From Strikewave | "There’s a big movement in newsrooms across the country." Interview with Clayton Guse of the new NYDN Union.
Last week, the digital, print, and photo staff and reporters of the New York Daily News announced they had formed a union, with more than 80% in support of joining the News Guild of New York, the union for approximately 3,000 journalists and media employees. With the announcement, all but one of Tribune Publishing’s newsrooms are organized, following recent victories at the Hartford Courant, Orlando Sentinel, and the Virginian Pilot. We spoke with Clayton Guse, a transit reporter at the Daily News since 2018 and union organizing committee member about the organizing effort.
Strikewave (SW): First of all, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I’m sure it has been a busy week in the lead-up to your announcement yesterday. The statement on your website said the union organizing effort in the New York Daily News newsroom started in April 2020, barely a month into the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown. Was that the sole motivating factor or was it part of a litany of reasons?
Clayton Guse (CG): In media and journalism in general, there has been a lot of uncertainty when it comes to job security. We’ve seen the number of newsroom jobs shrink drastically over the last decade, through attrition, through cuts. [Then-Tronc, now-Tribune Publishing] cut half the newsroom staff summer of 2018, six months before I joined the paper and not long after they took over. There are a lot of factors motivating this, the most obvious being the state of media and newsrooms in general. You have the spectre of Alden Global Capital coming in and buying things out. But regardless of who owns the paper, you’re going to have a need for collective bargaining. Regardless of who owns what stake, we realized it was important to have a seat at the table to bargain around key issues.
Then the pandemic hits and everything is up in the air. In April 2020, they instituted permanent pay cuts for some of the staff. A month later, they furloughed the rest of the staff for three weeks. We were getting hit and we didn’t have a seat at the table. That was the impetus to start our organizing. It took a long time because we’re doing it all virtually.
SW: The union includes digital, print, and photo staff and reporters - how many members of the newsroom are part of this effort?
CG: Not counting some editors and management, we’re just shy of 70. It is bigger than some other newsrooms that have organized recently. So that’s 70 conversations over Zoom and phone calls - it takes a lot longer to happen than when you’re in the office.
SW: You talk about these newsroom cuts before the pandemic and then these furloughs and pay cuts in the midst of the pandemic, the greatest story of a lifetime. A pandemic that touches every beat in the newsroom, including your transit beat. How does that impact you and your coworkers’ ability to cover this story?
CG: Those of us who report in the field and even those with desk assignments, we are doing essential work, essential reporting, during the worst crisis of my lifetime. We quickly realized just how important this reporting was, the importance of getting timely and accurate information about the shutdown to our readers or when it comes to the state of affairs in the city and the people who are slipping through the cracks, being left behind as the pandemic continues and worsens. We’ve knocked on doors, we’ve gone to hospitals talking to nurses, we’re talking to transit workers. We saw ourselves getting a pay cut and working with even less resources while we’re telling one of the most important stories in the past two 20 years in New York City.
There was a moment in May when we realized this wasn’t going to be over any time soon. That we were going to be working in these conditions for a long time. In September, they closed the newsroom, making us a newspaper without a newsroom and effectively making us do this on our own without our input.
SW: Tribune Publishing has closed many of its newsrooms across the country. How does that impact reporters’ ability to do their job and report the news? Are these closures permanent?
CG: They said it is temporary but there are no plans in place to reopen. A lot of us in the newsroom are perfectly happy working from home. It cuts the commute out of their day. For some, the newsroom is a hub. You’re covering something in Brooklyn, you need to head up to the Bronx - you’re stopping at the newsroom first. You also kind of realize what a benefit an office is - you have work furniture there that you don’t have at home, you have a setup, you have a desk line. One thing that hit me early - we have our desk phones with a 212 area code. You call someone in New York and they don’t have your number saved, if you have a 212 area code, they’re going to pick up [more?] than otherwise. It’s the little things like that, that build up.
SW: Has Tribune Publishing provided anything to reporters to make working from home easier?
