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labor TNG-CWA's Jon Schleuss: Covid-19 is an "Extinction Level Event" If We Don't Save the News

Newspaper layoffs are going to get worse, it’s going to be hard, but I’m extremely motivated by our membership because they’re rising up in all these amazing ways to fight back against concessions and fight back against racist editorial decisions.

Jon Schleuss being sworn in as TNG president,Communication Workers of America

Strikewave (SW): First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. Since you were elected in late 2019, it’s been a particularly tumultuous time for your union and its members. With the outbreak of Covid-19, over 200 newspapers have laid off and furloughed reporters and some have closed entirely. How has this trend impacted your members and contract negotiations at all the new units you’ve organized?

Jon Schleuss (JS): In the States, our largest shop is the New York Times and we haven’t had a lot of reductions there. Recently, I heard about thirty to forty people are being laid off from advertising and events, twelve of them Guild members. The Washington Post, another large shop, hasn’t been affected yet. We also represent about 1,400 people at Gannett, the largest newspaper chain by circulation in the country. They’ve seen furloughs and have been asked to take off a week per month in the second quarter, that’s unpaid. Clearly they can apply for unemployment and the extra $600 a week from the CARES Act, but a lot of journalists want to work. 

Right now, it’s the two largest news stories in our lifetime. On the one hand, you have a global pandemic and the other hand, you have racial injustice and the unrest across the country. So it’s been really hard for journalists to not be able to cover those events because they are hungry to do it. We’re odd creatures. We just really want to interview people and tell their stories and put it out there. We want to do that all the time, so it’s really hard to be told you can’t work for a week.

[Gannett] is unilaterally implementing the scheduling changes, claiming economic exigency. The company is highly leveraged, which is a problem made worse by the pandemic. Gannett, Lee Enterprises, MediaNews Group—which is controlled by Alden Global Capital—hedge funds came into the newspaper industry and just destroyed it. They see all these assets, they see this real estate, they see a three-year business plan where they can extract a ton of wealth and cut staff, cut pay, cut benefits and then just leave it as a shell of its former self. 

It has grave consequences for our democracy because when you lose these publications across the country, you’re losing that voice. National media can’t fill that. Corruption goes up, the county, the boards, the judge, the school board, everyone goes corrupt because no one’s minding the store. So we’ve lost about 150 people to layoffs. Thousands of our members have experienced some kind of pay cut or furlough. It’s been very hard and that comes after a decade of decline in the industry.

SW: TNG-CWA recently launched a campaign dubbed “Save The News” that calls for government stimulus funding to be directed to newsrooms across the country and, in the long term, public financing of public interest journalism. As far as I can tell, this seems like the union’s first real foray into the political arena. Tell us more about the campaign and what’s happened since you launched it in April.

JS: In prior years, the News Guild has pushed for legislation, but not at this level. Tomorrow I’m calling [Senator Mitch] McConnell’s office—this is my life now—and we’ve never done it to that level. It’s because this is an extinction-level event, potentially. We’re trying to do two things. One would be to keep the jobs that we have now, and the best potential for that is through an expansion of the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. Senate Bill 3718 would make newspapers, TV, and radio stations eligible to apply for these loans and grants to cover payroll by location. For instance, Gannett is frozen out of that program because they have about 20,000 employees nationwide so they’re not a small business. But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel only has like a few hundred, so if we can direct those SBA loans to specific locations that will keep people on the job. 

The second thing is trying to work on long-term solutions and rebuild journalism in this country. The economics haven’t been great for the last decade. From my perspective, being a journalist for a decade, it’s really difficult for companies to transition to a digital production schedule. Back when I worked for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, we would say that every dollar of revenue we generated, ninety cents came from print advertising and the rest was from subscriptions. No one was charging for subscriptions online. That’s radically shifted, and now online subscriptions are supporting really large organizations like the Washington Post and the New York Times, but the economics don’t work out for smaller publications. 

