Post-Gazette staffers, shaken by publisher’s behavior, stand by their story

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

On Saturday night, February 9, John Robinson Block—publisher of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, one of more than a dozen news outlets owned by his company, Block Communications, Inc.—entered the Post-Gazette newsroom. Members of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which has engaged in contentious contract negotiations with Block Communications since their contract expired nearly two years ago, had months earlier posted a sign on a bulletin board: “Shame on the Blocks!”

According to multiple accounts published by the guild, Block, who had brought along his pre-teen daughter, demanded that the sign be removed, and then attempted to pose his child for a photograph beside it. Post-Gazette staffers and union members characterized Block that night as “loud and violent,” “very angry and irate,” and “going crazy.”

One Post-Gazette staff member says Block “forcefully grabbed his daughter’s forearm, pulling her into the picture as she tried her best to pull away from him.” Block ranted about the union and former employees; threatened to “get rid” of Michael Fuoco and Jonathan Silver, two guild leaders; and said he might close the paper and “burn the place down.” One staff member, who estimated the incident lasted for an hour or more, provided video and audio recordings of the incident to a local ABC affiliate; the material includes a voice—unidentified, though it sounds like Block—inviting people to resign. Ultimately, staff members say, an editor and a Block Communications VP persuaded Block to leave the newsroom and then the building.

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The incident—which was covered by several Pittsburgh news outlets—prompted the guild to file an unfair labor practice complaint against Block and his company through the National Labor Relations Board. It’s the third such complaint filed by the guild against the Post-Gazette’s owners in the past two years; this time, the focus is on Block’s behavior and statements. Block, the complaint says, “threatened employees with discharge in retaliation for engaging in union or other protected concerted activity.”

On Thursday evening, Block Communications provided CJR with a statement on behalf of Block, disputing guild members’ accounts of events:

Last Saturday evening, the Publisher of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette expressed his frustration to the newsroom staff about several issues of concern to him. We have conducted a review of all information available, and we disagree with the characterization of Saturday evening’s events as expressed by the Newspaper Guild. No one in the newsroom was physically threatened contrary to published reports.

We highly value our employees, and consider their safety and security a top priority. We have and will continue to provide a safe work environment.

The Publisher expresses his sincere regrets over his conduct that evening and did not intend his actions to upset anyone.

Because the Newspaper Guild has filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board concerning these events, we will not be making any further comment on the matter until those proceedings are resolved.  

A response from the guild, sent after 9pm, called the Block Communications statement “a false narrative,” and said it amounts to “outright lies and a bare-minimum effort to address a corporate crisis over the abhorrent actions of John Block.”

An earlier statement from John’s brother Allan, who is the company’s chairman, had characterized the scene on Saturday as “an unfortunate exchange,” and attributed any angst on John’s part to “frustration over financial and other challenges in the newspaper industry.” Allan adds that the company supports “the well-being and safety of all our employees,” and expresses regret “if anyone present may have misconstrued what occurred as anything other than an indication of strong concern and support” for the Post-Gazette. The guild called this characterization of the event “cowardly, despicable, and a blatant lie.” 

News about the incident was conspicuously absent from the Post-Gazette’s pages until Wednesday, when a short item about the labor complaint appeared. First-hand accounts by Post-Gazette staff were published instead on the guild’s website, where four union members offered on-the-record recountings . The guild went on to collect nearly a dozen such stories, and provided them to Allan Block. (According to Fuoco, a guild leader, there are no plans to make the additional accounts public.)

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In recent history, the Post-Gazette has avoided detailing the tensions between its guild and ownership. Early last year, 150 guild members signed a letter condemning an editorial, “Reason as Racism,” which called allegations of racism “the new McCarthyism” and was widely decried as offensive. The guild published the letter to its site, too, claiming that Block had prevented it from running. (Disclosure: The author was a staff reporter at the Post-Gazette from January 2012 to September 2015, and signed a letter from former Post-Gazette employees who objected to the editorial.) Another, more recent letter—this one sharing staff objections to “the publication of three misogynistic editorial cartoons within a week”—also appeared on the guild’s site after it was turned down for publication in the Post-Gazette

The guild’s contract with the Post-Gazette expired in March 2017; until a new contract is negotiated, its terms remain in effect. The sticking point, according to the guild, is healthcare costs: according to the expired contract, the Post-Gazette must pay up to five-percent of the increase in health-insurance premiums for guild members. After the company twice refused to do so, the guild took its case to the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled in the guild’s favor. (The Post-Gazette has appealed the ruling.) In January 2018, all 150 guild members staged a four-day byline strike to draw attention to the contract dispute. In December, guild members handed out informational flyers outside the Omni William Penn Hotel, where John Block was giving a speech to the Rotary Club. During that speech, Block said the Post-Gazette was not a profitable segment of Block Communication’s holdings; for Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine he wrote that the paper had not “turned a profit consistently since 2004.”

Fuoco says that the union’s priorities are ensuring employee safety and shielding Block’s daughter from further trauma. “We’re fearful for his safety and our own,” he tells CJR.

Block returned to the newsroom on Wednesday, but did not interact with any staff other than Keith Burris, the editorial page editor. According to Fuoco, several guild members opted to work from home because they did not feel safe with Block in the newsroom.

Though Post-Gazette staff members did not call police on Saturday, one guild account suggests they came close. Fuoco did not fault newsroom employees for not making the call. “Hindsight is 20/20,” he says. “Things were happening very quickly. It was so surreal, and it wasn’t lost on anybody that this was their boss.” In one account, a staffer wrote that Block held his daughter “firmly by the wrist as she was sobbing.” The staffer told Block to stop, then took her from the room to a cafeteria in the building. “They did intercede and get her away from him,” says Fuoco, “which was the immediate thing that needed to be done.”

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Kim Lyons is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other local and national publications. She was a 2015 Kiplinger Fellow in Public Affairs Journalism at Ohio State University, and is co-host of The Broadcast Podcast, focused on amplifying women's voices.