CG: They did provide phones to some people, that work as hotspots and provide unlimited data. But when it comes to office furniture or over the summer when everyone’s running the AC all day, nothing along those lines. A lot of people have invested a lot of money into their workspaces. It is not Tribune’s fault that the pandemic happened but at the same time, we were always guaranteed these things. I had to buy a bunch of stuff just to set up a little workspace, I just bought a new desk today.
SW: The Daily News newsroom was organized up until the mid-90s, when then-owner Mortimer Zuckerman busted the union. How does that legacy inform the organizing?
CG: We did a lot of research on the history of that, because it is coming on 30 years old now. At the time, the New York Daily News was the most widely circulated newspaper in the country. When this organizing first started, it was something we talked about. It was something the News Guild [organizers] flagged. But when it came to, “oh this union got broken 30 years ago?”, that hat didn’t factor in too much. However, there are certain details from that era that make your heart twang. Thousands of people were employed by the Daily News. At that point, before the internet, the paper was a license to print money - it’s a tabloid designed for those taking the train. And now it’s not the most widely circulated newspaper in the country anymore. It hasn’t been for quite some time. Since then, it’s like death by a thousand paper cuts. It’s not dead but it’s a slow bleed of losing jobs, cutting departments, gutting different responsibilities. Everyone was quick to understand it’s a completely different scenario now then it was 30 years ago.
SW: You mention thousands of people who worked for the newspaper then to about 70 in the newsroom now. Do you and your coworkers wonder where the newspaper would be now if the union hadn’t been busted?
CG: It does make us wonder, if the big cuts in 2018 would have happened if we had been unionized. Over the years, there have been other start-and-stop attempts to reestablish the union but there also has been a lot of turnover. A lot of people have been laid off and a lot of people left. To their credit, [Tribune] has done a good job in replacing them with a pretty strong staff of reporters. We’re some of the best in the city at holding leaders accountable. So there is a good portion of people who have wondered if this could have helped - if not prevent, then stave off some of the really drastic layoffs almost three years ago.
SW: How severe were these layoffs in 2018?
CG: It was close to half the newsroom. They laid off almost all the photographers, many who are now working in freelance positions. It really shook the institution to its core.
SW: Alden Global Capital owns a 32% stake in Tribune Publishing now. The News Guild recently called on Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to investigate their offshore ownership structure of these various newspaper chains they own a stake in. How has this impacted your newsroom?
CG: They started to come into the fold because Michael Ferro, who stepped down shortly before allegations of sexual harassment became public, sold his 25% stake in then-Tronc to Alden Global Capital in the fall of 2019. This caused a lot of fear because of their reputation of coming in and gutting newspapers. Now, everyone understands that no matter who owns the paper, we still need to have a seat at the table, to protect our jobs, and be able to bargain around pay and benefits. A lot of those who were here in 2018 and survived those layoffs, they know Alden didn’t do that. That was the current owners. So it added fuel to the organizing fire, but it wasn’t the spark itself.
SW: Our initial excitement and interest in this announcement was here is the last non-union Tribune Publishing newsroom organizing but come to find out, that distinction now belongs to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. Regardless, the News Guild still has significant density across Tribune Publishing and some of their legacy units have been organized for decades. Did this influence you and your coworkers desire to organize and do you think it will influence management’s response to your request for voluntary recognition?
CG: They said they would respond by this Monday [February 8] so we’ll see (Editor’s note: At the time of publication, we have not received an update if Tribune Publishing voluntarily recognized). Yes, the fact that we were one of two newspapers in this company that are not organized certainly resonated. That helped address some fears in initial conversations. A lot of people saw what happened with DNAinfo and Gothamist, with Joe Ricketts ultimately closing the two in response to their successful union drive - but they’re not going to close this whole paper, they’re not going to close all of Tribune. I think the solidarity with other papers helped get more people on board and understand this movement. There’s a big movement in newsrooms across the country, in Tribune and beyond. Journalists across the country are saying our work is valuable and essential.
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