By Don McIntosh
Five Washington newspapers have unionized in recent months, the latest in a nationwide surge in union organizing among print and online journalists that has been under way since 2015.
On Feb. 25, the Sacramento-headquartered McClatchy newspaper chain recognized a bargaining unit of 40 newsroom employees at four Washington newspapers: The News-Tribune in Tacoma, The Olympian in Olympia, The Bellingham Herald in Bellingham and Tri-City Herald, which covers Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland. Back in December, 33 of the 37 workers at the four papers had signed union cards with the NewsGuild (TNG). McClatchy initially argued that the four newsrooms should each be their own unit, but National Labor Relations Board director Ron Hooks in a Feb. 24 ruling agreed with workers that a combined unit was appropriate.
The McClatchy workers unionized because they want new equipment, more staff, and a more consistent and equitable pay structure, and more say in decisions that affect them.
Then on March 18, after six months of quietly organizing, newsroom workers at The Daily News in Longview announced their intention to unionize with TNG, and asked Iowa-based parent company Lee Enterprises to voluntarily recognize the union. Daily News staffers say they can’t afford to buy homes, start families or settle down in the area given current wages and workload.
Both units include reporters, columnists, and photographers/ videographers. The Tacoma paper is the largest, with about 20 newsroom workers; the others each have about six. Median wages range from $20.51 to $22.43 at the four papers.
In December, McClatchy was bought by a New Jersey hedge fund for $312 million. McClatchy owns 30 newspapers altogether, including the Idaho Statesman in Boise, where news room workers were already unionized.
Formerly known as The Newspaper Guild, TNG is a division of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). It represents over 24,000 journalists at hundreds of print and online publications. Other TNG-represented publications in the Northwest include The Seattle Times, Yakima Herald-Republic, Skagit Valley Herald, Kitsap Sun, and The Columbian.
News room staff at The Columbian voted to unionize in October 2019, but former Columbian reporter Katie Gillespie, TNG administrative officer for the Pacific Northwest, says the two sides are still very far apart in negotiations for a first union contract. Bargaining has been under way for over a year.
About 3,000 journalists have joined TNG in the last two years. The union surge comes in part because the industry is in severe crisis. Testifying before Congress March 12, TNG president Jon Schleuss said local news is facing “an extinction-level” threat that jeopardizes American democracy.
Between 2008 and 2019, traditional newspapers shed 36,000 jobs, according to the Pew Research Center, shrinking newsroom jobs by about half. During that time period, Pew found that employment levels held steady at broadcast TV news and cable TV news, and digital-only news grew from 7,400 to 16,090. But that still left 26,750 fewer working journalists. And it’s local news that has suffered the most.
Invited to testify at a hearing on reviving competition and saving the press held by the Antitrust Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, Schleuss said approximately 2,100 newspapers stopped publishing altogether between 2004 and 2019, and at least 60 more have closed since the pandemic began. The collapse has created an estimated 2,000 “news deserts”across the country—communities that have no source of local news. Schleuss said the crisis in local news is caused by a dramatic loss of revenue. That’s because the ad income that supported the traditional business model of the news industry has migrated to Google and Facebook. Between 2004 and 2018, revenue of U.S. newspapers fell 57.2%, with ad revenue declining by 70.3%.
A bill introduced by Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline (D-RI) would allow news publishers and broadcasters to collectively bargain with Google and Facebook for linking to their content.