Kiichiro Sato / AP
Inside the Tribune Publishing newspaper chain, all eyes are on Thursday’s annual shareholders’ meeting. The hedge fund Alden Global Capital should consolidate its control over the company and cause cuts even more severe than those that the company has implemented.
Citing the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Tribune has just announced unpaid leave at its properties, including New York Daily News, the Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun. It has also permanently reduced the salaries of many of its journalists.
As the pandemic has hurt media outlets across the country, many Tribune journalists are skeptical of society’s call for shared sacrifice.
In recent years, executives have flourished while newsrooms have experienced waves of cutbacks and layoffs. Shareholders also did so recently with a $ 9 million dividend in March.
Alden is expected to tighten the pressure once it has more influence over the company’s actions. He earned the title of “vulture capitalist” from a leading analyst for increasing the profit margins of the more than 200 American newspapers he owns via Digital First Media, even as the industry sinks further and further. deeper into the financial crisis.
“We have members who sell plasma to help pay for their groceries and bills,” said Sara Gregory, who covers education for Tribune’s. Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, and is president of the local Tidewater Media Guild. “We have people who make a lot of sacrifices to do the work that they have and that they feel called to do.”
Tribune Publishing also has regional daily newspapers in Hartford, Connecticut, Allentown, Pennsylvania, Annapolis, Md., Newport News, Virginia, and Fort Lauderdale and Orlando in Florida.
Journalists vote to unionize as distrust grows
Confidence in the credibility of Tribune’s corporate leadership – repeatedly beaten in the past two decades – may well be at an all-time high.
the Orlando Sentinel has become the 10th bargaining unit for Tribune Publishing to unionize in the past three years, according to the news guild, with many members citing distrust of management.
“We will be a different company on the other hand,” Tribune Publishing CEO Terry Jimenez told staff at a digital town hall earlier this month, according to the audio obtained by NPR. “We will have to be structured differently. We have to think differently. We will have to be more flexible. “
Jimenez declined to comment on the story through a spokesperson, who quoted the meeting on Thursday.
This flexibility has meant that journalists who earn more than $ 40,000 a year take three weeks of unpaid leave over the next three months. Those earning more than $ 67,000 in many newsrooms have agreed to permanent pay cuts in an effort to avoid layoffs. But the company’s promise not to lay off workers only holds true until the end of July.
“We didn’t like the permanent pay cut at all,” said Liz Bowie, education reporter and union representative for Tribune. Baltimore sun. “But we also felt that, given the situation in our country, we could not face the idea that five of our colleagues would go out almost immediately in an environment where they would find it very, very difficult to get a job . “
While many media outlets, including NPR, are implementing vacation or wage cuts due to the pandemic, Tribune’s comes after years of financial cutbacks.
Many journalists have been without increases, even for the cost of living, for years. The newsrooms have been decimated. In Baltimore, the Sun the newsroom now employs about a fifth of the people it employed two decades ago. Tribune bought the New York Daily News in 2017 and reduced its workforce six months later. Similarly, in 2018, Tribune acquired the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk – Virginia’s largest daily print run – and combined its newsroom with the smallest Newport News Daily Press. Journalists’ mixed press staff has been cut by almost half.
Virginian-Pilot reporter Sara Gregory says the community notices the difference.
“I receive messages from sources. “Why didn’t the paper cover this or why didn’t it cover this?” And most of the time, the answer is just labor, right? ” she said. “There is only so much we can do with the people we have. “
“We are already living paycheck to paycheck”
In late April, dozens of journalists from across the company went to Slack, the company’s internal messaging platform, for a digital protest, marking Jimenez in each complaint. NPR has reviewed the transcripts. Many have been fueled by wage cuts, but others have been targeting tens of millions of dollars in dividend payments to shareholders in recent years.
“I am a single mother who lives largely from paycheck to paycheck. I love my work. I love my career. And I have no illusions about the economic hardship the industry is facing right now, “wrote an Allentown reporter. “But the idea that Tribune could put myself and my colleagues on leave and permanently reduce the salaries of some while turning around to pay dividends to shareholders sounds like betrayal. “
“A drop in wages or a leave would be devastating for my family. We are already going through a paycheck, ”wrote another from Chicago. “Any drop in salary could basically decide if my son can go to college. “
Some union members later celebrated, saying they had urged Jimenez to deactivate his Slack account. A company spokesperson said the CEO had already left the messaging service and preferred to communicate with employees by other means.
A few days after the demonstration, Jimenez held the video chat and answered questions submitted by his colleagues. He said the company’s ongoing digital transformation had been accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis, with a wave of new digital subscribers. But according to the record obtained by NPR, Jimenez said that “the digital business model does not generate income.” He noted buyouts earlier this year, said calls for job shares to avoid further job cuts or job cuts would not be profitable enough and newspaper sections would be collapsed or dissolved.
At one point, while noting that he was not a financial advisor, Jimenez encouraged the lowest-paid workers to take unpaid leave: he said that, given the enhanced unemployment benefits, they could earn more money on the job during those weeks than they would pay from Tribune Publishing.
The dismissal of a senior manager to the savings made thanks to cuts in newsrooms
The company hoped to save about $ 560,000 from vacation time and reduced wages, union officials at several newsrooms said. Tribune Publishing is about to pay a hundred thousand dollars more than severance pay to its general counsel, Julie Xanders, who leaves the company at the end of the month.
The company said it would suspend all shareholder dividends for the time being.
The News Guild released a study on Tuesday to journalists at the Tribune newspapers. Three-quarters of respondents said they were concerned about their ability to take care of their families or keep their jobs. An additional three-quarters said the continuous cuts have diminished the quality of the journalism they produce.
Tribune employees returned to Slack across the company on Tuesday. They announced that they were taking lunch breaks in solidarity with their colleagues on leave. Tribune Publishing responded by limiting their ability to post comments in Slack.
In Baltimore, a push for local ownership
In Baltimore, the local news guild has partnered with two large foundations to try to break the cycle.
“It was very disturbing and disturbing, the downsizing that took place in Baltimore sunand, really, newspapers across the country, “said Matt Gallagher, President and CEO of the Goldseker Foundation in Baltimore. “There is no institution I can think of that is more central to the daily life of the city than the Baltimore sun and a free, independent and robust local newspaper. ”
“It’s literally part of the fabric of what goes on in Baltimore every day,” said Gallagher.
Goldseker and the larger Abell Foundation (established with money from the sale of Sun in 1986) launched Tribune Publishing to sell them the newspaper and a consortium of local personalities. Gallagher declined to describe the reception he received, saying he looked forward to the board meeting accompanying Thursday’s shareholder event.
Like many Tribune journalists, Gallagher has his eye on the end of June, when Alden Global Capital can increase its stake in the company from 32% to more than 50%. Alden Global Capital is the largest investor in Digital First Media, which owns around 200 publications. His record of intense cuts and inflated profit margins compared to his peers has caused newsrooms across the country to drift.
The union urged shareholders to vote against the Tribune’s plan to start its board of directors with two Alden candidates this week. Alden’s president Heath Freeman keeps a low public profile. He did not return an investigation for comment on the story through a former spokesperson.