying to unionize for “a long time,” and that Tuesday’s buyout announcement was not a factor.

“At that point, we had already collected our union cards,” she said.

The cards were delivered to the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday, which will trigger a vote by within the next month or so over whether to join The NewsGuild-CWA. The Ledger held a similar vote last week, with staffers voting 22-3 in favor of unionizing.

Union leaders in Lakeland have also focused their criticisms on Gatehouse, which has sought to cut costs by centralizing functions across its publications. (Some of the job reductions in Sarasota were for roles whose duties have been moved to a centralized design center.)

In Sarasota, staff members who signed union cards released a joint statement in which they said, “We understand the Herald-Tribune is a business and want to do our part to make sure it remains successful, respectable and sustainable.” Forming a union, they said, will help the newsroom stay “on the innovative forefront.”

A call for comment to Gatehouse headquarters was not immediately returned. Patrick Dorsey, publisher of the Herald-Tribune, said in an email that he is “very disappointed some of our newsroom employees decided to go down this road.”

“I firmly believe local journalism is going to continue to need a more creative, flexible and nimble atmosphere to be successful in the future and we have built a talented staff and cutting edge structure that embodies those traits. We do not agree that more rigid structures, stricter rules and additional limitations on duties are a pathway to future success,” he added. “Gatehouse has been very supportive of our quest to produce world class journalism and we remain as committed as ever to continue on this endeavor.”

Both Florida papers previously had been part of the Halifax chain, which Gatehouse acquired in early 2015 as part of an ongoing expansion strategy in which it has added both regional chains and locally owned papers. The company, part of the publicly traded New Media Investment Group, now owns 125 dailies, including The Columbus Dispatch and The Providence Journal, along with more than 400 weeklies and shoppers. In late July, it bought the Fayetteville Observer, which had been the largest locally owned newspaper in North Carolina.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, said unions can increase labor expenses for newspaper chains, though unions are less influential today than they have been in the past.

“Organizing a Guild and actually getting higher pay and more jobs—that may happen and it may not,” he said. “Established unions don’t always succeed in getting a contract, and they usually keep working rather than try to shut the paper down with a strike.”

But he said the efforts at both papers don’t particularly look good for Gatehouse.

“I don’t know if this is two in a series of two or two in a series of 12,” he said. “But it’s not a good thing for your business if your journalists are saying, ‘We can’t really serve our community.’”

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.