By Ali Sullivan
The story is all too familiar: Media corporation buys local newspaper, budget cuts ensue, and seasoned journalists lose their jobs. The staff at the Daily Progress doesn’t want to be next.
Murmurs of unionizing began in January, and the formal announcement came on October 14. The Progress staff has formed a union—the Blue Ridge NewsGuild, a unit of The NewsGuild-CWA’s Washington-Baltimore Local.
“People shouldn’t be waiting for the day that they come in and their job is done,” says Katherine Knott, a K-12 reporter for the Progress. “That’s particularly terrifying [and] unsettling.”
The Progress, family-owned for its first 78 years, has been bought and sold several times since 1971—first by The Worrell Newspaper Group, then by Media General. In 2012, it was bought by BH Media Group, controlled by billionaire Warren Buffett, who made headlines last spring when he called the newspaper business “toast,” and declared that newspapers are “going to disappear.” In 2018, BH handed management duties over to the media company Lee Enterprises.
“Lee Enterprises has a history of cutting off the edges in places that they manage, so [the union] is more for my co-workers to know they have a little more peace of mind for the possibility of layoffs or cuts in the future,” says Nolan Stout, the Progress’s City Hall reporter.
The union will be fighting for fair wages (Progress reporters currently earn salaries in the low $30,000 range, on average), severance pay, and appropriate benefits, and is asking for voluntary recognition from BH Media. Knott says the company has yet to respond, so the NewsGuild plans to win recognition via a National Labor Relations Board election, which will take place in the Daily Progress office October 30.
The months-long process that preceded the announcement involved attempts to get all sections of the paper on board—a tricky process considering the high turnover in local newsrooms.
“You don’t just walk up to someone and say, ‘Hey, let’s form a union,’” Stout says. “It took time, and eventually we decided to just do it as a newsroom.”
Following the unionization announcement, the Progress had an all-staff meeting to discuss it. Stout says the meeting in part consisted of managing editor Aaron Richardson discussing “the things he thinks would be negatively affected” by the NewsGuild, but says the decision to unionize wasn’t a personal one.
“We like the people we work with,” Stout says. “We want to keep the environment the way it is, and this is the best way to do that.”
Signs emblazoned with NewsGuild’s logo decorate the newsroom, and Stout says the general sentiment among staff is one of excitement coupled with “a sense of camaraderie.”
While increased benefits and safety nets are central to the Blue Ridge NewsGuild’s mission, members also want to acknowledge the Progress’ checkered history and strengthen the paper’s bond with readers. To do so, the union plans to bargain for greater editorial control, a minority-hiring practice, and the reinstatement of a community-sourced editorial board.
“As recently as 2017 we had an editorial blaming Wes Bellamy for the Unite the Right Rally,” Stout says. “We want to be advocating for our management to let the community have a say.”
Knott and Stout aren’t sure what the future of local news is, but they know that the Blue Ridge NewsGuild is a step in the right direction.
“Seeing newsrooms…and journalists across the country, trying to take back some control and fight for their papers through unionization has really been the only thing giving me hope,” Knott says. “My advice to people is to assist in that movement.”