The Daytona Beach News-Journal’s press room employees last week filed federal charges of unfair labor practices against new owner GateHouse Media, which bought the paper just five months ago from Halifax Media. The charges were filed with the National Labor Relations Board on June 4.
The charges are similar to labor charges GateHouse faces from the union representing inserters at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, which GateHouse bought last July, and from newsroom employees at the Register Star in Rockford, Ill., which GateHouse acquired from Gannett in 2007.
Pittsford, N.Y.-based GateHouse Media took over the News-Journal in January, after a $280 million deal in November for Halifax’s holdings of nearly two dozen papers. The press room employees, the only union shop at the paper—and the last press room union in Florida—charge that as soon as GateHouse took over on Jan. 9, it gave employees four days to sign a letter of employment on its terms or be fired. Aside from a $25-a-year allowance for safety shoes, the terms threw out the collective bargaining agreement that had prevailed between Halifax and the employees, replacing them with the “Gatehouse Media Employee Handbook,” and replacing a generous health insurance package with a 60-40 plan.
The company also told its press room employees that while they could keep their union, the collective bargaining agreement would not be recognized. A letter to employees from GateHouse Media’s Bernie Szachara, a senior vice president, told employees that the letter itself “supersedes all prior agreements, arrangements and understandings,” and that by formally signing it (as most employees did, including the union employees), it gave the company authority to “reassign you, to change your compensation, or to terminate your employment at any time, with or without cause or advance notice.”
The two sides have been negotiating—they are holding negotiating sessions today and tomorrow—but employees so far have considered the negotiations one-sided, with GateHouse striking through numerous agreements previously in effect. A few weeks ago Gatehouse tried to lay off or fire four of the press room’s employees without abiding by the terms of the agreement but eventually, after a grievance was filed, backed down. Employees consider GateHouse’s tactics an attempt to break the union.
A shrinking newspaper experiences the same throes prevailing across the industry.
The charges filed with the NLRB and obtained by FlaglerLive state that the company “unilaterally implemented new initial terms and conditions of employment, including but not limited to: the elimination of step wage increases, changes to the grievance process, changes to the seniority system and job assignments, changes to the 401(k) plan, elimination of defined benefit pension contributions, and changes to the health insurance plan (effective Feb. 1, 2015). GateHouse made those changes unilaterally and without first giving the union notice or opportunity to bargain over these changes.”
The press room employees are members of the Graphics Communications Conference of International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 444-C.
The changes are not unusual in an industry that has been shrinking rapidly for the past 10 years in the face of media’s digital transformation. But the charges are an rare window into the operations of an 80-year-old institution that not many years ago was one of Volusia County’s largest private employers, with some 1,000 employees, anchored around a newsroom staff of 130 that included 14 senior editors, 52 reporters, 14 photojournalists and five bureaus, including one in Tallahassee and a 10-person bureau in Flagler.
The newspaper is now a quarter its former size. The press room is down to 14 employees. The newsroom staff is around 55, ten of whom are in sports. The Flagler bureau is half its former size. This month some 16 newsroom employees that had staffed the copy and design desk were to be laid off, with their jobs consolidated on a so-called “universal” desk in Texas. In other words, the design of the News-Journal, and much of its non-local content such as state, national, international and sports news, will be outsourced to Texas.
The paper already laid off long-time employees in its creative services division a few weeks ago, continuing a trend it began soon after GateHouse took over. It also laid off seven truck drivers, rehiring two of them part-time. The newsroom and the rest of the paper saw a round of broad cuts in early March.
Circulation, too, has taken a tumble, as has the circulation of most newspapers across the country. For the six months ending in September, Sunday circulation at the News-Journal was 72,000 (including 3,600 copies distributed to schools, hotels, employees and through other giveaways that inflate the circulation number. And 1,100 subscriptions to the paper’s digital replica), average weekday circulation was 61,000 (including 4,800 in freebies and 3,350 digital replica copies). When the freebies and digital replicas are excluded, traditional, print weekday circulation falls to just under 53,000. Paid home delivery in Flagler County was 9,304 as of March 2014.
By comparison, in 2008, two years after economic decline had begun striking Flagler and Volusia, Sunday circulation was 107,600, and average weekday circulation was 91,000. (All those numbers are based on the News-Journal’s figures as submitted to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, now called the Alliance for Audited Media.)
None of those developments are necessarily out of line with trends across the industry, which has seen numerous newspapers close or adopt less frequent publication schedules. But GateHouse has built a reputation around streamlined newsrooms and greater emphasis on digital products. Its corporate home page features a bold—and ironically newspaper-style—headline that screams, “Digital ‘wins’.”
Pressroom employees at the News-Journal declined to be interviewed for this article. Bill Offill, the News-Journal publisher about to mark two years at the paper’s helm, did not return a call Tuesday afternoon.
Meanwhile the News-Journal is preparing to once again reduce its physical size to 44 inches, or 11 inches wide as you look at a single page (down from 14 inches in 2001). In so doing, the paper will have the same size as sister papers in Gainesville and Ocala, which had formerly belonged to the New York Times Regional Group before Halifax acquired them. Now that they are all in the GateHouse group, there have reportedly been some internal discussions about consolidating the printing of the Gainesville, Ocala and Daytona papers at the Daytona Beach plant, whose presses are now idle 14 hours a day, up from about four hours of idle time in the press’ heyday.
An idle press is considered in the industry to be like an idle plane in commercial aviation: it’s not making money.