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The Next Battle in the Newspaper Wars

Kirk Anderson

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.

 

Labor actions like these are calculated to generate media attention; primarily, though, they are designed to send a signal that the Guild is gathering strength. So far, the coverage has been scant and management has been unmoved. "I don't think [Knight Ridder] thinks there's a snowball's chance in hell that there will be a strike," posits Bill Weyandt, who just took a leave of absence from the paper's technology department to work full time as strike coordinator. "I think they believe we will ultimately take whatever they decide to give us."

A couple of months ago, the company conceded to offering an annual two percent wage increase for three years (the union was hoping for at least four percent), but it has not backed down from its insistence that employees pay higher health care premiums. Most significantly, Guild members are also being asked to abandon a "strike sympathy" clause in the contract that, when push comes to shove, allows workers to refuse to cross picket lines if another union at the Pi-Press strikes. This demand is particularly telling, says Sweeney, because there are three other labor contracts pending at the paper and a fourth coming up at the end of the year. "The only way to look at it is as a union-busting issue," he declares. "What they don't seem to understand is that by pushing their demands on the strike language, they're creating a situation which will cause what they fear most--a strike."

There is a growing sense around the shop in St. Paul that a confrontation is imminent, perhaps before summer's end. Lynda Hanner, who sells advertising at the Pi-Press and has been involved in several contract talks during her 30 years in the local Guild, says she's never seen negotiations this contentious. "I'm a glass-is-half-full sort of person," she says. "And I can usually figure out what they're trying to accomplish and see how we could somehow come to a compromise. I don't see that this time. For the first time ever I think we will have to strike."

Karl Karlson, who has been a staff writer at the paper for 31 years, agrees: "Look, the bottom line is that the company is not negotiating. They're daring us to run to the edge of the abyss. That's a dangerous thing, because when you do that you run the risk of going into a free fall. And if that happens, if we have to strike, the paper may never come out of it."

There is no doubt a strike would be calamitous, especially considering KR's record. Not so long ago the company weathered a brutal newspaper strike in Detroit, the most expensive of its kind in U.S. history. But strike or no, the Pi-Press has been in a free fall for some time now, and Knight Ridder's recent behavior suggests that no matter what transpires between management and the Guild over the next few months, St. Paul's hometown paper will never be the same.

Journalists are whiny people. When talking about themselves or their peers (off the record, of course), they also tend to exaggerate for dramatic effect. Spend a martini's worth of time in a pub with a newspaper reporter, and you're sure to get a glassful about how this editor screwed up this story, that reporter stole that source, and speculation that by the end of the year there will be classified ads on the front page of the paper--above the fold!

A perennial local favorite is the fate of the Pioneer Press. In fact, based on the "inside information" I've had served with my beer nuts over the last decade, that paper should have unplugged the presses--well, at least three times by now.

It's a safe bet, though, that Knight Ridder's small operation in St. Paul, once considered the company's flagship, will be around for a long time. The Pi-Press does not make as much money as CEO Tony Ridder would like, and it is no longer considered a "destination paper" for the chain's more talented journalists. Still, the property consistently runs in the black (in 2002, its profit margin was between 13 and 15 percent) and there has never been a speck of credible evidence that its ownership is considering a mercy killing or fire sale. Neither move makes good business sense.

What does compute, in pure economic terms at least, and what is really driving the journalists in this town to drink, is the way KR is squeezing its 31 papers, from the Pi-Press to the San Jose Mercury News to the once-revered Miami Herald--not because they have to, but because they can. Over the last three years, the company has posted the highest total shareholder return (stock-price gains plus dividends) of all seven companies in the Standard & Poor's Publishing/Newspaper Index. In the fourth quarter of 2002, its net income was up 31 percent from the same period of 2001. As a result, executives at the company received $10 million in stock bonuses. (Ridder himself reportedly received 35,085 shares at a value of $2.4 million.)

 

Not at all coincidentally, the chain has reduced its head count by nearly 17 percent during the same period. In 2001 alone, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, 2,200 Knight Ridder employees were let go, saving an estimated $100 million. In St. Paul over the last two years, 49 employees have packed their bags (27 in editorial), making the newsroom 10 percent smaller and nearly half the size of the Strib's.

In 2001 Jay Harris, the publisher of the Mercury News and an heir apparent to Tony Ridder in the eyes of many, resigned in protest over the company's extraordinary profit targets. In his letter of resignation, Harris wrote that the company was placing too much emphasis on money at the expense of journalism, especially at the chain's smaller newspapers. In May of this year, during an interview with Boston Public Radio, he explained to listeners why executives at the mother ship can be so blasé and so draconian. "With several notable and distinguished exceptions, the press does not cover itself as well as it does other institutions in society. If these cuts were happening in local hospitals, it would be an enormous story," he said.

