JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Journalists at two dozen local newspapers across the U.S. walked off the job Monday to demand an end to painful cost-cutting measures and a change of leadership at Gannett, the country’s biggest newspaper chain.
Reporters and staff at the Florida Times-Union are preparing to walk off the job and go on strike on Tuesday. On Monday, they held a rally downtown to let people know why they won’t be reporting the news Tuesday.
The strike involves hundreds of journalists at newspapers in at least seven states, including the Arizona Republic, the Austin American-Statesman, the Bergen Record, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and the Palm Beach Post, according to the NewsGuild, which represents workers at more than 50 Gannett newsrooms. Gannett has said there would be no disruption to its news coverage during the strike, which will last for two days at two of the newspapers and one day for the rest.
Employees and others who held a rally Monday in Jacksonville said newspapers are in trouble and they want a fair contract. In 2016, there were 90 employees with the paper in Jacksonville. Now, that number has dropped to 22.
T-U Columnist Mark Woods said while he has had a successful career at the newspaper, young journalists starting out will have a very difficult time making it a career.
“I think we’re just trying to get the word out and make people aware. You know, it’s a national issue, but it’s a local issue too. And we’re trying to emphasize that importance of local journalism of what we do what you do, of what local journalists and I think, growing up, I took it for granted, and I don’t take it for granted anymore,” Woods said.
The walkouts on Monday coincided with Gannett’s annual shareholder meeting, during which the company’s board was duly elected despite the NewsGuild-CWA union urging shareholders to withhold their votes from CEO and board chairman Mike Reed as an expression of no confidence in his leadership. Reed has overseen the company since its 2019 merger with GateHouse Media, a tumultuous period that has included layoffs and the shuttering of newsrooms. Gannett shares have dropped more than 60% since the deal closed.
Susan DeCarava, president of the The NewsGuild of New York, called the shareholder meeting “a slap in the face to the hundreds of Gannett journalists who are on strike today.”
“Gannett CEO Mike Reed didn’t have a word to say to the scores of journalists whose livelihoods he’s destroyed, nor to the communities who have lost their primary news source thanks to his mismanagement,” DeCarava said in a statement.
In legal filing, the NewsGuild said Gannett's leadership has gutted newsrooms and cut back on coverage to service a massive debt load. Cost-cutting has also included forced furloughs and suspension of 401-K contributions.
“We want people our local community to know what this company is doing to local news, and we want Gannett shareholders to know what Gannett is doing to local news,” said Chris Damien, a criminal justice reporter and unit guild chair the Desert Sun, which covers Palm Springs and the surrounding Coachella Valley in Southern California.
Gannett Chief Communications Officer Lark-Marie Anton said the company disagreed with union's recommendation to vote against Reed.
“During a very challenging time for our industry and economy, Gannett strives to provide competitive wages, benefits, and meaningful opportunities for all our valued employees,” Anton said in a statement.
Some of the striking newsrooms are negotiating contracts and accuse the company of dragging its feet and negotiating in bad faith, but Anton said the company continues to negotiate fairly.
Gannett, which owns USA Today and more than 200 other daily U.S. newspapers with print editions, announced last August that it would lay off newsroom staff to lower costs as it struggles with declining revenue amid a downturn in ad sales and customer subscriptions.
The newspaper industry has struggled for years with such challenges, as advertising shifts from print to digital, and readers abandon local newspapers for online sources of information and entertainment. Major newspapers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have gained substantial digital audiences for coverage of broad topics, but regional and local papers have struggled to replicate that success in narrower markets.
In its first quarter earnings report this year, Gannett said its digital subscriptions had grown 15% year-over-year, and revenue from digital circulation grew 20%. The company reported a $10.3 million profit versus a $3 million loss in the same period last year, although revenue fell by 10.6%. The company also reported repaying $37 million in debt.
According to the NewsGuild, Gannett's workforce has shrunk 47% in the last three years due to layoffs and attrition. At some newspapers, the union said the headcount has fallen by as much as 90%.
The Arizona Republic, for example, has gone from 140 newsroom employees in 2018 to 89 this year, the NewsGuild said. The Austin American-Statesman's newsroom shrunk during that period from 110 employees in 2018 to 41 this year.
Some newspapers have forsaken coverage of local sports or business, the union said. Reporters have had to take on several unrelated beats. Some publications have dropped local news coverage altogether to focus on regional news.
The T-U staff plans to march downtown on Tuesday to James Weldon Johnson Park as sign of solidarity.