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At the PiPress, the breach that didn’t bark

One of my favorite story types is “the dog that didn’t bark”. Last year, the silence howled when Pioneer Press staff and new union-busting owner Dean Singleton concluded a four-year labor deal with relative calm.

Last month, I stumbled across a tidbit that might’ve explained why. The alt-publication SF Weekly was chronicling Singleton’s fiendishly clever anti-union gambit in the Bay Area: he buys local papers, merges nonunion staffs into unionized ones, and dilutes union forces below the 50 percent support needed for recognition. That forces unions to spend precious time and scarce money rebuilding previous gains and organizing papers historically hostile to labor.

The local angle? According to the Weekly, things were so balmy in St. Paul that “Pioneer Press reporters conducted an investigative-style analysis of the advertising department. They identified inefficiencies and put together a report suggesting ways the department could generate more revenue.” As Al Pacino would say, “Hoo-ah!” Or, as the Weekly put it, “When reporters begin working with management to improve ad revenues, there is a danger their stories will begin to favor the interests of business over the general public.”

The ‘investigation’
At this point, the dog in my head is barking pretty loudly. So I put in a call to the chair of the St. Paul Newspaper Guild, PiPress reporter Alex Friedrich, who found himself correcting errors in another journalist’s work.

First, there were no “reporters” — only Friedrich. St. Paul’s Guild represents nearly every worker in the building, including sales reps, so if the Guild chair is a reporter, duties sometimes extend to the business side. “I did it as a union officer,” Friedrich says of his efforts. “I went over and interviewed a number of employees to get a list of the main problems they see in the department.”

That, he adds, was the extent of the “investigation.” There were no tips on boosting revenue. Friedrich said sales reps “don’t understand where the department is going. People are getting plucked out of beats they’ve had for years and are thrown into much smaller areas with much smaller income and being expected to perform immediately. There’s been just an ungodly amount of turnover.”

You can usually measure the love lost between editorial and advertising in a thimble. Reporters sneer at the craven, well-coiffed sales reps; the reps sneer at the pretentious, raggedy reporters. But the truth is that — at a polite distance — editorial needs sales and sales is a meatgrinder, especially right now, when print has become the maiden aunt to online’s sexy neighbor. (“Hello, Mr. Ford, would you like to buy some buggy whips?”)

In need of sources
Guild figures indicate that in the last two years, 79 positions on a 95-person ad staff have turned over; among management and other nonunion positions, turnover tops 100 percent. A new era means excising deadwood, but those numbers scream panic more than plan. And chaos in the backshop means less of the good stuff on your doorstep and computer screen.

Friedrich says the survey, conducted last fall, morphed into a contract-mandated labor-management working group — one that doesn’t involve anyone from the newsroom, by the way. PiPress management won’t comment beyond a bland statement saying they look forward to “recommendations to improve communication and productivity, as well as increase advertising revenue.”

Delving into the breach that didn’t bark made me realize one thing: media reporters have great newsroom sources, but we’re often as blind as Pacino’s Col. Frank Slade when it comes to life in the reps’ boiler room. We can read a balance sheet summary or a bottom-line circ report, but without talking to the folks on the ground, we don’t always see the big stories coming.

Given money’s influence on journalism, that’s an unforgivable gap, so I have a crowd-sourcing request: if you are or have recently been a media sales rep, send me an email at the address listed to the right. All correspondence confidential unless mutually agreed otherwise, but hopefully some stories will result.

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