As the Pi-Press shrunk under the radar, the Star Tribune, purchased in 1997 by Sacramento-based McClatchy Co. for $1.4 billion, marshaled its resources to make the cross-town competition irrelevant to every part of the Twin Cities but St. Paul proper. In all the ways that matter, the Strib has already accomplished its goal. The Pi-Press, once widely revered as the little paper that could, is quickly becoming little more than a small-town newspaper: its talent pool deleted, its reporters struggling to keep up in their own neighborhood, and its shrinking news hole home to more and more copy off the corporate wire.

The Strib, under the leadership of new Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal, has pumped up its international coverage, markedly improved its Sunday paper, and become noticeably more aggressive in its local coverage. In short, they have gone a long way toward turning the Twin Cities into a one-newspaper town.

 

Four years ago I wrote a story about the ongoing David-and-Goliath rivalry between the two local dailies. On paper, at least, the Strib was dominant. The Pi-Press had a daily circulation of just over 200,000, and 268,000 readers on Sunday. The Strib was distributing 364,000 daily papers and 672,00 on Sunday.

Despite the numbers, though, Tony Ridder told me that he still considered the Strib to be a direct competitor, both on the page and in the margins.

Was it a bona fide newspaper war? I asked.

"It's just a question of how you define a war," he replied. "The Star Tribune would like to be the only paper in the Twin Cities. We're doing all we can to maintain and grow our position. They're the big kid on the block. They're very aggressive. So maybe they're right. Maybe it's not a newspaper war in the classic sense. But hey, it's going to be one hell of a battle."

At the time, a scrappy Pi-Press staff had given Ridder good reason to talk a little trash. A month before I spoke with him, the paper stunned the Strib by publishing an exclusive series about academic fraud in the University of Minnesota's basketball program. The story's author, George Dohrmann, would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize for the piece, and no matter how hard the Strib tried to publish scoops as the scandal unfolded--often succeeding--the Pi-Press owned the story in the public eye. The achievement invigorated everyone at the paper. Reporters believed they could do more with less. Editors mused out loud about burning more resources for long-term projects. The paper's ad reps even believed it was still possible to beat up the Strib in the Twin Cities' eastern suburbs, where a number of affluent readers remained up for grabs.

According to the latest report from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the Strib now has a daily circulation of 375,000 and a Sunday circulation of 669,358 (the nation's 12th largest). The Pioneer Press's Sunday circulation is just 251,000, and its daily number has dropped below 200,000--a figure considered a cutoff point for some large advertisers--to 191,000.

 

The commonly held belief among local ad executives, as well as business managers at the Star Tribune, is that at some point in the last two years, the Pi-Press fundamentally changed its master strategy, deciding to be a sort of community newspaper and not a metro-wide competitor. (The Oakland Tribune is one model of that approach.) They believe the St. Paul paper's hard-target market area has been reduced from over 700,000 readers in 20 counties to 375,000 readers living in seven--not including Hennepin County, which accounts for 50 percent of the metro area's retail sales and was long ago ceded to the Strib. The Pi-Press still has an advantage in Ramsey County, due to their dominance in St. Paul, but in the once hotly contested suburbs between here and Hudson, Wisconsin, the Strib is taking charge of the battle.

In the Strib's newsroom, reporters have always been reluctant to admit that they pay any attention to what the Pi-Press is up to. Until recently, though, it was obvious that editors and reporters at both papers were tracking each other's movements in the course of plotting their own. Now staffers at the Strib seem to pity their former rivals, hoping more than anything that their parent company never gets as greedy as Knight Ridder.

Those veterans that remain at the Pi-Press, whom I have always known to be fiercely loyal and defiant, have been worn down to admitting that they can no longer keep pace. "Are we getting beat? Yeah, we're getting beat," admits Pi-Press reporter and union steward Chuck Laszewski. "We know we're not covering the stories we should be covering. The simple fact is that, day after day, they have more people. They have to play .500 baseball every other day. We have to play .700 baseball, every day."

"We're the underdog," explains reporter Karl Karlson. "And nine of ten times the underdog gets the shit kicked out of them. Someone calls with a tip, and we literally don't have the bodies to follow up. This is the newsroom where story leads come to die."

To make matters worse, explains another veteran reporter, the Pi-Press's shrinking staff is less experienced, less acquainted with the community it's covering, and less interested in sticking around. "It's like the Pinochet regime: We're all colleagues of the disappeared," she says. "When Sen. Wellstone's plane crashed, it was chaos. Editors ran around, interns ran around, and senior people just sat on their hands all day. The editor in charge of the story didn't know to tap those people, just didn't know what to do." (This observation is especially telling, given that Pi-Press Editor Vicki Gowler says that her paper's coverage of the Wellstone crash--along with pieces about the Minnesota Wild's 2003 championship run--best exemplifies how the Pi-Press can still show up the Strib on a local story.)

Staffers at the Pi-Press are acutely aware that KR means to try squeezing even more money out of its papers. In fact, an e-mail recently circulated among union workers around the chain claiming that KR editors have been instructed to come up with another $100 million in company-wide savings. Suggested measures include creating a national reporting team to provide coverage of wars, politics, and other "major events" for the entire chain, eliminating diversity initiatives, considering the inclusion of advertising on the bottom of sections' front pages, and centralized copy editing for all the papers.

