The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The standoff between owners and journalists that’s eviscerating Pittsburgh’s biggest newspaper

At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, reporters are being barred from covering protests, stories are going missing, and the executive editor denounced his own journalists in a front-page editorial. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Before last year, Keith C. Burris was mostly known to reporters at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as the author of the most controversial opinion piece their newspaper had ever published.

In a 2018 editorial with the headline “Reason as Racism,” Burris defended President Trump’s infamous comment about immigrants from “shithole countries,” arguing that “calling someone a racist is the new McCarthyism” and that such a label should be confined to the likes of Bull Connor and Dylann Roof. Plus, he added, “there are nations that are hellholes in this world.” Appalled readers, including current and former staffers, wrote letters in response. Leaders of major foundations said the paper “has done our community and the cause of justice a grave disservice.” Sixteen members of the Block family — owners of the paper for nearly a century — called it an attempt to “justify blatant racism.”

Barely a year later, Publisher John R. Block promoted Burris from editorial page editor to executive editor of the entire paper.

In an early get-to-know-you meeting, reporters confronted their new boss, still fuming that the editorial had hurt the paper’s credibility. “You said several of your friends had read the article and told you it wasn’t racist,” photographer Michael Santiago recalled asking. “How many of them were black?”

Sixteen months later, the newsroom tensions that were ignited with Burris’s promotion have exploded into public view amid the street protests roiling Pittsburgh and the nation. After Burris’s team barred one of its few black reporters from covering the demonstrations because of a sardonic tweet they said showed bias, they then disqualified about 80 other journalists from the beat for publicly supporting her — another show of bias, Burris maintained.

Now, reporters say stories have disappeared from the Post-Gazette’s website, and it’s unclear who is writing the paper’s skimpy, unbylined articles about the protests. State and city officials have denounced the actions against journalists, and major businesses have pulled their support. Neither Burris nor Block replied to requests for comment.

At a time when so many local newspapers have been gobbled up by budget-slashing, profit-minded corporations, many journalists have yearned for the days when local families owned the papers and managed them with a sense of civic commitment. And yet the most toxic relationship in American media right now may be between Post-Gazette journalists and its publisher, whose family has owned the paper for nearly a century.

“This is the worst moment in my 36 years at the Post-Gazette,” said reporter Michael A. Fuoco, the current president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh.

And that’s saying something. In recent years, Post-Gazette staffers have waged byline strikes and taken no-confidence votes; Executive Editor David Shribman, who led the newsroom’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue massacre, abruptly departed several months before his planned retirement; and John Block threatened to fire journalists in an angry Saturday night tirade in the newsroom while his preteen daughter stood by weeping. (Reporters at the scene described Block as “intoxicated”; Block’s representatives denied those accounts but said he “expressed his sincere regrets.”)

Yet the latest battle has become so contentious that Burris published a letter on the front page accusing his own reporters of leading a “propaganda campaign against this newspaper.” He frames the issue not in racial terms but one of “journalistic ethics” involving a tweet editors “felt was strong commentary” on a story. On Monday night, he went on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show to blame “the Twitter mob” for turning their dispute into a national news story and unfairly casting him as a racist.

The employees’ union last week called on Burris and the managing editor he hired in January to resign, saying their actions “have so tarnished the 233-year reputation of our beloved newspaper that we fear for its very survival.”

In the midst of this all, the Block family, who have owned the Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade since the 1920s, have been silent.

Patriarch Paul Block Sr., who emigrated from Eastern Europe as a child and worked his way up through the news business, became the Post-Gazette’s first publisher after merging several of the city’s rival papers with the help of his mogul friend William Randolph Hearst in 1927. Today his small media empire is overseen by his twin grandsons — John R. Block, who handles the newspaper business and brother Allan, in charge of Block Communications’ television and electronic media.

Although Block Communications is privately held and doesn’t disclose its financial condition, metropolitan newspapers like the Post-Gazette have been declining for years. The paper now publishes a print edition only three times a week. In March, it announced buyouts. John Block has suggested the company’s financial support of the paper in recent years has amounted to philanthropy.

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But the ascent of Trump, who regularly bashes the media, has made the Blocks’ politics a source of national curiosity. Allan Block has made numerous contributions to Republicans in recent years. John has not, but he did acknowledge voting for President Trump in 2016. “In fact, so did much of Pennsylvania,” he told Pittsburgh Quarterly in 2018, comparing his city, where voters favored Hillary Clinton, to West Berlin. “It’s an island surrounded by people who are different and think differently than the city dwellers. And I am concerned about geographical inequity.”

But Block dismissed the perception that his paper has begun to lean right as “a lot of bunkum,” adding “some people on our staff who ‘lean left’ can’t accept that we are now, and have always been, a non-aligned newspaper.”

Current and former staffers, though, say their owners’ worldviews have become increasingly evident in the newspaper’s content. In 2018, cartoonist Rob Rogers complained that editors rejected an unprecedented number of his cartoons. He said he was then fired for work critical of Trump. “He’s just become too angry for his health or for his own good,” Block told Politico at the time. “He’s obsessed with Trump.”

Then Block hired Burris to serve as executive editor in addition to overseeing opinion coverage while still writing editorials. “That’s unheard of. That just doesn’t happen at big-city newspapers,” said Point Park University journalism professor Steve Hallock, who says he’s seen “the bleeding over of editorial policy into the news pages.”

