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July 12, 2021

Poynter piece examines journalism union ‘movement’

The Montana News Guild was hardly the only newsroom to unionize in recent years.

We were one of 37 media organizations to organize last year, according to an article from Poynter published Monday. Nearly as many union drives have been successful so far in 2021.

“Experts and union leaders agree that the end of the movement is nowhere in sight,” the article’s author Angela Fu writes.

Leaders at three of the largest unions representing journalists are unanimous — what’s happening now is historic.

“I started with AFTRA in 1995. I can tell you what we’re seeing in the last five years is unlike anything I’ve seen before in terms of organizing,” said Mary Cavallaro, chief broadcast officer of the SAG-AFTRA News and Broadcast Department.

March 31, 2021

NewsGuild-CWA President tells House subcommittee about ‘extinction-level event’ local news faces

Earlier this month, NewsGuild-CWA President Jon Schleuss spoke about the existential threat local news is facing during a hearing before a House subcommittee. He urged Congress to “use its power to respond to this crisis,” adding that “the crisis in local news is a crisis of democracy.”

Schleuss’ comments and the full hearing can be found here. An excerpt of Schleuss’ statement, which features a mention of the Montana News Guild, is below:

We’re the largest union of journalists in the United States, with thousands of news workers among our membership — at large publications like the Washington Post and New York Times and small ones like the Billings Gazette in Montana News and the Jacksonville Florida Times-Union. We’re also part of the Communications Workers of America.

I grew up in rural south Arkansas and remember as a kid that my grandmother got two newspapers every day. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in the morning and the Camden News in the afternoon.

Fast-forward to my first full-time job in the news industry which ended up being at the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. I was their online editor.

I have a background in both computer programming and journalism, and I fused my skills to help us transition from printed newspapers to better news online.

But two months into my job, the head of the company pulled everyone in a room to tell us that we were merging with our competing newspaper. Within a couple months, hundreds of people lost their jobs. I remember seeing reporters — mothers and fathers — crying in offices not knowing what their futures were going to look like.

That was a quick introduction into the radical shift in the news industry.

Feb. 24, 2021

Article explores how media unions provide ‘safety net for workers’

Writer Josh Sternberg examines the rise of media unions in a recent story on the Substack site called The Media Nut. The article includes this comment to CNN from former Gawker staffer and current labor reporter at In These Times, Hamilton Nolan:

“I think a lot of people perceive media as this white-collar profession, but the reality of working in a lot of media jobs was really low salaries, bad benefits, very little job stability. One thing that the unions have done across the industry in many, many places is just to put in place a basic safety net for workers.” 

Oct. 21, 2020

Former Missoulian editor Gwen Florio discusses resignation, newsroom cuts with MTPR

Gwen Florio resigned as the editor of The Missoulian on Oct. 11 following the newspaper’s endorsement of Public Service Commission candidate Jennifer Fielder, who has anti-government militia movement connections. The endorsement and Florio’s resignation can be tied to job cuts The Missoulian has suffered.

The Missoulian is one of five Montana papers owned by Lee Enterprises — the others are The Billings Gazette, Helena Independent Record, (Butte) Montana Standard and Ravalli Republic. Lee has laid off or accepted buyouts from many employees at those papers in recent years, including three Missoulian journalists last month. The news does not slow down when papers lose reporters, editors, photographers and other staff members, so many of the people who still work in those newsrooms haven taken on larger workloads. The extra burden has led to issues like The Missoulian’s Fielder endorsement, which the paper retracted.

“Had we not been so short staffed, this probably never would have happened,” Florio told Montana Public Radio’s Sally Mauk on Tuesday. “Everybody is so busy kind of doing double and triple the work they used to do, that everybody’s moving at warp speed all the time.”

Florio’s full interview can be read or listened to here. In the excerpt below, Mauk and Florio discussed the dangerous effect newsroom cuts can have not just on individual papers, but also on communities and democracy.

Sally Mauk Well, as you mentioned, some readers were so incensed over the Fielder endorsement they canceled their subscriptions. And that’s certainly one way to protest, Gwen. But I’m not sure it’s the best way because it ends up putting the paper and its staff — who had nothing to do with the endorsement — in jeopardy. What are your thoughts about that?

Gwen Florio I absolutely agree with that. I get the impulse to do that. It certainly makes a statement, but it really hurts the paper. And you have a staff at the Missoulian who is just, they are top notch. They work so hard and they do so well under increasingly trying circumstances. And the last thing they need is more support taken away.

Sally Mauk And there are other ways to protest, certainly, without canceling a subscription.

