In 2019, there were five newspaper publishing groups that stood head and shoulders above the others: Gannett, GateHouse, McClatchy, Tribune and Alden Global Capital’s MNG Enterprises. Today, there are three. In 2019, Alden Global Capital acquired Tribune Publishing for more than $600 million. Later that same year, GateHouse owner New Media Investment Group bought Gannett and merged the two publishers under the Gannett banner, creating the country’s largest news portfolio of more than 250 dailies— totaling more than a fifth of all daily newspapers in the United States. Just last year, a bankrupt McClatchy was nearly acquired by Alden before being bought by another hedge fund, Chatham Asset Management.
It should come as little surprise to most people that local newspapers are struggling. The rise of digital media, Facebook and, more recently, the pandemic, all come to mind as major factors behind this downturn. Newspapers across the country have seen major declines in both circulation and ad revenue while the number of newsroom employees has fallen by more than a quarter since 2008. Despite newspapers playing a valuable role in keeping communities informed, the unfortunate reality is that the industry is in distress, and distressed industries get consolidated. The twin horrors of corporate consolidation and parasitic hedge funds have emerged at the forefront of the assault on American news and in particular the people who write and produce it.
What can workers in and out of the newsroom do when faced with rapacious corporate raiders like Alden Global or Gannett? Unfortunately, the options are pretty limited when one’s workplace is bought out by a firm widely known as the “Destroyer of Newspapers,” but news workers across the country are nonetheless turning to collective bargaining as their best hope to beat back against the relentless cost-cutting imposed by their corporate overlords. Amid yet another year of general decline in union membership rates across the country, the largest news worker union in the country, the NewsGuild-CWA, has seen a spectacular 144% increase in the publishing industry’s union levels. With 2,128 workers winning recognition at 42 workplaces in 2021 alone, the Guild is leading the charge to protect the journalists and production staff, who are the backbone of local newspapers, with its unionizing of thousands of workers at dozens of papers since 2018.
In the past three years, Gannett, Alden and their fellow corporate monstrosities have seen waves of unionization campaigns at their properties, while already-unionized papers saw renewed militancy as workers fought to stave off the mass layoffs that have plagued the industry. For example, over the past year, Gannett’s East Coast operations saw the formation of the Record Guild in February, the Hudson Valley Guild in July and the APP-MCJ Guild in August, while the region’s web producers formed the Atlantic Digital Optimization Team Guild. These victories present an answer to how workers at small, local newspapers can effectively mobilize against massive media conglomerates: stick together. NewsGuild locals organize not only based on employer but also geographical proximity. While some locals only represent workers at one (usually larger) workplace, many are comprised of workers at multiple newspapers in a single area to better leverage their collective bargaining power. For example, the previously mentioned Record Guild represents workers at the Bergen Record, New Jersey Herald and Daily Record, all of which are based in the Northern New Jersey area. The Hudson Valley and APP-MCJ guilds similarly represent workers of three newspapers each. This strategy turns owners’ consolidative measures against them, allowing workers at small workplaces with often less than 100 workers to have far more leverage than they otherwise would.
It must be continuously emphasized that these unionization efforts are not just over salaries and wages but also, in many cases, for the survival of entire newsrooms. While a union is not a silver bullet, it has been many news workers’ last line of defense against closures, being insured or the potential for homelessness. For communities across the country, a union has meant the survival of the only local news in their area. The grim reality that no amount of #Striketober posts or “Great Resignation” articles will change is that American workers have their backs against the wall. Wages haven’t kept pace with productivity since the 1970s. Jim Crow era right-to-work laws exist in half the country, while Janus v. AFSCME has gutted collective bargaining in the public sector.
Despite a few heavily publicized labor actions, 2021 saw a continuation of the multi-decade trend of declining union representation in the United States, with overall union levels at 10.3% and private sector unionization at a pitiful 6.1%. With an ever-shrinking pool of increasingly, comically powerful conglomerates, the constant march of capitalist accumulation has devastated workers not only in their stunted paychecks, but in the fracturing of the very fabric of their lives. Nonetheless, the NewsGuild’s victories stand as a testament to what is still possible. We can save our local communities from news consolidation, climate change and many of the other destructive consequences of the capitalist mode of production. Just take a look around. I guarantee that somewhere in your community, someone is facing down a well-financed Goliath and would appreciate someone by their side.
Justin Yuan is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.