Local newspapers faced an uncertain future even before coronavirus ground life as we know it to a halt. Now, with events canceled and commerce limping along, advertising revenue has cratered and the industry is in crisis. Over the past month, weeklies and dailies around the country have paused operations or gone dark completely.
The Daily Progress has been around since 1892, but coronavirus presents an unprecedented challenge. To help cut costs, the Progress’ corporate ownership has mandated that everyone take an unpaid two-week furlough in the next two months, and some fear worse is still to come.
But Progress staffers have a new force in their corner that might help them weather the storm: The Blue Ridge NewsGuild, their newsroom’s union. The newsroom announced its intention to organize in October, and contract negotiations with the paper’s corporate owners, Lee Enterprises, concluded last week.
Allison Wrabel, the Progress’ county government reporter and the secretary of the union, says that readers will notice the absence of furloughed staff. “I purposely put my furlough weeks on weeks when there aren’t big [county government] meetings. Those will go uncovered if something happens,” she says.
“That’s the price of furloughing employees during a pandemic,” says Katherine Knott, the Progress’ education reporter and the unit chair of the union. “The only thing you get is less.”
The virus crisis raises the stakes for the Progress’ new collective bargaining team. The unionization effort started in earnest in early 2019, when Progress staffers watched as BuzzFeed cut 15 percent of its staff and local newspapers continued to disappear.
“You don’t want to wait for the layoffs, because you’ve missed your chance,” says Knott. “We were trying to be proactive, because we knew changes were coming.”
The Progress isn’t the only paper taking such steps. Its union is part of NewsGuild, a larger union of journalists and communication workers. Jon Schleuss, the president of NewsGuild, says that 2,900 workers have voted to join the organization since the beginning of 2018, a record-breaking new influx.
Schleuss says that the uncertain future of the industry is the main driver of this new organizing, but adds that unions and journalists are a natural fit for each other: Both unions and journalists seek to “protect the work, and have a voice, and hold your own institution accountable,” he says.
“In some cases, we’ve got chains or managers or companies that just take advantage of people,” Schleuss says.
The Daily Progress, once family-owned, is now controlled by Lee Enterprises, an Iowa-based media conglomerate that publishes 46 different daily papers in 21 states. Consolidation of media is a national trend —25 companies own two-thirds of all daily newspapers in the country, according to the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
The Blue Ridge NewsGuild’s website notes that Lee fired 42 percent of its employees between 2012 and 2017. The Progress has been understaffed for months—since October, the newsroom has been short a copy editor, a designated UVA reporter, and a sports reporter.
Lee Enterprises’ first contract offer was an eight-page document that said “we’re gonna do whatever we want, move on,” says Knott. After months of negotiation, the final contract is 28 pages, and includes a variety of new guarantees for Progress newsroom staffers.
The union’s biggest win was a salary scale adjustment for its members. The newsroom’s lowest salary is now $34,500, up from $31,900. Those who have worked at the Progress for 20 years will make at least $48,500. Even with these improvements, the salary for 20-year veterans is still around $4,000 lower than the national median earnings for people with a college degree.
“The paper has made big jumps towards paying its employees a decent wage—I won’t say fair, but it’s a little bit more reasonable,” Knott says.
The union was forced to compromise on a number of key points, however. The union asked for 60 days notice for any newsroom layoffs, which Lee negotiated down to 14 days. That’s better than the current policy, though. “No one’s going to be met at the door with a box of their stuff, which is what they’ve done before,” says Knott.
Lee also squeezed in a clause that allows the company to relocate the Progress’ design desk and copyediting positions to a central hub in the Midwest. If the company exercises that option, the Charlottesville office would lose at least four jobs.
These negotiations reveal the fundamental friction that exists between local newspapers and their corporate owners.
“They’re beholden to shareholders,” Wrabel says.
“We’re beholden to the community,” Knott says.
“Our mission is to be the paper of record for this time,” Knott says, not to pad anyone’s bottom line. “You want to get the quotes about how people are living, because people are going to pull out your clips 20 years from now, for the 20-years-from-the-pandemic stories.”
For staffers staring down the barrel of weeks without pay, even the modest new raises can make a real difference. There are other benefits to membership, too—the union has been holding Zoom happy hours over the last few weeks. Still, the leadership isn’t upbeat about local media’s prospects during this pandemic.
“I think we’re fortunate we [unionized] in October,” says Knott. “Now we’re positioned, better than ever, to be there for each other, and harness our collective power. Even if that just means making sure everyone knows how to file for unemployment.”