We need to find other models, like supporting non-profit, online newsrooms or providing incentives for chains to sell their publications to local owners. We’re doing this in Baltimore. We’re pushing for the sale of the Baltimore Sun to local foundations. This will all be difficult with the Trump administration, which has not spoken fondly of journalists, but it’s vital to our democracy. 

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SW: In the midst of Covid-19, George Floyd was killed by the MPD and protests and rebellions sprung up in cities across the country. Reporters have been arrested by police while covering these protests, sometimes targeted by police officers. At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,  management sidelined two reporters from covering the protests over alleged bias. Is that the norm or is that an outlier? Is the Guild seeing this at other papers across the country?

JS: There’s revolutions in every newsroom across the country. LA Times journalists were tweeting #BlackatLAT. Decades of management decisions have meant that there aren’t enough Black journalists to effectively cover stories that affect Black communities. When I was at the LA Times, the executive editor was fired and he was the only person of color on the masthead. LA is minority white. You have to be representative of your communities, I think that’s very important for journalism. We’re not going to be able to tell stories if we don’t look like our community and we need to be accountable to them first. 

The publication of the Tom Cotton op-ed in the New York Times created a swift response from the journalists. They violated the social media policy but they did it together and hundreds of them tweeted about how publishing that was a danger to Black staffers. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sidelined Alexis Johnson and Michael Santiago and then other journalists who were supportive of them, which is really shameful. That’s why I called for the executive editor and managing editor to resign. It’s racism, pure racism. A white reporter who tweeted something snarky as well wasn’t taken off of coverage. It was only the Black reporter. Management has dug in, saying this is a labor dispute. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, an editor published an article about the damage done to buildings during the protests and the editor decided to headline this article, “Buildings Matter Too.” It was so offensive, so racist, immediately journalists called in sick. Forty-four of them did not show up to work because it was ridiculous and the executive editor resigned

We need a diversity in our staff and in our management as well. We need to dig into the issues of why we’re not being inclusive and why we’re not retaining journalists of color. That’s been something management hasn’t wanted to do it. They’ll have a committee, they make some statements, but they don’t enact plans where they really deal with the facts. They’re not capable of retaining and including Black journalists, indigenous journalists, other journalists of color.

SW: At the same time, there has been a push to expel police officer unions from the AFL-CIO and it doesn’t appear to be relenting. Is this debate still unfolding within your union? What conversations are you and the rest of your executive board having about this debate?

JS: It is. Going back to when the protests started and police targeting journalists, Minneapolis was ground zero for that. People that I know inside our union were being shot in the face with tear gas. A Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer’s cornea was separated from her eye. Shot in the face with pepper spray after saying: “I’m a reporter, I’m a reporter, I’m with the press!” This is a violation of the first amendment. We were excited to join the ACU in a lawsuit against the City of Minneapolis, the Minnesota State Patrol, and the President of Minneapolis Police Federation who was directing this targeting of journalists. It’s been really disheartening. Police have to respect the 1st amendment rights of everyone. If you interfere with that, you interfere with the values of our democracy.

[Whether or not to expel police unions] has been a conversation, we’ve had several units call for that. Inside the News Guild, we do not represent any police officers. One of our locals had a pretty impassioned debate about it. I think that’s a really healthy thing. How do we move the labor movement forward? How do people like me, a white labor leader in this movement, make sure that we provide space to encourage other leadership to step up so that we can have really good discussions? Recently, we had a really great panel discussion about the racial injustice in our newsrooms. We had members from Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Philly, Chicago, and Minneapolis talk about issues they face in the newsroom. There’s a lot of reckoning right now and it’s really healthy. 

SW: We were particularly excited to talk with you about the TNG’s organizing efforts nationwide. Since 2018, the TNG reports it has organized over 2,700 workers and nearly forty-five newsrooms in at least twelve states. It’s an impressive tally and an example of industrial organizing happening to scale in the labor movement. What’s the spark for this?

