News Guild, journalists’ union, sets out to save newspapers
The storied Times Picayune in New Orleans is just one of the many daily print newspapers that have gone down in the battle for survival of the nation's newspapers. | Gerald Herbert/AP

WASHINGTON—Emphasizing their role in getting reliable information out to the public, the News Guild is setting out to save endangered newspapers across the country.

The coronavirus pandemic has only added to the danger of extinction faced by many newspapers, the union says.

While social media has exploded – along with opinion sites and siloes that masquerade as news – the nation’s newspapers have shrunk in size, revenue, and numbers, particularly at the local and medium-sized city level.

Industry revenue plummeted from $67 billion in 2000, before the Internet’s advent, to $20 billion in 2014, according to one study. The number of journalists dropped by two-thirds, too.

Cleveland, for example, used to have two printed daily newspapers, and New Orleans had the award-winning Times-Picayune. Cleveland now has the Plain Dealer, which is online more often than it prints and is a website the rest of the time. It also recently went through large staff cuts.

The New Orleans paper was bought, and closed, by its upstate rival in Baton Rouge. Crescent City residents – those with computers – get a website. Thousands of smaller papers nationwide have disappeared. Kansas City used to have the Star and the Times. They merged.

And where Chicago had four downtown print daily newspapers until 1978, plus the African-American Defender, it now has just the Sun-Times and the Tribune. Both emerged from bankruptcy court, due to owners that looted them in the last five years. The Defender went on-line-only last June.

One TNG-unionized Chicago alternative weekly, The Reader, still must navigate financial shoals even after a rich progressive former alderman and the Chicago Federation of Labor teamed up to buy it and the Sun-Times. Other weeklies and small-city papers nationwide have folded completely.

Another TNG-unionized publication, People’s World, a former print paper in Chicago, is healthy due to subscriptions and donations. It’s an exception.

All that financial chaos in newspapers was due to crashing ad revenues as firms and individuals migrated to the Internet – and then the coronavirus hit.

Papers find themselves in a bind: Trying to provide reliable information to readers about how to deal with a pandemic while dealing with layoffs, pay cuts – including slashes for any journalist making over $38,000 yearly at the biggest, and unionized, chain, Gannett – and outright closures.

Many other papers, such as the Denver Post, have fallen victim to rapacious private hedge funds whose maximization of profits leads to huge staff cuts, outright closures, and sales of valuable assets.

All that and the existential threat to newspapers’ continued existence, especially as a reliable information source locally, led the 20,000-member News Guild to, for the first time, launch a publicity-political-lobbying campaign to save the industry.

The union, a CWA sector, launched its campaign with an executive council resolution spelling out the problems news workers face as their papers shrivel and die, and what it demands the government do about it, starting with treating newspapers as an essential industry.

The plan calls for “government subsidies for newspapers in the form of public-service ad buys and direct support, and is going to put forth a marketing and a lobbying effort at the federal and local levels — the first time TNG has tried anything of the kind,” the union said.

TNG also would require any publisher taking public money to agree to be neutral in organizing drives, to ban union-busters and captive audience meetings, to voluntarily recognize unions if an independent examiner certifies a majority of workers signed union election authorization cards and to agree to mandatory arbitration if the two sides can’t reach a first contract.

Workers would also get seats on the newspapers’ boards and the papers would have to develop and implement diversity plans, TNG says.

“Journalism is an essential service that provides life-saving information in this crisis,” the Guild said. The point of its plan is “to support newsrooms and media workers to prevent layoffs.” It also would fill in the nation’s current “news deserts” by funding new jobs in private newspapers and to support independent reporting. The plan also bars publishers who take those funds from cutting current jobs.

Publishers taking the money would have to include worker input, prove they need the money, and must “remain independent from partisan influence.” They also could not use the cash for executive bonuses, dividends, stock buybacks, mergers, acquisitions or leveraged buyouts for at least five years. Executive compensation “would be capped at twice that of the editor in chief,” it adds.

New union President Jon Schleuss said the union would lobby to get the subsidy plan into the next economic stimulus bill Congress plans to consider in several months.

In prior years, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., has advanced smaller-size bills, with fewer conditions, to provide non-profit foundation financing for newspapers, recognizing their vital local coverage function. Foundations own several major metro dailies, including both in Philadelphia, one in Salt Lake City and another in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla. But they’re more likely to fund on-line investigative publications, such as ProPublica, MinnPost, The Texas Tribune and the Voice of San Diego.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.