Amid another potential sale, Virginia newspaper journalists push to unionize

As of Tuesday morning, 75 percent of the journalists at The Virginian-Pilot and the Daily Press, both owned by Tronc Inc., had signed cards authorizing representation by The NewsGuild, part of the Communication Workers of America.

Tronc purchased the Pilot, Virginia’s largest paper, in May, and recent reports indicate the company may now be looking to offload its newspapers to a private-equity firm.

“The employees have requested voluntary recognition from management, citing overwhelming support among staff,” the journalists said in a news release. The plan to organize as the Tidewater Media Guild came on the same day that the newspapers’ management announced a reorganization, “effectively combining the day-to-day operations of the two newsrooms,” they said.

Marisa Kollias, Tronc’s vice president of communications and public relations, refused to say whether the company intends to voluntarily recognize the union. Nor would she say whether the company plans to pursue a sale of its newspapers, which also include the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, The Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, The Morning Call of Lehigh Valley, Pa., and the Hartford Courant.

“No comment,” Kollias wrote in an email.

Even as they have gained new audiences online, newspapers, including in Virginia, have long struggled to monetize the internet as print circulation and advertising revenue continues to decline. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which owns  the Richmond Times-Dispatch and nine other Virginia papers, announced in June that it would turn over management of its newspapers to Lee Enterprises. 

Lee gets a $5 million fee and a share of any profits its management generates. This arrangement is widely feared by many in the Times-Dispatch newsroom (where I and two of my colleagues here at the Mercury used to work) to be an incentive for aggressive cost-cutting after yearly rounds of layoffs have already carved out the newsroom.

Tuesday’s decision by the Tidewater journalists comes as other newsrooms, including the Los Angeles Times and the Florida Times-Union have voted to unionize, part of an effort to claw back some voice and power in the face of unrelenting cuts and layoffs in the business, including at the hands of ruthless corporate owners who are detached from the journalistic mission of the titles they own.

“We’re taking this step to give our newsroom a seat at the table with whoever our owners may be,” said Brock Vergakis, a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot and a member of the Tidewater Media Guild organizing committee. “Without a contract, we’re guaranteed nothing. In these uncertain times, a union is the best way to ensure fair compensation and a work environment that will help stem an exodus of talented journalists who move elsewhere in search of better pay and job security. When talented journalists leave, the communities they serve also suffer.”

Why should you care? While we’re very proud of the work we do here at the Mercury, there’s nothing that will ever really fill the role of papers like the Pilot, The Daily Press and the Times-Dispatch if we let them fade into oblivion. They are irreplaceable community institutions.

And it’s time for more newspaper journalists to step up and demand accountability from their ownership — not just decent pay and benefits but a real plan for a sustainable future instead of managing decline, as many seem content to do.

A union isn’t a silver bullet.

A contract didn’t keep people from getting laid off at the Times-Dispatch.

And the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents the journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where I also worked, couldn’t keep Block Communications from instituting rounds of buyouts and trimming two days of print publication.

In fact, among the reasons I returned to Richmond from Pittsburgh was that my wife and I were low on the union’s seniority list, which meant that we were among the first in line if the company moved from buyouts to layoffs.

However, in this case it’s a step in the right direction that places a barrier between management’s basest and laziest instincts — which I’ve seen too often in my career employed for short-term gain for the bottom line but with long-lasting damage to the paper’s viability and value — and the employees who bear the brunt of those decisions.