When you picture the person leading contract negotiations for the Newspaper Guild at a 180-year-old Midwestern publication, Nolan Rosenkrans probably isn’t who comes to mind.
Rosenkrans is an accomplished education reporter at the Toledo Blade, the president of the local Guild unit, and the co-chair of the union negotiating team. He is also 31 years old, with a beard that wouldn’t be out of place in hipster Brooklyn. And, by his own description, he is “not an old ink-stained wretch droning away about the importance of institutional knowledge—not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Organizing efforts at millennial-identified digital newsrooms may be increasingly common, but in a newspaper industry where the median age of journalists is 48, Rosenkrans’ relative youth stands out. And his role is hardly a docile one: the Guild in Toledo, which has nearly 200 members from the newsroom, business, and other departments, has been in contract negotiations with The Blade’s owner, Toledo-based Block Communications, for 18 months.
The union is seeking its first raise in more than a decade, and there are signs that the talks are contentious. In October, the Guild filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board. Then, at the Blade’s annual holiday parade on Nov. 15, as a group of Guild members planned a demonstration to rally community support, four police cars approached them. An ad sales director at the paper had called his friend, a deputy police chief, at home to express concern that the demonstrators might interfere with the event. “I’m frankly shocked that a company whose main mission is to protect and advocate for the First Amendment rights of open dialogue would attempt to intimidate employees from exercising those same rights,” says Rosenkrans.
The officers left after a cordial exchange, and there was no interference with the parade. Joseph Zerbey, The Blade’s president and general manager, acknowledged the phone call but said, “we did not make an official request” for a police response. Zerbey declined to discuss the state of negotiations, or relations with the Guild, other than to say that “what [the demonstrators] did, in my opinion, is make fools of themselves.” A Block representative referred other inquiries for this story to a company vice president, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
This wasn’t a battle Rosenkrans expected to be fighting. He grew up in a newspaper-loving family in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where his father took photographs for the local Patriot-News, but he was never the sort of kid to make family newsletters as a child, or, he says, the kind of “muckraking high school student” to spend his time “ferreting out scandal in the lunchroom.” He studied English at Temple University, dropped out, attended community college during “one of those finding-yourself periods,” and finally returned to Temple as a journalism major, he says, “in part because I enjoyed writing and, hilariously, viewed it as a more practical career than fiction.” After graduation, Rosenkrans found work with the Winona Daily News in Minnesota. He debuted at The Blade in March 2011, winning an award from the local press club in his first year.
That summer, union members ratified a contract that cut wages nine percent over three years. A couple of years later, Rosenkrans joined the executive board of the Guild, having never been involved with a union before. He became president in January.
Rosenkrans was attracted to journalism, he says, in part because “I have always been an argumentative son of a bitch who has always had an issue with authority and enjoyed the idea of speaking truth to power.”
That attitude probably has something to do with why he was chosen as a union leader.
“[P]eople saw in him a strength and commitment to integrity, and after so many years of concessions, concessions, concessions, the membership wanted someone who was more of a fighter,” said Marlene Harris-Taylor, The Blade’s medical editor, a veteran journalist who has been at the paper for two years. “I think they saw that in him.”
The pattern of concessions echoes a broader trend, but it’s particularly striking at The Blade, a family-owned publication in a union-friendly city an hour from Detroit, where pay and benefits were once considered above industry norms. In 2003, Guild members agreed to a wage freeze.The next contract, signed in 2007 following difficult negotiations, included wage cuts and the introduction of a two-tier wage and vacation time system for new hires. More wage cuts followed in the 2011 deal. Sick time and retirement compensation have been cut, too.
The Blade was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2004*, and Guild members I spoke with said the paper’s commitment to high-impact journalism remains strong. But they also said the trend in compensation, and the prolonged negotiations, have taken a toll on morale.
“As soon as you walk into the newsroom, you can just feel the dissension, anger, and frustration,” said Jay Skebba, a Web editor and sports copy editor who joined The Blade in 2014, months after graduating from college.
I have always been an argumentative son of a bitch who has always had an issue with authority and enjoyed the idea of speaking truth to power.
In the current talks, the Guild is “attempting to claw back some of the cuts we’ve taken for more than a decade,” said Rosenkrans. The union’s goals include a 2% raise, along with more generous vacation and medical leave policies. The proposals amount to a “common sense” investment in the paper, said Ed Burnham, an ad sales consultant who co-chairs the Guild negotiating committee with Rosenkrans. “We’re confident we’ll come to an agreement that we’re all satisfied and happy with,” Burnham added.
The company’s financial details are not public, and have not been shared during negotiations, but union members point to a similar compensation increase recently agreed to at The Blade’s sister paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, as a sign that Block can pay more—though buyouts were also part of that deal, and Guild members in Pittsburgh were recently warned of potential layoffs. The talks in Toledo have been on hold, Rosenkrans says, while Block explores the feasibility of merging the two papers’ copy desks. (The company also has a growing cable and telecom portfolio, buoying its overall finances.)
When I asked Rosenkrans if he sees a connection between his own role and the wave of union activity at digital newsrooms, he was at first hesitant to comment on other organizing efforts. He later followed up to say, “I think there’s a new generation of worker activists…. We’ve been told to accept that the traditional social contract between employer and employee is dead. And we’re calling bullshit.”
His main focus, though, is on The Blade. He points to the city’s history of standout journalism, and the commitment of today’s reporters to continue it.
“We’re trying to keep this legacy going,” Rosenkrans said. “I don’t plan to be among the last generation of professional journalists in Toledo.”
*Corrections: Due to an editing error, the original version of this sentence contained incorrect information about the The Blade’s Pulitzer Prize history. The photo credit on the image embedded in this story has also been corrected.
TOP IMAGE: Photo by Dave Zapotosky