JS: It’s a number of things: private equity, the lack of job security. When people get out of j-school and walk into a newsroom, they’re told they’re lucky to have a job, lucky to have a paycheck. There’s very little stability. There’s been this hypocrisy we’ve had to reckon with in recent years. We hold institutions accountable all the time. We hold unions accountable too. A lot of the UAW scandal stories broke in News Guild-represented publications. Meatpacking plants spreading the coronavirus, we’ll hold them accountable. There is a reckoning with the hypocrisy of holding others accountable and not holding ourselves accountable. That, combined with the cuts across the industry in the last decade—people are just sick. What can we do to save our institutions and save our jobs? 

I was part of the organizing committee at the LA Times. When we were forming our union, it was important for us to come up with a singular mission statement that was to save the future of Los Angeles Times and its journalists. We have to keep it around so that it works for our community. We do that by protecting our jobs and getting a seat at the table. Just recently, we had about 100 new members join us in Florida. Six years ago, we had no members in Florida. Now we have the Palm Beach Post, the Palm Beach Daily News, Orlando Sentinel, Miami Herald. Palm Beach was a unanimous vote to join our union. Who has unanimous votes in union elections? People are just fed up and done accepting these massive companies who don’t care about our business and our work. 

SW: Particularly exciting to us is the organizing of southern newsrooms. The labor movement has historically struggled with organizing in the South. Yet since 2016, TNG has organized thirteen newsrooms in Florida and five in Virginia. What’s happening particularly in those newsrooms? 

JS: I grew up in rural Arkansas and I didn’t know anything about the labor movement when I was a kid or into my young adulthood. I thought that was something that existed in places like Detroit. 

The role of journalists is to seek truth and report it. When we start these organizing conversations with journalists at a new shop, we always say, “Ask a bunch of questions and find the answers and let’s get other sources.” Treat it like a reporting project. You go down that path and you find out that we can get a say. We can have contract language that requires that we hire or interview candidates from minority backgrounds or fight for equal pay. In the South, it’s just a realization that we get to make the union what we want to make it. It’s not me sitting in DC telling them what they have to do. It’s them figuring out the issues that are important in Palm Beach or in Miami or in Roanoke, Virginia and then working to correct them.

It’s also not just in the south—it’s also places like Cheyenne and Casper, Wyoming and Billings, Montana. We won a unanimous election in Idaho! The labor movement should be everywhere. I want every single journalist and media worker to be in union together so that we can protect the work and we can make it so that the news in this country is accountable to the people, not private equity and hedge funds.

SW: With all these new units, TNG has expanded its footprint in the various media parent companies like Gannett, Tribune, and Lee Enterprises. It still appears like a lot of the bargaining is happening at the individual newsroom. How are you trying to elevate the bargaining and turn the screws more on these parent conglomerates that are just coming in and extracting wealth from local newsrooms, rather than the individual newspaper and their executive editors?

JS: One, we have been dedicating a lot of time and energy reporting on this hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, for the past four years. We hired a reporter to do that. We’re exposing a company that a lot of people didn’t know about. Illuminating the business practices has been a key part of that. 

In some cases, such as Tribune Media Company, we do have joint bargaining. We’re using the tools that journalists already use for their jobs, like Slack, Signal, and Zoom to coordinate efforts, and Google Docs to quickly edit letters and get hundreds of people to sign their name to something. In Gannett, we have thirty-eight different units, some that have been in the News Guild for decades and some that have been in the News Guild for three days! There’s areas where they can all coordinate and share information. We’re starting to coordinate the same proposals across units. At established units, they already have contracts so the coordination is happening at different levels. 

SW: A few years ago, UNITE HERE had laid the dominoes out in such a way that they pulled off strikes at Marriott hotels in seven different cities. Is the News Guild starting to lay the groundwork for something similar? With all the new units that have been organized, I understand there’s probably a lot of foundational work being done but what is the longer term strategy?

