A year after filing union papers, Record-Courier newsroom still without a contract

Unionizing is not easy. But Diane Smith, a 27-year veteran Record-Courier news reporter, had had enough.

Instead of working for a small, family-owned paper that was dedicated to local news under the ownership of Dix Communications, she found herself working for the company that became Gannett, a national corporation that seemed to be interested in nothing more than the bottom line.

The R-C news staff dwindled to three, then to two, each reporter desperately trying to cover an entire county as best they could.

Smith told the story of her newsroom’s five-year struggle to unionize at a July 12 meeting of the Ravenna Kiwanis. She and her R-C colleagues filed to unionize on July 6, 2021, and waited until April 6, 2022, for the National Labor Relations Board to count their ballots.

“Why did we unionize?” she asked. “What happened to all those reporters and photographers that you just don’t see anymore? And why are you seeing less and less local news, and more and more news from other papers in our region?”

The late Roger Di Paolo worked for the R-C for almost 40 years, the majority of them as editor in chief. The new management from GateHouse Media (which bought Gannett and took its name in 2019) fired him less than two months after the sale of the paper became final in February 2017. Di Paolo knew the paper was going in a dangerous direction.

“He said nine words that were burned in the brains of everyone who worked for him: ‘Local news is the reason people read this paper,’” Smith recalled him saying.

The NewsGuild’s collected data is clear, she said. In the past decade, the number of local newspaper journalists in America dwindled from over 70,000 to 35,000. At least 2,100 American newspapers have folded since 2004, and 1,300 communities have become news deserts, where there is no local news coverage at all.

Five powerful corporations now own 74% of our nation’s daily newspapers, Smith said. Gannett owns over 100 of them, as well as nearly 1,000 weekly papers in 43 states and six countries. Gannett owns 21 dailies in Ohio, about half of which are small sites with 10 or fewer staffers.

Gannett owns both the R-C and the Akron Beacon Journal. Whether they will officially merge is an academic question, she said. It’s already happened.

“Instead of hiring ABJ reporters to cover Portage County, they just rely on us for their Portage County coverage. And they’d just run their Summit County coverage in ours,” she said.

Gannett did not respond Friday to a request for comment.

“The danger we face in this community is the threat of becoming a ‘ghost paper,’” she warned. “A ghost paper is one that has a staff so small that it cannot effectively cover its community and relies on news from surrounding [corporate-owned] publications for coverage.”

Smith said she and the R-C’s other two news reporters are doing the best they can, “but if I tried to tell you that three news reporters are covering as much as six once did, I would be lying. If I told you that our sports staff of two covers as many games as our sports staff of four once did, I would be lying. And if I told you that our one photographer captures as many photos as her staff of three once did, I’d be lying.”

Diane didn’t expect a representative from Local 1 of the NewsGuild to approach her in 2017 about forming a union. Before long, she said she and her colleagues were hauled into “captive audience meetings, where Gannett management told them that ‘unions are great, but we don’t need one here,’” she recalled.

Management was wrong.

In 2020, Gannett announced company-wide furloughs that would apply to everyone. Then it backpedaled, saying the furloughs would only apply to employees making less than $38,000 a year.

“You know who that described? Every single member of our newsroom — except for four of the five members of management there at the time,” Smith said. “Nothing galvanizes people like being told by management that they’re too poor to be furloughed in a global pandemic.”

Smith and her five R-C reporter colleagues started working with Nolan Rosenkrans, a union organizer. He pushed them to reach 100% consensus to unionize, which happened. Gannett’s management balked, challenging the unionization effort and hauling the reporters in front of the National Labor Relations Board for a week-long hearing.

In October 2020, Gannett moved Record Publishing’s weekly division from the control of R-C management to that of ABJ management. When the dust settled, “our newsroom of five became a newsroom of four, and that’s where we were when we filed in July 2021,” Smith said.  

For months, the would-be union members held their collective breath.

“But when the ruling was finally handed down, we were told that it was precedent-setting. Our election was an Armour-Globe agreement, where workers in a unit vote to join an already-existing union at the same employer. Nolan said he believed our unit [officially dubbed the Record-Courier NewsGuild] was the first to use such an election at two distinct newspapers,” Smith said.

The ruling may also open doors for smaller newspapers, including those in Ohio, to unionize, she said.

Smith closed her remarks with a tale of a small newspaper that did not successfully unionize.

“That newspaper now has one staff member,” she said. “The newspaper still exists, but it’s a ghost of its former self. There’s almost no content that you read there that you wouldn’t also read in the surrounding community papers.

“This is why we organize,” she said.

Even so, a year after filing for unionization, and three months after reaching their goal, Gannett’s newest unionized reporters are still working without a contract. It’s not for lack of trying: The ABJ’s reporters have been in contract negotiations with Gannett for four years. Smith is hopeful a contract will be finalized soon, though when that will be is anyone’s guess.

The lack of a contract isn’t all bleak. Even without one, Smith says Gannett is obligated to bargain in good faith before laying off employees, or changing unionized employees’ wages, benefits or working conditions.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.