None of Florida’s newspapers are unionized. That could change soon

The list of digital newsrooms moving to unionize has grown steadily since the start of 2015: Gawker, Vice, Huffington Post, Salon, and more.

But the media’s new interest in organizing isn’t only for digital startups. Journalists at The Ledger, a local newspaper in Lakeland, Florida, that dates to 1924, announced this week that they have taken steps to unionize. If the drive is successful, The Ledger would be the only paper in the state with a unionized newsroom.

The move, said Gary White, a reporter and one of the leaders of the union effort, comes out of “a sense of desperation” exacerbated by the actions of owner Gatehouse Media, which bought The Ledger and other papers in the former Halifax chain in January 2015.

“Those of us remaining in the newsroom have seen so many people laid off, especially since Gatehouse took over, that we became concerned about The Ledger continuing as a viable newspaper,” White said.

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The Ledger, which was owned by The New York Times Company before Halifax, had faced layoffs under other owners beginning in 2007. Since Gatehouse bought the paper, union organizers say, at least 21 employees have been laid off from the already-shrunken newsroom, and at least six other vacant positions have been eliminated. The layoffs under Gatehouse began in early 2015, almost immediately after the ownership change.

“We haven’t had raises in eight years. We’d like to see the layoffs end,” said White. “We’re at the point now where it’s a challenge to get by with the minimum coverage our community expects.”

Today, there are approximately 25 journalists in The Ledger newsroom who would be eligible to be union members, organizers said. Eighteen of them signed a statement declaring they are “dedicated to negotiating a labor contract that gives journalists a voice in preserving and enhancing The Ledger.” A couple more signed cards stating their desire to be represented by The NewsGuild that were turned in to the National Labor Relations Board on Monday, White said. Under NLRB procedures, that will trigger a union vote, which could take place within the next few weeks.

Calls to Gatehouse headquarters were transferred to a full voicemail box, and no one from the company returned a request for comment submitted through its website. A call and email to The Ledger’s publisher, Kevin Drake, were not returned.

Gatehouse’s parent company, New Media Investment Group, has been expanding rapidly in recent years, with a focus on small and mid-sized local papers. In public comments, the company has argued that value remains in the downtrodden industry. The company’s shares, which trade on the New York Stock Exchange and recently fetched about $20 apiece, have attracted investor interest in part because they pay a healthy dividend amounting to about 7 percent based on the current stock price.

“Our core traditional media business continues to produce strong cash flows and healthy profit margins as demonstrated by our quarterly results,” CEO Michael Reed said in an earnings call on April 28.

In its latest quarterly summary for investors, the company lists among its strategies: “Right size cost structure post recession,” “Centralize core functions,” and “Leverage New Media’s scale to reduce costs.”

Those claims about corporate profitability, along with the focus on local cost-cutting, are at the heart of employees’ complaints. “The Ledger is making money from what we are told. All of it is going to Gatehouse, and none of it is coming back down to Lakeland,” said White.

The Ledger is not the first paper to move to unionize after being purchased by Gatehouse. Employees at two Illinois publications, The State Journal-Register and the Register Star, voted to unionize after their papers were bought by the company. (Meanwhile, a veteran journalist at another Gatehouse paper in Florida, when asked about the mood there, told me, “I really can’t tell you anything, which should tell you something.)

The Illinois papers are represented by the St. Louis-based United Media Guild. The guild’s president, Jeff Gordon, said the union views Gatehouse’s strategy as “bleeding out properties.”

“These newspapers are profitable,” Gordon said. “Lakeland is not a struggling, number-two newspaper in a market that can only hold one. There’s really a lot of staying power in the newspapers [Gatehouse] is buying if they don’t gut them.”

In Illinois, the union has been able to negotiate contract language that prevents the papers from requiring journalists to produce advertorial copy, Gordon said. It’s unlikely that a successful union drive in Lakeland or elsewhere could bring an end to layoffs. But a union contract could control how those layoffs are conducted.

Douglas E. Ray, former dean of the St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami and a labor attorney, said he was surprised that a Florida newsroom was moving to organize, given the state of the industry.

“Even though the law says a company cannot punish you for union activity, people might be more reluctant,” he said. “In declining industries, you have to be more brave to do that.”

White said he and the other journalists in Lakeland might have gone out on a limb, but the entire tree was feeling unsteady.

“I was nervous about it,” he said about the unionization effort. “I know others were too. As more people got on board, that gave us more of a sense of security.”

“At this point, all of us could lose our jobs any day,” he said. “We all feel awfully insecure already.”

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