Image via @azrepublicguild/Twitter
For two days, unionized reporters across the country, including at Arizona’s largest newspaper, will walk off the job to protest unfair working conditions.
On June 5 and 6, journalists at the Arizona Republic and 24 other newsrooms won’t be covering local governments, sports teams, restaurants and all the other things they typically do in order to send a message to parent company Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the country.
“We aim to remind Gannett where the value in its company lies — its journalists,” Republic reporter Richard Ruelas wrote on a GoFundMe post crowdsourcing donations to recoup costs for employees who join the walkout.
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The strike follows years of debilitating staff cuts. The latest saw the Virginia-based company, which owns more than 200 papers, lay off 3% of its workforce across more than 25 states. Those included “deep, wide and high” cuts at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, which saw 25% of its remaining journalists fired, including its top editor. (The Star is operated under a 50-50 partnership between Gannett and Lee Enterprises.)
And the media conglomerate has long been criticized for buying up and shuttering local news outlets.
Since its purchase of the Republic in 2000, the staff of the state’s paper of record has shrunk from more than 400 to about 130. But the Valley, which the Republic primarily covers, has continued to grow.
Negotiations with the Arizona Republic Guild, which represents about 90 of those journalists, to secure employee protections have been slow-moving over the past three years. Ruelas, the union’s leader, said he hopes next week’s walkout serves as a wake-up call. The strike’s duration takes place during a corporate shareholder meeting.
“We’re trying to get the attention of the company as a whole. We have very few levers to use to get the company’s attention, and this is one of them,” he said.
Key concerns for the union are fair pay, affordable health care rates and job security. Ruelas has been a journalist for 30 years, much of it spent with the Republic, and he’s witnessed stagnating wages and disproportionately high insurance premiums. The Arizona Republic Guild advocates for a base starting pay of at least $50,000, but it’s unclear, exactly, what the payscale at the Republic looks like. The union’s inquiries have so far gone unanswered.
“What we’re trying to make sure about is that you’re not losing ground every year you work for the Arizona Republic, you’re not losing money by staying here,” he said. “We’d like people to think this is a spot where they can have this job, and work and live and start a family.”
Gannett’s difficulties, in some ways, echo the health of the corporate news industry at large. Between 2008 and 2020, newsrooms across the country saw employment plunge by 26% as the profession shifted to a digital format. And economic strain during the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated losses, with popular media outlets like BuzzFeed, Vice and CNN making devastating layoffs.
But, while Ruelas acknowledges that the news landscape is different today than it was at its height, it’s not defeated yet, and the reporters who serve their community deserve better treatment.
“It’s (about) the people who are at the legislature, the people watching out for the purse strings, the people telling the stories of the sports teams you love,” he said. “It’s the people telling the stories of the restaurants that you patronize, the musicians who are playing. It really is the people who tell the stories of the city and the state, and we are enriched by having them.”
A spokesperson for the Arizona Republic noted that negotiations with the union will continue, as will its delivery of content.
“Despite the anticipated work stoppage, we will not cease delivering trusted news to our loyal readers. Our goal is to preserve journalism and serve our communities across the country as we continue to bargain in good faith to finalize contracts that provide equitable wages and benefits for our valued employees,” the spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.
***UPDATE: This story has been updated to include the total number of staff working in the Republic’s newsroom.
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