Newsroom staff at Arizona Republic, a Gannett paper, moves to unionize ahead of GateHouse deal

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(Richard Drew)

September 4 at 9:00 AM

Newsroom staff members at one of Gannett’s largest newspapers, the Arizona Republic, launched a unionization effort Wednesday in advance of the company’s planned acquisition by GateHouse Media.

Other Gannett papers are unionized, but the Republic would be the first of Gannett’s papers to organize while under the company’s ownership, staffers from the paper said, and the effort may signal a broader effort to unionize papers before the deal to combine the two chains is completed.

Gannett and GateHouse are under intense pressure by investors to find an estimated $300 million in annual cost savings as part of the $1.4 billion deal. That has prompted concerns among staff at the two companies’ more than 250 daily newspapers and hundreds of weekly and community papers that already much-reduced newsrooms will be cut even further — and that additional employee protections will be critical.

If the battle at the Republic, Arizona’s largest daily newspaper, is any indication, the effort to unionize at Gannett may not be easy.

Reporters, photographers, producers, columnists and other employees from the newspaper announced Wednesday that they had signed union authorization cards. In preparing the announcement they also shared an email to staff from Greg Burton, the Republic’s executive editor and West Regional editor for Gannett, in which Burton warns those backing the union drive from “tracking the comings and goings of a number of their co-workers” who weren’t supportive of the effort.

“We have been told that one union supporter threatened that things will get ‘even messier’ in the weeks to come,” Burton wrote in the email. “If organized surveillance and spying are already occurring in the face of a divisive unionization effort, I hope you carefully consider the consequences of bringing the Guild into our workplace.”

Rebekah L. Sanders, a reporter who has been on the Republic staff for almost 12 years, characterized Burton’s message as a union-busting effort. She said with the unionization push, she and her colleagues were fighting for “a voice in the decisions being made about our future.”

“Arizona Republic editors have the same goal as employees: to produce strong local journalism,” Sanders said. “But the pressures from corporate executives and Wall Street continue to lead to cuts, cuts and more cuts.”

Burton declined to comment. However tensions appeared to escalate Tuesday evening when, after word of the organizing plans spread in the newspaper’s offices, Sanders said she was called in by a Gannett human resources representative and “interrogated” about her unionizing activities and took her work phone.

“Afterward, the rep demanded I give her my work cell,” Sanders said in a lengthy explanation of the exchange she posted on Facebook. “I asked how I would conduct interviews the rest of the day. She said, ‘You won’t.’ I asked when I could have it back. She said she would let me know. My work cell has all of my contacts and is an integral part of my job.”

A spokesman for McLean, Va.-based Gannett declined to comment on how the unionization effort at the Republic and possibly other Gannett titles could affect the GateHouse deal.

Arizona Republic staffers say that Gannett has already dramatically cut newsroom staff, from roughly 425 journalists in 2007 to about 130 today. The newspaper’s four community bureaus have closed, and a single reporter covers both the city of Phoenix and Maricopa County governments.

“We can’t be sure that whatever company owns us will care about journalism,” said Richard Ruelas, a features reporter and 25-year veteran of the Republic, in a statement issued by newsroom staffers. “But we can work to make sure they provide some basics for journalists.”

For some Wall Street investors, Gannett’s cuts have not come fast enough or deep enough in the face of a continuing slide in the financial viability of local news. In May, Gannett shareholders rejected a hostile bid by hedge fund Alden Golden Capital. Had that deal gone through, experts expected that it would have led to far more dramatic cost-cutting.

Gannett has also added some new positions at the paper aimed at growing digital readership, including a four-person audio storytelling team and a four-person data and investigations unit. In June, the investigative journalism non-profit organization ProPublica chose the Republic as one of six newsrooms to collaborate with on local stories.

Should Gannett not voluntarily recognize the Republic’s union, as expected, it will trigger an election among Republic staffers. The staff behind the union effort are seeking to be represented by the NewsGuild-CWA, which represents more than 20,000 journalists.A key number in the $1.4 billion agreement, due to close by the end of the year, is $115 million in annual savings that is expected to come from “Newspaper Operations.”

GateHouse and its parent company, New Media Investment Group, have not detailed where those cuts will occur. In announcing the deal, New Media Chairman Michael Reed told shareholders that, should the deal be approved, it will “not only preserve but actually enhance the journalism in our local markets.”