Drive to Unionize the Statesman Newsroom Prevails

Strength in numbers

The Austin American-Statesman office on South Congress (Photo by Jana Birchum)

On Wednesday, Feb. 24, the editorial staff at the Austin American-Statesman voted 36-12 to form a union, becoming the third unionized newsroom in Texas and the second, after The Dallas Morning News, to do so through an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. (The Fort Worth Star-Telegram's newsroom union was voluntarily recognized by the paper's owners, the McClatchy Co.)

Last week's vote at the NLRB's regional office in Ft. Worth came two months after Statesman editorial employees first announced their desire to organize in December, and after the paper's owner, Gannett Co., the largest newspaper publisher in the U.S., declined to recognize an Austin chapter of the NewsGuild. That union, based in Washington, D.C., represents 24,000 workers in media and journalism, including in other "right-to-work" states that discourage union organizing, at major papers like The Arizona Republic (also owned by Gannett), the Miami Herald, and The Denver Post.

“We’re not doing anything radical by unionizing. It’s a right that we have, and in my opinion we’re leaving money on the table as employees if we don’t take advantage of it.” Statesman reporter Katie Hall

The Austin NewsGuild includes employees at the Statesman below the rank of department editor, as well as employees of the Austin Community News­paper Group, which publishes suburban newspapers such as the Bastrop Advertiser and West­lake Picayune. The journalists hope "to begin collective bargaining with management within two months," the Statesman reported, after electing a union council and assembling a negotiation committee.

"We respect the decision by our colleagues," said Statesman Editor Manny Gar­cía in a statement to Austonia. "We will continue to focus on our public service mission to serve our growing community." The vote occurred one day before the release of Gannett's quarterly financial report, which highlighted a "challenging 2020" and booked a $122 million net loss even as the chain's revenues increased through further acquisitions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sent shock waves throughout the media industry, further eroding advertising revenue that was already dwindling as Facebook and Google control ever-growing portions of the media marketplace. As corporate media owners – often at the behest of private-equity and venture-fund investors who take them over – consolidate operations and institute steep cuts, the hundreds of local newspapers owned by a handful of U.S. chains have been battered by the ripple effects.

But newsrooms across the country are taking decisive action to protect themselves. Just last Wednesday, the day of the Statesman's ballot count (which still needs to be formally certified by the NLRB), the Orange County Register and 10 sister papers in Southern California also announced plans to unionize, citing years of gradual layoffs and the threat posed by the current owner, Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund known in the media industry as "the grim reaper." On the same day, the NLRB ruled in favor of the Washington State NewsGuild's effort to consolidate four different McClatchy newsrooms in the state into one union drive, which is seeking the same voluntary recognition the parent company – which emerged from bankruptcy last fall – gave to the Star-Telegram.

At the Statesman, where the guild aims to bargain for better pay and benefit packages as well as new diversity policies, informal conversations about unionizing the newsroom have been happening for a while. The daily, which began publishing in 1871, has spent the last few years in an unusually turbulent period of transformation.

For over four decades beginning in 1976, the Statesman operated under the ownership of Atlanta-based Cox Media Group, part of the sprawling media empire of the Cox family, worth more than $20 billion. Cox put the Statesman up for sale in 2008 but withdrew it from the market the following year, citing a lack of suitable offers.

That, however, put the newsroom and the city on notice, and in 2018 New Media Investment Group, parent company of GateHouse Media, bought the paper in a nearly $48 million deal. Only a year later, GateHouse merged with Gannett, bringing the Statesman into a corporate family with more than 250 other newspapers. (Mean­while, the Cox family retained ownership of the landmark Statesman property on Lady Bird Lake, poised for a major redevelopment that will earn them far more than they got for the paper itself. The Statesman is relocating to Southeast Austin's Met Center, near the airport.)

At the time of the deal, the two companies announced they would save more than $300 million annually by seeking the sorts of "efficiencies" common in large mergers. A few months later, Gannett offered the Statesman's entire staff voluntary severance packages, which many veterans decided to take; a few months after that, as the pandemic took hold, a nationwide round of layoffs at Gannett led to more losses in a newsroom whose journalists were already enduring furloughs.

Those who remained, such as courts and criminal justice reporter Katie Hall, a leader of the organizing effort, feared the voices of journalists were being ignored by the corporate owners, and the precarious situation brought on by the pandemic made it clear it would take forming a union for Gannett to grant them a seat at the table. "We are obviously aware of the state of the industry and we know that layoffs and budget cuts to some extent are a reality," Hall said. "But COVID-19 was a reminder of how the company can make unilateral decisions without consulting its journalists, and that's not okay."

With most Statesman editorial work being done remotely, and as employees faced individual challenges amid the public health crisis, organizing efforts were challenging but constructive, allowing workers to "touch base, get to know each other and the struggles we were going through ... better than we have ever before," Hall said. While her colleagues were generally supportive of the campaign, she noted that among workers used to asking probing questions, forming consensus meant "digging into the weeds" of the potential hurdles, disadvantages, and functions of a future union.

Compared to efforts in other cities where it owns papers, Gannett pushed back considerably less against the Statesman organizing drive, despite declining to recognize the union voluntarily, Hall told us. At the same time, "we're not doing anything radical by unionizing. It's a right that we have, and in my opinion we're leaving money on the table as employees if we don't take advantage of it." She wishes Gannett had been more supportive (the company has never recognized a union without an election) and doesn't think the Statesman's drive has changed how Gannett feels about labor rights, "but I think that they've accepted that it's happening and they can't stop it."

The Chronicle has reached out to Gannett for its reaction to the NLRB vote, but has not received a statement at press time.

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Austin American-Statesman, National Labor Relations Board, Gannett Co., Austin NewsGuild, Austin Community Newspaper Group, Manny García, New Media Investment Group, GateHouse Media, Katie Hall, Cox Media Group, McClatchy Co.

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