The Next Battle in the Newspaper Wars

The specter of a newspaper strike looms in St. Paul --but no matter what happens, the Pioneer Press will never be the same

In mid-April, higher-ups at the St. Paul Pioneer Press laid off part-time staff cartoonist Kirk Anderson, who had been poking fun at local politicos on the paper's editorial page for eight years. The mainstream press, busy promoting the war in Iraq, more or less ignored the ouster. On websites and in publications that cater to journalists and media junkies, however, the story caused a buzz.

Editor & Publisher filed a series of online reports, one concluding that Anderson's removal "continued a trend that has seen the ranks of staff editorial cartoonists dwindle to fewer than 100 in the U.S. as newspapers seek to save money and/or avoid running controversial art."

Meanwhile, journalists from coast to coast e-mailed copies of the cartoonist's indignant farewell memo like so many Jayson Blair jokes. "I hope seeing my rolling bloody head bobble down the stairs doesn't frighten anyone, I hope it just makes you cheesed off about the mess it leaves behind," Anderson wrote. "Strong journalism doesn't come from frightened workers. Strong journalism comes from empowered employees who believe in themselves, in their mission, and who know that their company supports and cares about them and their mission too."

To those of us working in this age of media consolidation, Anderson's layoff was just further evidence that publicly held companies like Gannett or the San Jose-based behemoth Knight Ridder, which has owned the Pioneer Press since Knight Newspapers merged with Ridder Publications in 1974, will do anything to ensure 18 to 25 percent profit margins for their shareholders. Even if it means laying off a guy who works just 24 hours a week and pays half of his health insurance premium. "What we're seeing is that newspapers--especially mid-size papers like the Pioneer Press--are being pressured on levels that were unheard of until just recently, because of profit imperatives that are more than two times the size of other industries," says Geneva Overholser, a media critic and professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. "So people can still put out a great homes section, but the international news and opinion sections are being slashed. It's becoming a common- place problem."

In St. Paul, Anderson's dismissal transcended the usual hand-wringing over the bottom line and journalistic integrity. Local managers had always brayed about being in the business of battling the Star Tribune. Now they had to lower their gloves in public, trading locally generated content--not so long ago the paper's main claim to fame--for something more generic. "We've had empty positions before that never got filled, and some things that we would have liked to have done that we couldn't afford," says columnist Nick Coleman, who has been with the Pi-Press since 1986. "But when I heard that we had lost our editorial page cartoonist, well, that's the first time I felt my cheeks flush. I thought, 'My God, even the Rochester paper has a local cartoonist.'

"In general, I think the company has been fortunate that this paper is as good and hard-working as it is. That's why the cartoonist decision embarrassed me. Because this one you can't hide, you can't cover it with smoke and mirrors and say, 'Oh, just have Coleman draw some stick figures.' It's a gaping hole. And I think it shows people that we are stretched too thin, that we are smaller and less effective than we were a few years ago."

Anderson's unceremonious removal also came at a time when union employees at the Pi-Press in editorial, advertising, and circulation were already suffering from low morale after an eight-month long impasse in contract negotiations between the Minnesota Newspaper Guild and local management, which seemed to be taking directions from San Jose and daring workers to walk off the job. "It was a calculated move designed to engender fear," asserts Mike Sweeney, the Guild's administrative officer and primary negotiator. "Essentially, management was saying, 'Look, we can do what we want.' It was meant to have an effect on bargaining."

Instead of further rattling the rank and file, though, the company's actions stirred anger, resulting in a newfound sense of camaraderie and common purpose. More than a few Guild members are scared silly of a strike, of course, and the union has a ways to go before it engenders the sort of solidarity necessary to launch a successful, long-term offensive. Still, as local union organizer Bernie Hesse put it, "The reporters over there are finally realizing that they're workers. Before this all started, I think they thought they would be treated as professionals. But now they know they're nothing more than commodities."

On May 29, Guild members at the Pi-Press took their names off stories in that day's paper, engaging in the first byline strike in the Twin Cities since reporters at the Star Tribune used a similar ploy in 1989. Employees have also made a habit of leaving the office en masse at 3:00 p.m. for a 15-minute break in front of the newspaper's downtown Cedar Street offices, carrying placards with slogans such as "Invest in Labor not in Wall Street." Just a few weeks ago, a strike steering committee was formed to begin discussing contingency issues such as health care and strike pay.

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