Wyoming journalists seek union security ‘to speak directly to our readers’

The Teton Range, in Wyoming. Photo via Charles Peterson/Flickr.
Update, February 27: Journalists at The Casper Star-Tribune voted to unionize, becoming the first newsroom to do so while owned by Lee Enterprises. Furthermore, Wyoming Press Association director Darcie Hoffland said her organization doesn’t know of any newspaper union that has ever operated in Wyoming before. “As we have said from the beginning, our goal is to protect and strengthen the future of the Star-Tribune, as well as Casper and Wyoming’s news, for many years to come,” the union’s organizing committee said in a statement. “Since filing for an election earlier this month, communication between newsroom employees and management has been open and respectful. We look forward to furthering that cordial relationship in the months to come as we bargain with the Star-Tribune’s corporate owner, Lee Enterprises, to reach a collective agreement that benefits both the newsroom and the company.” Nine members of the 11-person unit voted to form the union, joining the Denver Newspaper Guild under the Communication Workers of America, organizers said. The paper covered the union vote here

Among the reasons journalists at Wyoming’s largest newspaper plan to unionize? They feel it’s the best way to safeguard their ability to report on themselves, in the event they have to.

The newly formed Casper News Guild, comprising members of the Casper Star-Tribune, announced its union drive on February 6. The Star-Tribune is owned by Lee Enterprises, which is based in Iowa and owns about 50 newspapers and websites throughout the West and Midwest.

“If we were to face a layoff or something [right now], I don’t know if we would actually be able to write about it,” says Seth Klamann, a 25-year-old education and health reporter who is helping lead the effort. A press release from the news guild expressed a need “to speak directly to our readers so that any business decisions by Lee Enterprises that hurt Wyoming will not go unnoticed.” (Three journalists supporting the union drive stressed to CJR that the campaign is not born out of frustration with the paper’s local management, and is not in response to any single action by the Star-Tribune’s corporate owners.)

ICYMI: Can this weekly paper stay critical of its new owner?

Lee Enterprises has stayed profitable amid falling advertising revenue because of cuts to its workforce, as Poynter’s Rick Edmonds recently noted. The company slashed total employment by about 42 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to annual reports reviewed by CJR.

People have issues they care about. They might not see that in the paper, and we just want to make sure the community understands why layoffs at our newspaper can hurt them.

Yet Lee newspaper audiences might not always notice when institutional knowledge disappears from their hometown newsrooms because the papers themselves aren’t known to publicize it, says Ed Kemmick, who spent years at a Lee newspaper in Montana and now runs a news website called Last Best News. Last week, Kemmick’s site reported on a new round of Lee cutbacks in the Big Sky State that went under-reported in the pages of Lee papers, save for a mention in an alternative weekly recently purchased by Lee.

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Kathleen McLaughlin, a Montana journalist who also reports from Asia, registered her frustration on Twitter about Lee newspapers not reporting on staff reductions.

McLaughlin learned about a recent round of buyouts and layoffs through Facebook and personal messages. She was particularly dismayed to encounter news about the departure of two beloved, long-time journalists from the Lee-owned Montana Standard, news that was reported, albeit in a column on a local sports website. Letting go of such contributors without acknowledgement by the Standard, says McLaughlin, is “a great example of how to kill trust of a newspaper in a community.” (Standard editor David McCumber confirmed the paper didn’t report the departures but declined to discuss the issue further.)

Charles Arms, an Iowa-based spokesman for Lee Enterprises, says he knows of no corporate policy barring newspapers from reporting on their own newsroom layoffs or buyouts. “All editorial decisions are made at the local level,” he told CJR. Arms declined to respond to criticism of Lee newspapers not reporting more on their staff reductions.

In Wyoming, if Lee brings the budget ax down on the Star-Tribune newsroom, then the newspaper’s readers deserve to know how it will affect them, says its city government reporter Katie King.

“If you have a smaller newsroom, we’re not going to be able to cover as much,” she says. “People have issues they care about. They might not see that in the paper, and we just want to make sure the community understands why layoffs at our newspaper can hurt them.”

The paper’s fledgling union is affiliated with the Denver Newspaper Guild, which is under the umbrella of the Communications Workers of America. In Denver, guild members at the Digital First Media-owned Denver Post have held rallies outside their own building to protest newsroom cuts. They often organize around the hashtag #NewsMatters, and operate DFM Workers, a website that offers updates on the latest company layoffs and buyouts and scrutinizes the practices of Alden Global Capital, the New York City hedge fund that controls DFM.

A contract won’t protect reporters at the Star-Tribune from layoffs, but ‘it could require just cause for termination.’

Despite staff reductions at Lee properties elsewhere, Star-Tribune newsroom staff has been told no cuts are imminent, says the paper’s state politics reporter Arno Rosenfeld. However, journalists at the Star-Tribune work without a contract, which means they can be terminated for virtually anything in the at-will Cowboy State.

“If corporate came in and made some serious cuts and said … ‘Nobody’s allowed to talk about this, nobody’s allowed to post on social media,’ and someone were to, they would have every right in the world to terminate our employment without reason,” Rosenfeld says. A contract won’t protect reporters at the Star-Tribune from layoffs, says Rosenfeld, but “it could require just cause for termination.”

The Casper News Guild would likely be the first union for a Wyoming newspaper, according to Darcie Hoffland, director of the state press association. In 1993, journalists at The Wyoming Tribune Eagle in Cheyenne tried to unionize under the Communications Workers of America, according to Kerry Drake, then the paper’s editorial page editor.

Drake came from a pro-union family, he says, and had penned editorials in favor of unions. But the National Labor Relations Board declared him management, so he couldn’t join in the effort. Drake says the paper’s company men told him he had to wear a button at work bearing the word “union” with a slash through it. Drake and another journalist, Kelly Flores, refused to wear the buttons and were canned. A majority of the newsroom eventually voted not to unionize.

Drake and Flores sued the newspaper company on free speech grounds, but lost their case in a unanimous decision by the Wyoming Supreme Court. “Terminating an at-will employee for exercising his right to free speech by refusing to follow a legal directive of an employer on the employer’s premises during working hours does not violate public policy,” wrote a justice. “The fact that irony exists in this case because the employer purports to be an advocate of free speech does not create a public policy exception to at-will employment.”

In Wyoming, Star-Tribune general manager Dale Bohren said he hopes journalists vote against union representation. “We have a terrific newsroom, and I believe it is better served by direct communication with each other, as we all share the common goal of providing our readers and advertising customers the best newspaper and online news in the state of Wyoming,” said Bohren. He added that he would likely have more to say on the matter in the future.

Within the next few weeks, the Star-Tribune newsroom plans to hold an election, according to union organizers. If a simple majority of staff members vote to unionize, then they can begin the process of collective bargaining with ownership.

Klamann, the education and health reporter, points to the value of a recently formed union at the Los Angeles Times, which recently weathered a leadership change and a sale. “Throughout that process they’ve had a unified voice— they’ve been able to put out statements with a unified voice,” says Klamann. “Whatever happens in the future, I think a union would help us do that.”

ICYMI: The LA Times flirts with unionization, defying its history

A previous version of this story mentioned three leaders of the effort; one is a supporter but not leading it. 

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.