As dedicated readers of this space know, the Star Tribune has just begun labor negotiations with newsroom employees. This isn’t inside baseball: the results will go a long way to determining the quality of information you’ll get from the region’s top news source.
Meetings began last week — editor Nancy Barnes communicated her vision Friday — and today, the Strib’s Newspaper Guild let its members know what labor said behind closed doors.
In a statement titled “This Is Our Newspaper,” there was an understandable lancing of boils, including the multi-million-dollar legal bill to remove disgraced ex-publisher Par Ridder.
“Yes, the Par Ridder case is water over the dam, money flushed down the toilet,” Guild leaders note sourly. “We can’t go back and undo the costly redesign, or change decisions about zoning. … these were decisions made without our input, and in the Ridder case, it was a disaster that no one has come forward to take responsibility for.
“How can you ask us to trust you going into the future when we look back on the track record?”
Still, the bulk of the memo is recognition that tough medicine is needed.
Thanks to a confidential look at the paper’s books earlier this year, the union doesn’t deny the Strib’s precarious financial position — though the Guild leaders ruefully note “if business education sessions taught us one thing, [newspaper] sales bring on crushing debt. And crushing debt is why we find ourselves in this position.”
Perhaps predictably, labor argues that “we can’t be hiring new managers at a time like this” — bluntly asserting that a still-open Assistant Managing Editor for Investigations slot “is a worthwhile position for a newspaper that is financially vigorous. From everything we have been led to believe, that is not the case here.”
Yet at the same time, “we can’t be hiring within the Guild, either.”
Now, some may say that’s trying to make a bargaining chip out of the obvious. But the union goes on to oppose filling open Guild-level positions — a rather hefty concession in bargaining’s first week.
Perhaps this is nothing more than a way for existing employees to assure they get any remaining bucks, not some cheap college grad. Yet it’s hard not to sympathize with folks who note that “many of us have been here for decades. We have survived mergers, layoffs, inane reorganizations.”
In the end, the Guild practically pleads to help guide inevitable change. They explicitly praise Barnes for pushing “cross-platform” training.
“We’re all about multi-media,” the memo states (a pronouncement that might amaze some former managers) “and the need to be nimble and hyper-competitive and aggressive.”
There’s a whiff of survivor’s bravado: “The only protection we have is our contract. We have no intentions of weakening it. That’s not belligerence. It is wisdom based on our experiences of the past two years.”
Yet even if a deal is pounded out, the specter of bankruptcy haunts: “What assurances do we have that any deals we bargain here will be honored?”
As always, here’s the full statement, as presented in negotiations:
Following a series of discussions with small groups of our members, and conversations within the bargaining committee and Guild leadership, a common theme has emerged. We are concerned about the future of this newspaper and we fear that we are not being given a voice in forging that future.
To that end, let’s say at the outset that the Star Tribune is our newspaper. Our commitment and dedication run deep. Many of us have been here for decades. We have survived mergers, layoffs, inane reorganizations.
We recognize now that we have a new challenge that in many ways is more profound than any of these others — the radical change in our business structure and the greater societal shift in media and information. Yet, we are eager to find solutions. Given our resources, it’s inconceivable that we should not be able to compete.
We were glad to hear several shared goals that Nancy Barnes presented on Friday.
Training our members to work on different platforms is essential to the survival of the company. We’re all about multi-media, and the need to be nimble and hyper-competitive and aggressive. The Guild has explored some training options and is prepared to discuss those options during this process.
The question is, how we get to those goals? How do we share the burden — everyone in the newspaper — in our attempts to survive this current season of unease?
A few responses, then, to the editor’s talking points.
We can’t be hiring new managers at a time like this. The AME/Investigations job, for example, is a worthwhile position for a newspaper that is financially vigorous. From everything we have been led to believe, that is not the case here.
We also can’t be hiring within the Guild, for that matter. As much as it pains us to make a statement like that, we have to look at open positions as cost savings. We believe we have to balance any short-term adjustments with long-term rewards for our members. If we are asked to make sacrifices, we do not want them to have implications for years to come.
And, in the spirit of cooperation, we believe that any sacrifices the Guild is asked to make should be comparably shared by everyone in management.
What’s in our future? If the business education sessions taught us one thing, sales bring on crushing debt. And crushing debt is why we find ourselves in this situation. The stability of our company means a great deal to us and the only protection we have is our contract. We have no intentions of weakening it. That’s not belligerence. It is wisdom based on our experiences of the past two years.
One motif that emerged early and repeated itself often in our meetings with members was the sense of disenfranchisement. People want to talk about how journalism is performed. They want their ideas listened to, and they want to feel as though they are participating in their future.
And right now, they don’t feel those things. The management has to realize that it has a wealth of experience and knowledge and talent sitting in the news room, and it has to find a way to unlock that talent. That’s what leadership is about. And there is a sense of vacuum and disconnect between the people who do the reporting, writing, editing, designing and photographing and the people who are charged with making this a great newspaper.
We want to be fast in addressing the coming changes, but we believe we need to be smart also. What gauges of success do we develop for new ventures? Where are we willing to give an endeavor a long rope, and where a short rope? Again, there are many people who want to participate in making those decisions — putting their abilities to work for the Star Tribune. Let them help.
We also care greatly about the integrity of this newspaper and we believe Guild members can be the guardians. We worry about the effect of increased freelance on the quality of our information. Will our standards be compromised? Who makes those decisions and why are they made? When considering the news room, the business of journalism and the business of Guild needn’t be exclusive of each other. In fact, they are the same.
Lastly, in addition to an economic crisis, there is a crisis of confidence in the leadership of this news organization. Yes, the Par Ridder case is water over the dam, money flushed down the toilet. We can’t go back and undo the costly redesign, or change decisions about zoning. But those occurrences have left deep, deep scars on this news room. These were decisions that were made without our input, and in the Ridder case, it was a disaster that no one has come forward to take responsibility for. How can you ask us to trust you going into the future when we look back on the track record? There is not only a crisis of finance here, there is a crisis in confidence. We are conditioned by our experience.
Can we trust whatever deals are made here? We were told last spring that deep cuts were being made because then we would only have to cut once. That, of course, was said by a publisher who was about to drag us into a costly court battle.
But here we are, back again, asked to cut. What assurances do we have that any deals we bargain here will be honored? We know the Teamster drivers are back in talks, even though they concluded a contract last winter.
We want to participate in our future. This is our newspaper.