September 30, 2020

Labor Battle at Pittsburgh Newspaper Shows Signs of Despair and Hope

Ryan Deto
Headquarters of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Photo by Tony Webster, CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Pittsburgh media scene is like many others throughout the United States, and it also isn’t. 

The journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, western Pennsylvania’s largest newspaper, have been in a labor battle with ownership for several years. On paper, it appears to be like most labor conflicts among American journalists and media ownership: wealthy owners appear to want to bust the union in order to more easily cut staff and increase revenue, while journalists fight to not only keep their jobs, but also ask for a raise they haven’t seen in 14 years, a health-care plan that is affordable, and to maintain staff that can provide a level of journalism that serves Pittsburgh better. The conflict has led the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the union representing the about 120 journalists at the Post-Gazette, to the verge of a strike.

But where the battle over the Post-Gazette is different is the paper’s owners are not a massive hedge-fund that is looking to slash-and-burn. The more than 200-year-old newspaper is owned by the wealthy Block Family, through their media company Block Communications. Twin brothers John and Allan Block run the company, and John has been given the responsibility of the Post-Gazette. 

For a while during the labor dispute, John was technically editor-in-chief and publisher of the paper. Longtime journalists I have spoken to don’t really give too much credence to John’s role as editor, but it’s pretty clear that John did want to have a role in shaping the paper. He was interviewed for profiles about him as a “newsman,” and he would assign writers to cover society events he enjoyed frequenting.

So, while the fight at the Post-Gazette often gets compared to newspapers declining and folding in places like Cleveland, San Jose and Denver, it’s not quite the same. In Cleveland, for example, the Plain-Dealer was bought by a hedge fund, which methodically worked to bust the union by splitting the newsroom between union and non-union, then making cut after cut to the union side of the paper until there was nothing left. The Cleveland union dissolved last year, and the Plain-Dealer is still running, but it’s a shell of itself. The hedge-fund essentially achieved its goal.

And Cleveland is just one example. According to research at the University of North Carolina, about 1,800 local newspapers have disappeared in America since 2004. The country has lost 20% of its local news papers in less than two decades.

In Pittsburgh, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh has faced precipitous cuts over the years. Despite winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2019, the guild has lost dozens of staff over the last couple years, including talented journalists like Rich Lord, Paula Reed Ward, Michael Santiago, and Lillian Thomas, just to name a few. This is likely due to a terrible work environment shepherded under John Block, who threw a temper tantrum in the newsroom last year, and then installed a right-wing columnist as editor of the paper. Keith Burris’ tenure as editor, which recently came to close, included penning a racist editorial that the guild openly protested, reassigning reporters’ beats who spoke out against management, and barring two Black staffers from covering the region’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations

All this while the guild has been fighting for a new contract that hasn’t been updated in several years, and fighting against a union-busting law firm retained by the Blocks. 

Even so, what makes the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story so unique is that the owners claim their paper is losing millions of dollars a year, yet they haven’t just shut it down. Block Communications owns another newspaper as well as radio and TV stations across the country that are likely profitable. But their goal of making the Post-Gazette individually profitable is fool hardy, as few papers in mid-size U.S. cities are profitable. And especially when the Blocks have spent the last few years destroying the Post-Gazette’s reputation. Longtime readers that heralded the paper as the gold standard, now decry its work and treatment of its journalists. Large advertisers started to pull out, and the region’s biggest grocery store chain stopped carrying the paper in its stores. All a direct result of how bad management was treating its workers. 

How can ownership claim they want the Post-Gazette to make money, and then be directly responsible for ruining the paper in the eyes of the readers and losing advertising and distribution?

If owners actually wanted to make money, they might want to build back up their talented staff, and give them well-deserved raises. Subscription-based journalism is actually growing in the U.S., as savvy media consumers are willing to pay for local journalism they respect and know they can trust amid a torrent of click-bait and even fake news. It’s hard to say if a subscription model can sustain local publications. But there has signs of successes at national papers and niche media companies, like sports journalism at The Athletic. Something those publications consistently deliver is high-quality content for engaged readers.

Readers like to be associated with the brand of a paper they like. It’s still a struggle financially, but the small weekly paper I work at, the Pittsburgh City Paper, has brought in revenue from membership campaigns, subscriptions, and merchandise. America will always have sensational click-bait media, but consumers are showing more willingness to pay directly for accurate, nuanced journalism. It’s really the only chance we have, outside of government-funded media, since ad revenue is being siphoned up by tech platforms like Facebook and Google.

And the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette already has a leg up on City Paper. The daily newspaper is much larger and is more well-known. The owners might just want to let the good union journalist lead the way, instead of punching themselves in the gut over and over.     

Luckily there still might be hope, and likely due to the Blocks’ desire to be a part of the Pittsburgh media scene. John Block, who lives in Pittsburgh, clearly wants to be a part of the Pittsburgh community, and it’s arguably what is keeping the Post-Gazette alive, even as his media company continues to inflict wounds on it. The Blocks are still fighting the union hard, including an obscene counter workplace labor complaint, but there are also signs of hope. 

The embattled editor Keith Burris has been shipped over to the editorial side, as has a managing editor who staffers despised. Now a new editor, Stan Wischnowski, is in charge and the guild is optimistic about the working relationship. 

If the Blocks just treat their workers the way they deserve to be treated, there is a path back for the Post-Gazette, both in reputation and in finances.

Ryan Deto is the News Editor at the Pittsburgh City Paper. He has covered Pittsburgh media and labor for more than five years. He has previously written for publications in Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco.