Rockford unit to march in Labor Day Parade

Melissa Westphal’s time is short as our Rockford unit chair. She is moving on to an exciting new professional opportunity. Her last day at the Register Star is Sept. 5.

She stayed at the newspaper for an extra week so she could march with her co-workers in the Labor Day parade as an active union member. Other Register Star and Journal-Standard journalists are invited to join her and our brothers and sisters from other Rockford-area unions.

This is a great chance to spread the word of the United Media Guild’s ongoing fight for a first contract at these newspapers.

The Rockford parade begins at 10 a.m. Sept. 1 from Seventh and Railroad. The parade will proceed north on Seventh to E. State, west on State to Wyman and south on Wyman before ending at the Cedar Street entrance to Davis Park.

This year’s theme is “Standing United to Secure our Future.” That message rings true for GateHouse Media employees who have endured years of wage freezes and severe staffing cuts.

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GateHouse rewards shareholders, not journalists

New Media Investment Group, parent company at GateHouse Media, has delivered on its promise to reward shareholders with dividends.

The second quarter produced free cash flow of $19.6 million, or $0.65 on a per-share basis. So the New Media Board of Directors voted to issue a 27-cent quarterly dividend.

An analyst participating in New Media’s quarterly earnings call wondered if that dividend was a bit generous. CEO Michael Reed noted that New Media’s plan all along was to pay strong dividends.

Indeed, from the outset New Media has aimed to convert free cash flow into dividends. The goal was to stand apart from similar media companies still grappling with crippling debt.

That makes sense, but the company is holding a firm economic line in negotiations with the United Media Guild at the The State Journal-Register in Springfield, the Pekin Daily Times and the Rockford Register Star. The company’s position is that is has the money to offer raises in its collective bargaining agreements but chooses not to do so at this time.

In fairness to company, it is also using some of the free cash flow to fund acquisitions. This certainly is smarter than borrowing heavily to buy new properties, a practice that plunged GateHouse and other media companies into bankruptcy.

And the pending purchases of the Providence Journal could bolster New Media in several ways. Its strong position in New England will became even stronger.

But . . . the failure to reinvest in New Media’s core product of “compelling, high-quality local news”, as Reed likes to put it, could cause long-term audience erosion.

The UMG hears the old “if you don’t like it, leave” refrain when it presses GateHouse officials about its treatment of journalists. Churning the newsroom is a bad business strategy. That practice erases institutional knowledge and severs connections in the community.

Excessive staff reductions are also a bad idea. The profitable Rockford Register Star has proposed language that it would allow it to replace its two surviving staff photographers with free-lancers.

That would represent still another harmful cut to a newsroom decimated by lay-offs on GateHouse’s watch.

Since the foundation of New Media’s newspaper business is “strong and trusted local brands”, as Reed likes to say, diminishing the product doesn’t seem like a great long-range strategy.

We have been engaging readers in Springfield, Pekin and Rockford to see what they think of their local newspapers. Consumers notice the product erosion and many are willing to support our efforts to maintain quality journalism.

As for New Media, the company offered earth-shattering revelations during its latest earnings call. Here were a few highlights:

  • New Media recently gained more favorable financing for past, ongoing and future purchases.
  • Print advertising was down again in the second quarter, but digital advertising was up slightly (4.4 percent) and classified advertising stabilized.
  • Revenues from Propel Marketing more than doubled in one year, up to $4.5 million.
  • Circulation revenues remained stable. (But how long will readers be willing to pay more for less?)
  • Commercial printing revenues rose nearly 15 percent.
  • GateHouse/New Media remains in acquisition mode, although Reed declined to offer specifics. Disclosing how much money he had in the acquisition “pipeline” could hurt the company during purchase negotiations.

Elsewhere on the GateHouse/New Media front:

GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis made nice with Providence Journal readers with a full-page ad.

New Media Investment Group apparently will not honor existing collective bargaining agreement when its purchase of the Journal becomes final. The seller, A.H. Belo Corp., will pay the severance on up to 40 employees who lose their jobs due to this purchase.

Folks in Providence wonder what will become of The Journal now that it is in the GateHouse/New Media family.

Register Star, Journal-Standard revenues fuel GateHouse/New Media purchases

GateHouse Media newspapers generate strong cash flow for its parent company, New Media Investment Group.

That parent company — which grew from the ashes of GateHouse Media bankruptcy — is using some of that cash flow to help finance newspaper purchases.

After escaping more than $1 billion in debut, those folks have spent $150 million in 10 months to expand their media empire.

How can they do this? Because the surviving employees of GateHouse/New Media operations have kept doing more with less during the most challenging times this industry has ever seen.

The company quit giving regular raises years ago. Worse, it slashed news operations to the bone\ while simultaneously launching bold digital initiatives.

That allowed the company to keep pumping money out of its newspapers. And now that money is going towards stock dividends and asset purchases instead of debt payments.
The latest GateHouse/New Media purchase, the Providence Journal, is a great fit for the company. The company paid a premium to get it, but it gained a strong product, a good market and the ability to further consolidate operations in Southern New England.

Here are some key points about the purchase:

  • The $46 million price tag is considered high, more than twice what the Worcester Telegram & Gazette fetched. (GateHouse/New Media was reported to be on that bidding as well, but the paper sold to Halifax Media.)
  • But the T&G sale did not include a printing operation. The Journal prints its own papers and has other printing contracts. GateHouse/New Media regard printing operations as a key piece of its current revenue pie.
  • On the other hand, A.H. Belo is keeping the Journal’s headquarters building to sell off. GateHouse/New Media will lease the building for a year while exploring relocation options.
    GateHouse/New Media will not assume liability for defined-benefit pension plan. Belo is maintaining that.
  • GateHouse/New Media sees the Providence market as a huge opportunity for its Propel Marketing initiative. The company believes Propel can become a major source of revenue growth once its gains traction.
  • Since GateHouse/New Media has several operations is Southern New England, it can “gain efficiencies” with this purchase.
  • The Providence Newspaper Guild represents employees of The Journal, so GateHouse/New Media will encounter resistance as it seeks further job cuts.

Jon Chesto of the Boston Business Journal offered this assessment:

I’ll be honest here: I was once skeptical of New Media’s aggressive acquisition ambitions. Fortress Investment Group co-founder Wes Edens first signaled that GateHouse would be an acquirer again last September, when he announced that a new version of the company would look to make as much as $1 billion in acquisitions over a three-year period. Fortress, a major investor in GateHouse and then also a major bondholder, pushed GateHouse through bankruptcy last year to erase its mountain of debt, and created New Media as a new publicly traded holding company to add to its empire. In March, New Media disclosed that it was looking at a pipeline of $150 million to $300 million worth of acquisitions. Some of this is being financed through debt, and some from the company’s operating cash flow.

So far, there have been a number of deals, big and small. Most notably, a Fortress affiliate picked up Dow Jones’ community newspapers — a group that included the Cape Cod Times and The Standard-Times of New Bedford, now part of New Media — for $82 million. In all, (CEO Michael) Reed says New Media has reached agreements to buy about $150 million worth of media properties in the past 10 months. So Reed, (COO Kirk) Davis and their team have proven their ability to make these deals, particularly so many in a short period of time. But whether they can successfully integrate them into the New Media empire while ensuring the profits continue to flow and the papers stay vital to their local communities remains an open question.

That last point is where the Guild is so critical. It is our task to protect the quality of journalism at the many GateHouse/New Media newsrooms we represent.
Some of the steps that GateHouse/New Media take — like the proposed outsourcing of all photography at the Rockford Register Star — could cause long-term damage.
We must do all we can to ensure that these communities will benefit from strong news reporting five, 10 and 20 years down the road.

Register Star targets staff photographers

The two surviving photographers at the Rockford Register Star are under siege.

During the latest round of bargaining with the United Media Guild for a first contract at these newspapers, the company submitted a proposal that would allow it to outsource photography.

The Register Star and Journal-Standard already make extensive use of free-lancers. This proposal would allow the company to eliminate the remaining staff positions.

This is not an idle GateHouse threat. After the Dow Jones Local Media Group came under GateHouse Media control, that chain’s flagship newspaper, the Middletown Times Herald-Record, laid off all four of its photographers so it could exclusively use free-lancers.

We believe that eliminating staff photographers hampers the ability of newsrooms to gather and present compelling content. GateHouse Media/New Media Investment Group newspapers are in the business of monetizing compelling content.

Diminishing the product in the name of cost-cutting and “flexibility” is a terrible idea.

In Rockford’s case, the company’s opening contract proposal on October 1, 2013, included language giving it the unfettered right to outsource any work — including photography — at any time.

So why did it come back on July 8 and specifically propose the photographer outsourcing?

This all goes back to a management decision made earlier this year. The company wants to rotate the two photographers back and forth between day shifts and night shifts.

That rotation would change the terms and conditions of employment at the newspaper — a change that must be negotiated with the union. (Employees have certain “status quo” workplace protections while bargaining for a first contract.)

The UMG has negotiated with the company on this matter but failed to reach an agreement. The company responded by lashing out at the photographers in correspondence with newsroom employees.

It announced that because of the union refused to grant the company the flexibility it seeks, it would no longer grant employees scheduling flexibility to address periodic personal needs.

That led the UMG to filed a three-pronged charge with the National Labor Relations Board. The investigation is underway.

Here are the specifics of the Unfair Labor Practice charge:

“On our about June 24, 2014, the above-named employer has interfered with, restrained and coerced its employees by threatening to change its policy regarding the ability of all employees to alter their schedules because the Union did not permit the Employer to unilaterally change the photographers’ schedule.

“On or about June 24, 2014, the above-named employer has discriminated against Photographers Max Gersh and Brent Lewis by announcing to all employees that it was changing its policy regarding the ability of all employees to alter their schedules because the Union did not permit the Employer to unilaterally change photographers’ schedule.

“On or about June 24, 2014, the above-named employer has failed to bargain collectively and in good faith with the United Media Guild Local 36047 by dealing directly with employees and unilaterally changing their terms and conditions of employment when it changed its policy regarding the ability of all employees to alter their schedule.”

As the UMG was filing that ULP charge, the Register Star took the addition step of disciplining Gersh for alleged insubordination. (In our view, Max raised legitimate concerns about whether an assignment could violate the principles of photography ethics.)

And then came the proposal to outsource the department.

So to recap, here is what happened on the photography front:

  • The company to wanted to rotate the two photographers without offering a compelling reason why the change was needed.
  • The UMG informed the company it would have to negotiate that change.
  • We failed to reached an agreement on that issue during the next negotiating session.
  • The company lashed back through direct correspondence with the rest of our members.
  • The UMG filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge after consulting with the national Guild office and our attorneys.
  • The company disciplined Max Gersh for alleged insubordination.
  • The company proposed to outsource photography.

Employees at the Rockford Register Star and Freeport Journal-Standard want to produce the best possible product in print and through all the digital platforms. They realize the critical role these institutions play in their communities. That is a big reason why they voted to request representation from the UMG.

This fight to retain staff photographers underscores why newsrooms need Guild representation. If we don’t fight to protect the quality of our work and the value of our craft, who will?

United Media Guild files NLRB charges against the Rockford Register Star

 

On Tuesday, the Rockford Register Star’s executive editor, Mark Baldwin, sent an email to newsroom employees regarding the status quo provision under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and a situation that recently occurred at our bargaining table.  Baldwin stated that “…the company has not made any unilateral changes to wages, hours or other terms and conditions of employment since this is required during the status quo period.

However, Baldwin then mentioned a situation where management did want to unilaterally change something.  In this case it was shifts – in fact, they wanted to put the two RR Star photographers on rotating shifts (work days for two months, then nights for two months, then days again…) and the union demanded to bargain over that (remember: terms and conditions are required to stay the same during bargaining unless both sides agree on the proposed change).

We met on May 27 but were unable to come to terms on that issue.  However, it needs to be understood that bargaining is a process and going forward, opportunities remain for both sides to come to terms on that and other issues as well.

But back to the rotating shifts issue and Tuesday’s email.  Management decided that since it cannot unilaterally change one aspect of scheduling — having one photographer work straight days and the other one work straight nights — it would make a more sweeping unilateral change. It decided it would no longer allow employees to adjust their schedule to get off at a particular time, even though it allowed it before the union representation vote and it continued after the vote.  From Baldwin’s email:  “…we must now unfortunately stop all schedule changes regardless of the reason.  If employees need time off that previously would have been worked out with management via a simple schedule change they will now need to take a Personal Day or a Vacation Day instead.”

