Diane Smith, a senior news reporter for the Record-Courier, said discussions among the staff about whether to organize started around six months after GateHouse Media (now known as Gannett after a 2019 corporate merger) purchased the newspaper in 2017.
Since then, Smith said two dozen staff members are gone from its newsroom.
“We’re very concerned about short staff,” Smith said. “We don’t want Portage County to become a ghost paper.”
Across the country, newspaper consolidation is leaving communities with little or no local news coverage, a phenomenon known as news deserts. This has led to less accountability reporting at the local level and less civic participation.
“Those of us who remain love reporting, but not necessarily the conditions we work under, from pay to the lack of colleagues that help provide a strong overall product,” Bob Gaetjens, a reporter at the Record-Courier, said in the press release.
Another issue driving the staff to unionize is wages. Smith said she earns $15 per hour and is the highest paid reporter in the newsroom.
In March of 2020, Gannett announced it would be issuing company-wide furloughs. Smith said Gannett stated that the furloughs did not apply to those who made less than $38,000 a year.
“I have been there for 26 years. I hold a distinction of being the highest paid reporter in the newsroom, only because I was once city editor,” Smith said. “And I still did not earn enough to be furloughed during the global pandemic.”
Smith said other members of the newsroom did not make enough money to be furloughed, either.
“We don’t have a seat at the table,” Smith said. “If there were to be a major change, say, layoffs, affecting the newsroom, [unionized newspapers] would have a chance to say who among their newsroom would be the person laid off, they’d have a chance to negotiate some alternatives to layoffs, they would have a chance to negotiate things like severance and extended sick leave. That’s something that we don’t have the ability [to do].”
Smith said unionization would offer additional protections for staff members.
“One of the things that unions guarantee everybody is due process,” Smith said.
Moving forward, Smith said it is about an eight-week process until the union is officially recognized.
“We love covering Portage County. We love providing people with the local news that we need, that they need,” Smith said. “As our staff has shrunk, it’s gotten more and more difficult to provide the people of Portage County with the news that they need and deserve.”
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