Block ordered Post-Gazette editors to remove Trump’s “shithole” vulgarity from an Associated Press story about the controversy. Many staffers were troubled when he decided to publish the “Reason as Racism” editorial on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. More than a dozen Blocks denounced the editorial in a letter published in the Post-Gazette, calling it “a violation” of the legacy of longtime publisher William Block Sr. — the twins’ uncle — as “an advocate for civil rights and freedom of the press.”

On May 31, several days after protests erupted over the Minneapolis death of George Floyd while in police custody, a Post-Gazette reporter took wry aim at some of the reaction she had seen.

“Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!!” Alexis Johnson tweeted, alongside a photo of a debris-strewn parking lot. “Oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops.”

The next day, she said, editors told her the tweet had shown bias and that she could no longer write about the protests. Her colleagues took offense on her behalf. Another reporter, Joshua Axelrod, noted that managers gave him a talking-to about what he described as a more problematic tweet but did not punish him. Axelrod is white; Johnson is black.

“Alexis is the daughter of a retired state trooper and a probation officer, and she’s a black woman,” Fuoco said. “Who better to be out there reporting this? She has more credibility than anybody.”

Then when Santiago, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who is black, decried Johnson’s treatment on Twitter, he was told one of his protest assignments was canceled. Soon, some 80 of their co-workers tweeted their support. Two said their stories quickly disappeared from the Post-Gazette’s website and were replaced with rewritten versions that had no bylines or editors’ notes. Lauren Lee’s rewritten piece about a protest on the east side of the city was updated with a photo of officers kneeling in a different part of Pittsburgh.

“Editors can work with writers to shorten their stories or talk ahead of time about killing a story, we all know that in journalism,” said reporter Ashley Murray, whose original story about a city council debate on police reform vanished from the paper’s website. “But to delete something from the website that’s already been published is a breach of journalism ethics.”

The paper’s union demanded an apology at a news conference a week later. “We should all be covering one of the biggest moments of our generation,” Johnson said at the gathering, “and instead we’re here talking about another issue of racism and diversity and discrimination on another level.” On Tuesday, she filed a federal lawsuit against the newspaper, alleging retaliation and racial discrimination.

Burris remained silent until last Wednesday’s front-page editorial.

“When you announce an opinion about a person or story you are reporting on you compromise your reporting,” he wrote. “And your editor may take you off the story. This is a long-held tradition at this newspaper and at every good newspaper. You can disagree with that ethic, or dismiss it as passe. But you cannot, fairly, call it racism.”

He added: “We underestimated the power of social media and the corrosive potency of the racist label. It need only be said and it is assumed by some people to be true.”

Several Post-Gazette staffers dubbed the editorial response as “Reason as Racism, Part 2.”

“It’s basically just gaslighting us,” said Santiago. “Media companies and companies in general throughout the country are reconciling and acknowledging their mistakes and trying to rectify those mistakes, and here we are, and our company is basically just doubling down on the mistake.”

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One of Pittsburgh’s largest employers, supermarket chain Giant Eagle, said it wouldn’t advertise in the newspaper or sell copies in its stores “until the publication demonstrates an equal commitment to all those in the communities it serves,” CEO Laura Shapira Karet wrote in a statement.

The Allegheny Conference, a civic organization of some 300 business and university leaders, pulled a full-page ad from a Sunday edition. “We expect the Post-Gazette to look within and do better by their journalists, especially their black journalists,” said chief executive Stefani Pashman.

Since then, coverage of the protests has been noticeably muted in the pages of the Post-Gazette. The day Santiago had been scheduled to photograph protests, the paper ran a wire photo of the demonstrations instead, along with a short story with no interviews. A larger story about protests appeared the next day; it was written by the paper's classical music critic.

A handful of reporters are still writing about debates on police reform, but more recent stories about local protests now appear as short write-ups composed mostly of photos and descriptions based on Facebook posts and carrying no bylines.

There are still plenty of daily local demonstrations in the region to cover, said Ryan Deto, a Pittsburgh City Paper news editor. His small alt-weekly has been receiving such an unusually high number of news tips that they are having trouble keeping up. Tipsters aren’t explicitly bashing the Post-Gazette’s lack of coverage, he said, but readers seem to be acknowledging the City Paper as a larger player now.

“Generally, a lot of the anger at the Post-Gazette in the past has been at their editorials, but now it’s this kind of, is the management censoring or changing coverage by reporters,” said Deto, who has written about the internal conflicts at the Post-Gazette. “That’s really kind of turned people off in terms of wanting to read them, and it’s a shame because they do really great coverage consistently.”

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Local media watchers also pointed to the recent departures of longtime Post-Gazette reporters — such as Rich Lord, who went to a nonprofit Pittsburgh newsroom — as representative of what they view as a decline in the paper’s watchdog and investigative journalism.

“The word is ‘heartbreak’ for what is happening to the journalism in this town,” said Hallock, one of several professors and alumni who signed a letter condemning the Post-Gazette’s latest moves against Johnson and Santiago.

After his assignment was canceled, Santiago looked through a collection of Black Lives Matter protest photos taken by photojournalist friends around the country that weekend. He was devastated that he couldn’t document what he called one of the most important civil rights moments of his lifetime.

“To have that taken away from me,” he said, “I have no words for it.”

On Monday, he announced he would take a buyout and leave the Post-Gazette.