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Journalists turn to picket lines as the news business ails

<em>Washington Post</em> staff picket during a 24-hour strike outside the newspaper's building in December 2023.
Drew Angerer
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Getty Images
Washington Post staff picket during a 24-hour strike outside the newspaper's building in December 2023.

Updated February 14, 2024 at 1:22 PM ET

As the news business craters under dwindling audiences, slashed budgets and mass layoffs, journalists have taken to picket lines in protest.

Over the past two years, they have gone on strike against their corporate owners in cities big and small, including New York, Los Angeles., Washington D.C., San Antonio, Naples, Fla., Rochester N.Y. and Pittsburgh.

At the national level, the efforts have been led by a 36-year-old former data reporter for The Los Angeles Times who finds himself much in demand.

"They're desperate to do this work — to tell the stories that the folks in our communities want to hear," says Jon Schleuss, now the president of the NewsGuild-CWA. "When you have corporations, hedge funds, the billionaire [owners] and then really bad management, they're looking around being like, 'What's going to happen? ... Who's going to be here?'"

"No one is going to be here unless we stand up and fight," he adds.

Unionized workers in vibrant industries — from autoworkersto UPS drivers to pilots— have recently won double-digit pay raises and more say over their working conditions through collective bargaining.

But in the ailing news business, are unions even strong enough to stem the bleeding of closures and layoffs?

An unexpected union activist

Schleuss grew up in rural Arkansas. The power and promise of labor held no appeal to him as a youth or a young journalist starting out there.

"I did not grow up in a union family," Schluess says. "I didn't really grow up in a culture that even, you know, talked about unions. They just didn't even exist."

But at the L.A. Times, a famously anti-union paper then owned by Tribune media, he says the decision to unionize was born of necessity: Tribune sought to cut costs even more steeply than before by consolidating positions across its properties.

NewsGuild President Jon Schleuss (foreground) marches with journalists at the <em>Fort Worth Star-Telegram </em>during a strike in November 2022.
/ NewsGuild
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NewsGuild
NewsGuild President Jon Schleuss (foreground) marches with journalists at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram during a strike in November 2022.

"We were facing a crisis moment where we had management constantly changing, very little job security, terrible pay inequity," Schleuss says.

He found himself helping to establish the paper's first newsroom union. It won recognition in January 2018. The paper was sold shortly after to the billionaire surgeon, entrepreneur and philanthropist Patrick Soon-Shiong, who invested heavily in its reporting staff.

The union's success in Los Angeles inspired a wave of labor activism among journalists. Schleuss rode that wave to win an election in 2019 to lead the NewsGuild, unseating a longtime guild activist who had been its president for 11 years.

Embracing confrontation — with mixed results

As the union's chief, Schleuss has adopted an aggressive stance.

"When we were organizing at the L.A. Times and building the union we never thought we would go on strike," Schleuss says. "Now it's completely changed. We realized that withholding our labor is essential to making sure that the boss knows that we have a seat at the table and we have a voice and we have a lot of collective power."

Journalists at the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau wore their union local's T-shirts and buttons earlier this month in protest of layoffs there, which included 17 reporters and 13 editors. The Journal's corporate parent, News Corp., subsequently reported its highest profits since 2007, the year it acquired the paper. A smaller number of related positions were created in other locations.

For the first time in the <em>Chicago Tribune's</em> history, unionized staff held a one-day strike on February 1 against owner Alden Global Capital.
KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
For the first time in the Chicago Tribune's history, unionized staff held a one-day strike on February 1 against owner Alden Global Capital.

On Feb. 1, scores of people turned out in Chicago for a protest outside the printing press for the Chicago Tribune, owned by the private investment fund Alden Global Capital. In 2021, it folded Tribune Media into its portfolio of approximately 200 papers, making it the nation's second biggest newspaper owner. Vanity Fair's Joe Pompeo dubbed Alden a "vampire" owner and "the grim reaper of American newspapers."

This year's walk-out marked the first strike by journalists in the history of the Chicago Tribune. Others have done so at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News, Vanity Fair, Business Insider, and the non-profit San Antonio Report, among other properties.

"It brings people to the bargaining table," says Tribune investigative reporter Gregory Royal Pratt, a leader of the union's local chapter. "Other papers that have had walkouts — from the Washington Post on down — you've seen companies come back and negotiate in better faith."

"This isn't something that companies want," he says. "They don't want the disruptions." That same day, employees at six other Alden-owned Tribune properties in Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia also went on strike.

Asked about the NewsGuild's labor activism at its papers, the chief operating officer of Alden's newspaper division simply pointed to one of the great challenges confronting the industry.

"We would hope the NewsGuild shares newspapers' concerns about the valuable content created by its members being stolen by big tech companies and AI, enriching themselves while siphoning resources that could support local journalism," Guy Gilmore of Alden's MediaNews Group said to NPR in a statement.

The walkout at The Washington Post may have helped to yield a better outcome there.

"We respect the rights of our Guild-covered employees and our work together over the past 90 years to reach agreements, like the one this past December that met the needs of both our employees and our business," Post spokeswoman Olivia Petersen said in a written statement. Last fall, the Post laid off about 10% of its staff. But the subsequent contract after months of bitter negotiations offered the first real raises in years.

Strikes can soften the blow

Yet in Pittsburgh, newsroom employees at The Post-Gazette went out on strike after a sharply divided vote in the fall of 2022. The owners, the Block family, have been intransigent. The strikers have won no concessions. Some have been publishing their stories to a guild-sponsored website.

Alex Colvin, the dean of the school of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, says unions cannot stop the laws of physics. When cuts are on the way, he says, they'll probably happen.

That said, intense union organizing can pay off, he argues.

NewsGuild President Jon Schleuss speaks into a bullhorn at a rally of TVO employees in August 2023.
/ NewsGuild
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NewsGuild
NewsGuild President Jon Schleuss speaks into a bullhorn at a rally of TVO employees in August 2023.

"Unions can be effective in negotiating better layoff provisions, retraining, severance, whatever it may be," Colvin says. "The question is, what's going to be the impact on the workers? [Are] there going to be any measures to soften the impact on them to do right by people who've worked for a business for a long time? It is possible to have an impact by negotiations, reaching a deal."

At the L.A. Times, where Schleuss got his start as a labor activist, owner Soon-Shiong made deep cuts last June and again last month, saying he is losing tens of millions of dollars a year on the paper. He says the union's refusal to give him greater leeway in making job cuts in January forced him to lay off more journalists. He had offered buyouts in exchange for relaxing protections by seniority. The union instead went out on strike.

Schleuss and local newsroom leaders dispute that. They say their public work action actually saved jobs and say the number cut, while draconian, was less than expected. In memos to staff, editors had said they went back to management and fought to preserve some jobs as essential.

The strike occurred on the six-year anniversary of the vote in which the Los Angeles newsroom formally chose to unionize.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.