JS: There is never-ending interest. The number of leads I get sent to me privately on Twitter is insane. That’s a great position to be in, when people are just like, “We’ve already organized half of our shop, we just need authorization cards!” and we have to tell them to slow down, that there is work to do. Since this has been such an explosion of organizing in the last three years, the long term strategy is still coming together. 

The industry is constantly changing. Gannett and Gatehouse Media merged last year and took on this huge loan. We went from having ten units in one company and seventeen in the other to now having thirty-eight with all the new organizing. We’re coordinating when it makes sense but there’s a lot of educational work that has to happen, a lot of structure building. It’s happening in Tribune because four years ago, we represented two units and now we represent all but two newspapers. That’s been a wild change. Those groups have been able to coordinate and do things like going into Slack, tagging the CEO about how the furloughs they’re implementing are legitimately hurting people and hurting our ability to report the news. 

SW: One of the priorities at the bargaining table—both for newly organized units and long-established ones—has been around increasing diversity in the newsroom and, along those lines, pay equity. The New Yorker held a half day work stoppage in their push for just cause protections, particularly for BIPOC members. What gains are being made at the table despite management pushback?

JS: They want editorial exemptions. For decades, the News Guild fought for just cause protections and we’re going to keep fighting for them. Companies have had a renewed interest in fighting just cause protections but we’re the union who is going to fight for them. Journalists shouldn’t just be fired or let go because an editor says so. I subscribe to the New Yorker, I’m very proud that it’s a union publication, I’m confident we’ll win there. New York Magazine won some amazing non-disclosure protections, essentially saying you wouldn’t have to hide a boss or a person behind an NDA and the company can’t compel you to withhold the name of someone doing the harassment. If there’s a sexual harasser inside the newsroom, people should know and it shouldn’t be hidden away behind an NDA. 

SW: When this language is ultimately secured in the contracts, is it leading to more diverse newsrooms or is management finding ways around the contract? 

JS: It is leading to improvements but it is something that we can’t expect to just put into the contract and think it will work forever. The LA Times has really good diversity hiring language. The Center for Public Integrity just inked a contract that has a really good requirement that a certain number of candidates be interviewed from diverse backgrounds. The Chicago Sun-Times, which has been a Guild shop for decades, in their successor agreement that they inked this year, won diverse hiring language but also a mandatory requirement that the company is live reporting out diversity statistics to the newsroom. Usually companies that don’t have a good contract with diversity don’t want to report out the diversity of the newsroom. That’s an area where we can compel companies to report that data so we can see if the Chicago Sun-Times’ staff look like Chicago area demographics. That’s where we have to be headed. 

SW: So much has happened in the first half of 2020: Covid-19 doesn’t seem to be subsiding any time soon, the Movement for Black Lives doesn’t seem to be subsiding any time soon, there’s going to be the presidential election in November. What does the next six months look like for the News Guild?

JS: More organizing, a lot more organizing. A continuation of the Save the News campaign. I’m hopeful what we’ll transition the conversation to later this year is figuring out alternatives in ownership. We hired a reporter to work for the Guild and work on the Save the News campaign, which is not just legislative but also working out the details of how we find alternatives. Can a union be involved and engaged in a hostile takeover of a company and how might that go? It’s an area where we’ve done some work before but not aggressively enough. What can we do to support non-profit news organizations? 

It’s also going to be bad. The layoffs are going to get worse, it’s going to be hard, it’s not going to be great but I’m extremely motivated by our membership because they’re rising up in all these amazing ways to fight back against concessions and fight back against racist editorial decisions. For me, that’s my source of power—engaging with our members who are leading these fights because it’s so necessary and it’s so important. We’re going to fight like hell until the end. 

Sean Collins is a staffer with SEIU Local 200United in Upstate New York and a member of the Strikewave editorial collective. He also serves as the Treasurer for the Troy Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

This interview took place at the end of June 2020. It has been edited lightly for clarity.