A view of the Maryland State House in Annapolis. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Media critic

The Capital, a Maryland community newspaper where five employees were killed in June in a mass shooting, is pushing to unionize under the auspices of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild. The initiative, say staffers, is driven by low pay and a sense of alienation that comes with working as part of such a large corporation; the newspaper is a unit of the Baltimore Sun Media Group, which is in turn part of Tribune Publishing.

“Washington-Baltimore News Guild will request voluntary recognition sometime this afternoon from Tribune,” says Bruce Jett, the organizing consultant for the News Guild.

The Capital’s unionization effort is part of a bigger campaign spanning three newsrooms and including the following titles: the Capital (Annapolis and Anne Arundel County); the Towson Times; the Catonsville Times; the Carroll County Times; the Aegis (Harford County); the Howard County Times; the Bowie-Blade News; the Crofton-West County Gazette; and the Maryland Gazette. According to Capital reporter Phil Davis, there are roughly 50 employees who would be represented by the Chesapeake News Guild. Thirty-six of them have stated their support to form a union, according to organizers. In September, the company voluntarily recognized the Tidewater Media Guild union, representing employees at the Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press.

Danielle Ohl, a Capital reporter covering the city of Annapolis as well as the Naval Academy, says journalists are seeking a pipeline to people who make the decisions. “The issue is not necessarily working for The Capital. We all love the work we do. We all love our direct editors. … The issue is that sometimes they just don’t have a say in what happens to us.” A year ago, Ohl started at the Capital with a salary of $33,000 per year.

Union-organizing activity at the newspapers predated by several months the horrific June 28 attack allegedly committed by Jarrod Ramos, an area man who held a grudge against the Capital. Four journalists — Rob Hiaasen, 59; Wendi Winters, 65; Gerald Fischman, 61; and John McNamara, 56 — and sales assistant Rebecca Smith, 34, died in the attack. When the gunman burst into the newspaper’s Annapolis offices, Davis was in the newsroom and sought cover under a desk. He tweeted from the scene and later told the Baltimore Sun: “I’m a police reporter. I write about this stuff — not necessarily to this extent, but shootings and death — all the time. But as much as I’m going to try to articulate how traumatizing it is to be hiding under your desk, you don’t know until you’re there and you feel helpless.”

The journalism world rallied around the survivors and the families of the fallen. The Michael and Jackie Ferro Foundation — named in part after the former chairman of Tronc, the ill-advised and short-lived alt-name of Tribune Publishing — contributed $1 million to the Capital Gazette Families Fund. Ohl credits the company’s brass for their compassion and leadership.

Though the trauma delayed the surviving staffers’ union drive, it didn’t change the workplace fundamentals. “What you saw after the shooting was that no one wanted it to stop,” says Davis, referring to the union drive. “It wasn’t like we’d wake up the next day and they would be paying us more money,” he continues, acknowledging that that’s a “morbid way of putting it.”

Morbid, yet accurate. Davis earns $35,000, in a major metropolitan area with high housing costs, and can’t be sure when or if a raise is in the pipeline. There are no step increases in the current system, just merit and seniority raises, he says. Salaries as high as $40,000 are rare at the newspaper, says the 23-year-old Ohl, noting that it’s not uncommon for someone to have put in 15 to 20 years while still drawing pay in the $30,000 ballpark. “Yeah, it’s ridiculous,” she says.

Another concern is hierarchy. Directives from Tribune Publishing, say employees, routinely come in for emergency landings on the desks of the community reporters. Just last week, for instance, the Virginian-Pilot reported that Tribune Publishing would be offering buyouts to certain non-union employees. The rationale for the move stunned staffers at the Capital: “During its third-quarter conference call, the company said it recorded a net loss of $4.2 million in the three months ending Sept. 30, all of it attributable to newsprint tariff costs that have since been rescinded and costs following the June 28 fatal shooting of five members of the company’s The Capital newsroom in Annapolis,” reported the Virginian-Pilot. A press release on the company’s financials contained this line: “Adjusted EBITDA for third quarter 2018 was $16.6 million, versus $20.1 million in the third quarter 2017. The decline is primarily due to higher newsprint pricing related to the recently rescinded tariffs, as well as the financial impact from the Capital Gazette tragedy.” Justin Dearborn, the company’s chairman and chief executive, is quoted in the release saying, “Despite the industry headwinds and the after-effects of the Capital Gazette tragedy, we performed well in the quarter and continue to establish the infrastructure for long-term success.”

“To a lot of people, the Tribune was saying, ‘Oh, we had this unavoidable tragedy, so we couldn’t make any money,'” says Cody Boteler, 23, a reporter for the Catonsville Times and the Arbutus Times. Says Ohl: “It was very emotional for us, finding that out and reading that report.”

According to Libby Solomon, a 24-year-old reporter at the Towson Times, she and her colleagues on the community beat tend to be under 26, so they can get health insurance under their parents’ plans. There are four news reporter positions in Solomon’s newsroom, and she has seen those positions turn over seven times in less than two years. “I don’t think that the communities we cover deserve to be a stop on the road to better things,” says Solomon.

When community reporters come on board at the company, says Solomon, there’s an “implication” that the post may be a “stepping stone” to bigger things, considering that Tribune Publishing houses titles such as the Baltimore Sun, the New York Daily News, the Chicago Tribune and others. Yet mentorships don’t happen, say employees. The company has an unwritten rule barring significant professional consultation between community news reporters and Baltimore Sun editorial types. “There have been people who have said, ‘I want to be mentored by someone,’ and they’ve said no,” says Solomon.

A possible rationale for the barrier: The Washington-Baltimore News Guild has a unit of 109 employees at the Baltimore Sun; if the distinctions between Baltimore Sun journalists and the community journalists were to disappear, the union might well be justified in seeking to expand the bargaining unit. “That’s just our assumption,” says Scott Dance, chair of the Baltimore Sun’s bargaining unit. “It’s not our rule, it’s their rule. They don’t want the nonunion staff intermingling with us. … We’ve always thought it didn’t make sense how they kept it so separate, and these reporters are doing the duties that our suburban unionized bureaus once did.”

The setup is sufficiently Byzantine that if the Baltimore Sun needs a quote or another reportorial nugget from a community reporter, she has to channel it through her editor, who then contacts an editor at the community newspaper, who then passes it along to the community reporter. “It’s very inefficient. It has led to inaccuracies, for sure,” says Dance. For example: If Dance is working on a big story about a crippling blizzard, he can take feeds from Baltimore Sun reporters and seek clarifications and amplifications directly from those colleagues. If the feed, however, comes from a community reporter, he faces bureaucracy. “We have to go through this whole process,” he says.

As reported by the Chicago Tribune, the company is evaluating at least three bids to buy the publishing giant. Newspaper chain McClatchy is among the suitors. Whoever ends up with the assets will have a team of motivated community reporters. “I want this company to succeed and I want the news that we put out to succeed,” says Solomon in explaining why she has sunk her spare time in to the organizing effort.

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