KR also seems to be in the mood to tame its unionized work force at a number of properties. In St. Paul, the Guild will likely either have to swallow hard on a number of previously unthinkable concessions, or call the company's bluff and risk the possibility of an all-out strike.

 

Detroit.

Mention the word to union advocates in nearly any industry and they will shudder. For many, the newspaper strike that took place in that city not only represented a new day for media companies like Knight Ridder, but a turning point for organized labor across the country. "Hanging over this strike is an unmistakable feeling that an era has passed," Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post wrote in the midst of the labor battle. "That--even here in Detroit, the spiritual center of American unionism--an old-fashioned union fight might, in this day and age, be insignificant and even a little quaint."

Beginning on July 13, 1995, and for the next 583 days, some 2,500 workers from six unions at the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News fought against the papers' owners, Gannett and KR, who had started the ball rolling when they signed a joint operating agreement in 1990. The strike was an unmitigated disaster not unlike the 1980s Hormel strike in Austin, Minnesota. Both Gannett and KR lost money (not to mention circulation and talent), but the News and Press both published scab papers for the entire 19 months of the strike and, in the end, it was the Teamsters and the Newspaper Guild who gave up. According to the Metro Times, an alternative weekly in Detroit, only a third of the strikers ultimately returned to their jobs. The rest had "either moved away, found other jobs, been fired, or died. And those who are back at work are often making less money and now labor in an open shop, where union membership is no longer required."

 

Until just recently, it was hard to find many employees at the Pi-Press who believed that a similar scenario would unfold in St. Paul. The Guild has faced tough negotiations in the past, of course, but always with a sense that the sides would reach agreement. During the last round of contract talks, in fact, union members even agreed to settle for fewer resources and less money than Guild members at the Star Tribune. What's more, the presence of that competition, hypothetically at least, was sure to make management think twice about a labor stoppage, since another paper would be more than happy to fill the void.

Over the last year, though, it has become clear that Knight Ridder is in no mood to negotiate in St. Paul, no matter how modest the demands or how long negotiations drag out. The typographers have been without a contract since 2001, talks between management and the machinists have been stalled since last October, the Newspaper Guild has been without a contract for nearly a year now, and the drivers who deliver the Pi-Press have to start negotiating for a new contract at the end of 2003. "We have to remember who we are dealing with here," says Peter Rachleff, a professor at Macalester College who specializes in labor. "This is not the Pioneer Press, this is a multinational corporation. The notion of our hometown paper being shut down is very hard to imagine. But this is a company that has done this very thing in other communities. And I don't think there is any principled reason that they would not do it here."

But why do it? The Guild is only asking for a moderate raise and the Pi-Press is making money. Ultimately, that's something only KR executives would know, and they're not talking. (Polk Laffoon, vice president of corporate relations in San Jose, said he did not know anything about union issues in St. Paul and that no one at corporate headquarters, including Tony Ridder, would comment.) There are a number of theories, though, as to the company's motives.

"I think they want to tame the union," posits columnist Nick Coleman. "They want to scratch us behind the ears until we roll over and show them our bellies."

Bernie Hesse is more blunt: "The best-case scenario is that the company is playing chicken, seeing who will blink first or how much they can jam up the union's ass." The worst-case scenario, for which Hesse says people at the Pi-Press are starting to prepare themselves, is that Knight Ridder will not budge another inch at the negotiating table, no matter what.

The Newspaper Guild is the largest union at the Pi-Press, representing 449 employees in the newsroom and other departments, including advertising and circulation. The fact that management continues to insist on anti-sympathy strike language in the Guild contract is generally taken as a sign of the KR strategy. As Guild member Lynda Hanner says bluntly, "it looks like they want to pick off some of the smaller unions."

Rachleff, Hesse, and others believe that KR may be trying to save money in this soft economy by going after unskilled labor at their newspapers, such as delivery drivers and the people who stuff newspapers with advertisements. Those jobs are unionized in St. Paul, and it would be much easier to tame those blue-collar workers with the Guild on a leash. "About 10 years ago, I was working with the pressmen at the paper, who were being pressured to give up their picket-line language," the professor says. "They succeeded in retaining it at the time. At a conceptual level, though, this is an idea that has been in Knight Ridder's head for a long time."

Take this theory one step further, and it is not hard to imagine that just as KR believes weakening the Guild in St. Paul could help bring other union locals to heel, they might be willing to risk a newspaper strike to send a message to unions at bigger KR papers such as the Kansas City Star and Philadelphia Inquirer: The company is still willing to play hardball, Detroit-style.

 

"It looks to me like Knight Ridder has run the numbers and decided that the only long-term option to keep profits high is a nonunion workforce. And I get the feeling they will try to make that point in a smaller market where it's a lot cheaper to absorb the losses that might result from pressing that point," one high-ranking executive from another large newspaper chain concluded. "I think the Pioneer Press is being made an example of. I think it could get ugly."


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