The company’s position seems odd to say the very least.  First they admit that the status quo provision is in force and that they can’t make unilateral changes. Then, after they aren’t given what they want at the bargaining table, they make a different unilateral change.  And it is a change – in his email, Baldwin admits that they’ve been allowing people to alter their shifts all this time but announces that they are putting an end to that immediately.  Surely he understands that this is also a violation of the status quo provision.  Once again, from Baldwin’s email, starting with the third sentence: “…the company has worked with employees as we did before the newsroom was organized to accommodate personal and operational circumstances whenever possible.  This has always worked for us in the past.”

What, then, is the reason for this sudden change?  Well, after initially stating that it was the two employees who the company first approached (even though the company is required to bargain changes with the union, not individual members) and then saying that those employees “refused to comply” it seems obvious that certain people are being set up as scape goats.  Next came Baldwin’s ‘No more Mr. Nice Guy’ announcement regarding employees no longer being allowed to schedule time off and then this:  “The company cannot operate with two sets of rules for employees.  One set for those employees who understand the concept and need for flexibility and another for those who don’t.” (Translation: See what’s going on here?  We LIKE you guys – you’re GOOD.  But we now have to punish you because THOSE guys are BAD!).  And, of course, management hopes that you can be as easily manipulated as they presume and that you’ll take it out on your coworkers, who they are attempting to isolate and marginalize.

A few things need to be stated here – clearly and unambiguously.  For starters, your union is committed to getting a fair contract in Rockford; that’s why you reached out to us and it’s why you voted to join us.  We understand that and every time we sit down at the bargaining table your priorities are foremost in our minds.  We take negotiations seriously and we are committed to getting you the best contract possible.  But there is a big difference in negotiating an agreement and just letting the other side dictate terms.  And it appears that the company has decided that since they can’t dictate terms and get what they want immediately, then they’ll try to divide the membership to see if that works for them.

Next, it’s important to understand just how the bargaining process works.  There are things GateHouse wants in this contract (and things we want, as well) and we’re willing to discuss them all.  Depending on what’s offered in return, we might agree to those things – that’s how negotiations work.  Currently management demands the right to move photographers around with impunity but such petulant behavior on its part begs the question of what’s next?  And who’s next?  What if next month it makes a move and goes after some detail or circumstance unique to sports reporters – or designers – are we going to see emails renouncing those same employees for not understanding “the concept and need for flexibility?” Will people be punished yet again while sports reporters – or designers – are held up and publicly scorned as the reason?  Please don’t be fooled by this obvious attempt to divide the workforce and turn you against each other.  Workers achieve fair contracts when they come together and stand shoulder-to-shoulder; hanging together is the only way to obtain a fair contract.

Finally, as I stated earlier, this action by management – regardless of how it attempts to frame it – constitutes a unilateral change in the terms and conditions of employment and it is illegal.  The Guild, therefore, has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (the governmental body tasked with policing the NLRA) and we believe that, following an investigation, the Register Star will be ordered to rescind its new policy and return to the way things were.  In the meantime, please continue to support one another and we will continue to work towards securing a contract with fair wages and working conditions and, as always, will keep you posted on events as they occur.

 

In solidarity,

 

Shannon Duffy

Administrative Officer

United Media Guild

TNG-CWA 36047

GateHouse journalists fight to end wage freeze

Guild members at the Canton Repository recently rejected a three-year contract extension off from GateHouse/New Media. Although the offer included signing bonuses spread through the length of the contract and some outsourcing protections for about 20 jobs, there were no raises for the roughly 150 members of that unit of the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild.

So they voted down the offer. They will fight for raises along with United Media Guild members in Springfield, Rockford and Pekin — where our people have gone years without raises.

Perhaps this desk tent will look good in the newsrooms: gatejhouse

 

UMG members have access to multi-media training

Members of the United Media Guild belong to Local 36047 of the Communications Workers of America, The Newspaper Guild sector. They have access to the CWA/NETT Academy, which offers on-line college courses, seminars and video training on thousands of topics.

Lynda.com is an especially valuable resource for our reporters, photographers, editors and digital specialists. For more information, check out this flyer.