These are perilous times for newspapers anyway. According to the Pew Research Center, American newspapers have laid off half their newsroom staff just in the last 12 years. So when your industry — It’s in real peril, as you mentioned earlier — the Missoulian has cut its staff a lot in recent years and it’s really putting the whole industry in jeopardy.

Gwen Florio Yeah, the cuts have been unbelievable. I came to the Missoulian in 2007, stepped away for three years in 2013, and I came back to a staff that was about half what it was when I first came. Just in the last year alone, we’ve lost another 20 percent of the staff that remain. And it’s just brutal. It’s really hard to cover the stories we should be covering and serve as a community watchdog under those circumstances. I think under these very difficult circumstances, the Missoulian is doing extraordinarily well. But we simply can’t cover the stories we used to, and that’s really painful.

Sally Mauk I think a lot of people don’t realize what it would be like not to have a local newspaper. I mean, people say, oh, well, there are other news outlets that you can go to, but the newspapers play a specific, integral role in being a local community watchdog. Talk a little bit about what you think that community loses if they lose their daily newspaper.

Gwen Florio Yeah, I think it’s just horrible. So, the Missoulian, even in its reduced state right now, still has the largest news staff of any organization in Western Montana. We are still at almost every city council meeting, school board meeting, Board of Regents meetings, things people are not going to take the time themselves to go do. People have busy lives. And that’s why we’re there, to record what happened, to put what happened into context, to tell people how actions that are taken by these various institutions are going to affect their daily lives. It is integral to democracy. I just can’t stress that enough. And that’s what I think is the main danger, is you don’t have the Missoulian reporters, other journalists, being your eyes and ears in the community.

Oct. 13, 2020

Local Journalism Sustainability Act

The Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA) was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives in July, and it has received bipartisan support from 65 cosponsors as of Sept. 30.

The bill, H.R. 7640, would provide tax incentives to subscribers, small businesses that advertise with local newspapers and newsroom payrolls.

Local news is in crisis due to an ailing business model, greedy corporate owners, the coronavirus pandemic and other factors. Passing the LJSA would be a huge step toward invigorating newsrooms like The Billings Gazette that are so important to their communities.

Oct. 12, 2020

Lee Enterprises will slash any newsroom, even a one-person paper

UPDATE (10/13): Lee Enterprises has laid off the Floyd Press’ only full-time journalist, Ashley Spinks, for doing the interview with WWTF. Spinks’ wedding is in three days, which her supervisors knew, she wrote on Twitter.

“I got invited to a conference call, fired while they invoked this story, and was immediately locked out of email and the network. I don’t regret speaking to WVTF for one second; I’d do it again,” Spinks wrote. “I feel deep sadness for my community, which will no longer see the coverage it deserves.”

Lee Enterprises has consistently demonstrated a desire to cut its newspapers to the bone so it can pay off its debt and continue to hand out exorbitant salaries and bonuses to its executives. Montana is hardly the only state that has felt Lee’s wrath.

WWTF, a National Public Radio affiliate in Virginia, published a story last week about Lee’s impact on Virginia journalism. One newspaper, the Floyd Press, has just one full-time reporter/editor, yet Lee trimmed.

“I can’t believe that they can still find stuff to cut,” Roanoke Times reporter Alison Graham told WWTF.

An excerpt from WWTF’s story is below, and the full piece can be found here.

Like other reporters at Lee-owned papers (Ashley) Spinks was furloughed for a couple of weeks this Spring. And in one particularly infuriating day she, and others, were told their email storage would be slashed. She spent hours deleting messages in order to access her inbox. 

But the biggest cut of all for the Floyd Press has been the freelance budget. Spinks assigns and edits a handful of stories each month to freelance reporters. 

“Certainly like, if the readership were to notice something it would be I was filling more space with stories that I was pulling in from sister papers,” Spinks says. That means she was pulling stories from reporters in Roanoke or Richmond, and she says readers did notice. She got messages from folks wondering why there was less content about their community. 

When asked whether one person can really do it all, Spinks pauses before admitting it’s difficult.

“You don’t always have the capacity to do follow-up interviews, to add context and color to the stories,” Spinks says. “But even more important than that…what are you not reporting on?” 

It haunts her. She won an award last year for her coverage of ongoing issues with the county’s water system. She knows there’s more to dig into and she’s got the ideas and sources, but she seriously doubts that corporate would approve the $300 she needs to chase the story. That’s how much it would cost to do water testing at different locations throughout the county.

“And do I have the time to look into the science and consult the experts and do follow up interviews?” Spinks asks rhetorically with a shake of her head. “I’m not saying there is anything wrong with the water, but if there was that would be something that was really important for the community to know and right now they’re not being well served by me or the paper.” 

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