On the third floor of Cobo Hall, at reception for the visiting press corps, eight Detroit Free Press reporters and editors were drowning their sorrows in beer. In the middle of the table scrawled on notebook paper, was a grim attempt at humor. The sign read: "Free Press Hostage Center, Day 3."
The Free Press staff is prisoner of a strike by Teamster delivery truck drivers, a strike which the editorial staff's own union -- the American Newspaper Guild -- has said all member reporters and editors must honor.
As out-of-town journalists swarmed over Detroit this week to make the GOP convention a major media spectacle, the Free Press staff thinks the strike could not have come at a worse time.
The national political conventions are to journalists what the Summer Olympics are to sports enthusiasts -- and Free Press staffers may feel a kinship with membership of the U.S. Olympic team to who this year has been blocked from participating in the event.
"This is one of the biggest stories of the decade here, and we're being deprived of the opportunity because of some crazy Teamsters," said reporter Patricia D. Montemurri.
"The strike caught everyone by surprise," she said."It was really disbelief at first, but it sunk in later. You saw the despair and the anguish. You saw the color drained from people's faces."
The Free Press had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars preparing for this convention. The paper, one of the state's two largest dailies, had dispatched an army of reporters to political primaries across the country, and had planned a special 56-page convention extra for the Sunday the strike closed the paper.
"This is the worst thing that's happened in my working life," said Free Press editor Dave Lawrence. "It was the first time Detroit ever had a national political convention. This will always be remembered as a tragedy."
But today the Free Press and the rival Detroit News agreed to publish a joint edition for the first time since a 1962 strike. The 92-page edition will carry mastheads of both newspapers.
"Although the two newspapers ordinarily compete in every aspect of publishing, we cooperate fully on labor matters," said a statement released by the papers. The Free Press portion of the integrated edition will be produced by supervisory personnel.
Before today's arrangement, a small, 16-page Free Press was printed Sunday at the News plant in suburban Detroit, but News truck drivers -- members of the same Teamsters union as the striking Free Press drivers -- refused to deliver the edition. About 40,000 papers were printed, but most were just returned to the loading dock, Lawrence said.
The strike also threatens to disrupt permanently the already-tense relations between the Teamsters union and writers' guild." The Teamsters made a very serious error in this thing," said Reporter Mike Duffy.
"The reporters are caught in the middle. We're in a union, but we want to work."
Meanwhile, outside Free Press convention headquarters at Cobo Hall, a sign reads: "Reporters for Rent."