Journalists at the largest newspaper chain in the country will walk off the job next week, in a series of strikes staged in part to protest the leadership of the company’s chief executive.
Hundreds of staffers for 24 Gannett newspapers, including the Arizona Republic, Austin American-Statesman, and the Palm Beach Post, say they will not report to work for a day or two starting on Monday, forfeiting pay and forgoing assignments ranging from covering city council meetings to high school sports championship games. At some papers, the strikes begin Tuesday.
Their aim, they say, is to call attention to budget cuts and put pressure on shareholders, who are expected to take up the issue of executive pay at a meeting Monday. Demonstrating journalists want shareholders to take a no-confidence vote against CEO Mike Reed, whom they fault for the company’s financial struggles.
In a financial filing, the NewsGuild — the union representing more than 50 Gannett newsrooms — writes that Reed has “failed shareholders,” arguing that other newspaper companies are faring better.
“[Journalists] need support and resources to make sure our communities have the local news needed to keep our democracy thriving,” Jon Schleuss, NewsGuild president, said in a statement.
In a company statement, Gannett said “our leadership is focused on investing in local newsrooms and monetizing our content” during a challenging economic climate. “Our goal is to preserve journalism and serve our communities across the country as we continue to bargain in good faith to finalize contracts that provide equitable wages and benefits for our valued employees.”
Gannett also said it was prepared for the anticipated work stoppage and pledged ”no disruption to our content or ability to deliver trusted news.”
The Gannett walkout — expected to be the largest in the newspaper chain’s history — will be the just latest labor protest of this kind to hit American newsrooms in recent months.
In December, more than 1,000 New York Times staffers walked off the job for a day in one of the most dramatic labor disputes at the company in decades. And on Friday, workers at the digital media company Insider say they will go on an indefinite strike if their demands on health care benefits and contract negotiations are not met.
Gannett’s walkout follows a smaller protest in November when journalists at 14 of the company’s newsrooms walked off, protesting job cuts and calling for increased wages.
Gannett merged with the GateHouse chain in 2019, a deal that executives promised would lead to dramatic cost savings while critics warned of job cuts and leaner newsrooms. While the resulting company included 261 daily newspapers and 302 weeklies, those numbers had shrunk by the end of last year to 217 dailies and 175 weeklies, after some papers were shuttered or sold.
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle education reporter Justin Murphy said Monday’s protest represents a “desperation and fear that not only is our workplace and our employer going astray, but the consequences for our communities will be truly devastating.”
Gannett last summer froze hundreds of positions and laid off 400 employees — some of whom were the last remaining reporters at their newspapers — after a dismal financial quarter. Gannett has also offered voluntary buyouts and in December laid off 6 percent of its roughly 3,400-person news staff.
A year before he joined the paper in 2012, Murphy said the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle had a newsroom with 86 union members — a count that excludes editors and other managers — but that the number is now down to 23.
“Those of us who are left are kind of local journalism sickos who just can’t stop doing this,” he said. “As we’ve had cutbacks and cutbacks and they’ve asked us to do more and more, we’ve done it because we think it’s important that the work get done, and that’s just how we’re wired. But it’s one thing to do that when you have 86 people going to 80 or 73, but to 23? It doesn’t make sense anymore.”
Sportswriter Rob Aitken grew up reading the newspaper where he now works, The Record in northern New Jersey. “It was the best thing in the world to see your name in this paper,” he recalled. “It meant you were something.”
But now he says some high school sports are rarely written about, as staffers are stretched too thin. “You want to try to be everywhere and cover every great story. It makes you wonder how many great stories are not being told,” he said. “When we can tell a story about a kid and give them enough attention that maybe they get a college scholarship — you wonder how many kids aren’t getting that opportunity now.”
After the cutbacks, Gannett ended the year with a quarterly profit of $32.77 million, and $1.27 billion in outstanding debt.
The walkout also follows the departure of several top Gannett executives in recent months, as well as editors at some of the chain’s largest newspapers.
In a May earnings call, Reed said “2023 is off to a great start,” noting that the cuts and other “cost management initiatives” had boosted Gannett’s net income to $10.3 million, compared to a loss of $3 million during the first quarter of 2022. Digital subscriptions also grew by about 15 percent from the same time frame the previous year, totaling around 2 million paid subscribers.
Reed has also said he’s open to selling more Gannett newspapers.
“We would entertain bids on any of our markets, any of our products, that are at or above fair market value,” he said in February. “We’re hopeful that we’ll have an opportunity this year to do that. But it’s not anything that’s in our plans.”