Pittsburgh Current will hold solidarity byline strike on Dec. 10
By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
If I were to guess, most journalists remember their first professional byline.
My first was a feature on a United Way daffodil sale for The Evening Review in East Liverpool, Ohio. It’s a big moment for every writer. We entered the business knowing that getting rich was never the ultimate prize. Because along with their first byline, the other thing most of us remember is our first annual salary.
Mine was $17,500 for minimum 60-hour weeks and no overtime. I did manage to cash in a few hundred bylines that first year and back then, that was enough. I and many others have worked for years to deliver honest, accurate reporting at rock-bottom prices because we love what we do. That byline is our badge of honor. While newspaper owners tend to think of us as expendable and interchangeable, our names on the top of content means something. It adds gravitas to what you’re about to read.
In this city, if I see names like RIch Lord, Paula Reed Ward, Tony Norman (and many others) on the top of a story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I know that what I’m about to read was carefully crafted and earnestly reported. Our names appear on the top of our stories because we’re proud of the work we’ve done and we stand behind it.
That’s why the indefinite byline strike at the P-G is so important.
In protest of the “mistreatment of union members and managers by PG Executive Editor Keith Burris, Publisher John Robinson Block and his twin Allan Block, chairman of Toledo-based PG owner Block Communications Inc,” newsroom members of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh have been on a byline strike since November 20. In the first seven days of the action, which took place after the union held a unanimous “no-confidence vote” against Block and Burris,313 bylines and credit lines have been withheld.
I started this column talking about the importance of a byline to a writer, so those not in our business could better understand the magnitude of this protest. In March, P-G newsroom employees will have been working without a contract for three years, they haven’t had a raise in 14 years and have had their healthcare benefits hacked annually. Add that to working daily in a hostile environment and it’s easy to see how employees have arrived at this point.
“We are unified and resolute in protest of the unprecedented, unconscionable atmosphere of fear, hostility, and intimidation that Burris and the Blocks have created in the North Shore newsroom and we stand united in our quest for economic justice,” union head and veteran P-G reporter Mike Fuoco said in a recent press release. He also called the actions by the Blocks and Burris, “shameful and despicable.”
It’s hard to argue to the contrary. This is the team that pushed out iconic political cartoonist Rob Rogers (now a Pittsburgh Current contributor), wrote an editorial basically calling racism a bunch of hokum, ran a non-endorsement endorsement of Donald Trump and Block went on a bizarre weekend newsroom tirade that humiliated his child and took a figurative crap on his newsroom and his employees.
None of this comes as a surprise to me. In February, I wrote, “And now, the only guy standing between Block and the complete annihilation of what used to be ‘One of America’s Great Newspapers,’ is nothing more than a cheerleader for his political ideology and its clothesless emperors. At every given opportunity, Burris has used his position to anger and inflame P-G readers and subscribers. The Post-Gazette’s last saving grace has been its top-tier group of reporters, editors, and photojournalists. There was a time when we could say, at least, that these talents were able to do their jobs without much interference from a political ideologue like Block. But now there is no buffer, no conscience, no watchdog.”
Since that time, 16 journalists have left the paper that won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. Additionally, three top editors were recently fired or forced out due to “Burris’ dictatorial actions. Four other managers also left this year.
While it may not seem like it, this situation doesn’t just affect the P-G. The media has been under attack for some time now by the Trump Administration with its claims of “fake news” and calling the media the “enemy of the people.” Now we’re seeing the press attacked from the top of its own organization. Corporate interference in how reporters do their jobs is nothing new (trust me, I know). But this is some next-level stuff.
From the minute you become a journalist and work for a particular organization, you’re immediately told who your competition (enemy) is. News outlets, for the most part, have been siloed for years. Yes, reporters from various outlets can be friendly with one another, but there’s still that sense of rivalry. On some level that may be OK, but here’s how it’s harmed our industry and worked toward ownership’s favor.
As an employee of a competing media company, you’re not supposed to care what happens at places like the P-G. I’ve worked in this market for a long time and for me I’ve had moments of resentment toward editorial employees there because they were making “big money” at a union shop and I was making, let’s just say less than big money. But the fact is, none of us make what we deserve. We’re all in the same boat, but we’ve been conditioned not to throw our enemies a lifesaver. When you get down to it, though, we all have the same two goals: To provide the public with accurate, useful and important information and to make enough money to support our families.
That’s become harder to do because of wage freezes, layoffs, union-busting, and lower starting salaries. What’s going on at the P-G is not OK and those of us who care about this business need to step up and support the workers at the paper. The Guild is asking those unhappy with how the Blocks and Burris are running the company to let them know by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here at the Pittsburgh Current, many of us have decided to show our solidarity with P-G staff by withholding our bylines from stories in our Dec. 10 issue. The symbolic gesture is not mandatory, contributors can decide for themselves if they want to take part. But I and several staffers will be doing it and urge other members of the media to do the same that week.
As journalists, our job is to report on unfair and unjust situations when they occur. I figure if we can do that for other folks, then we can certainly do it to support one another.