Community reporters and journalists at community papers within the Baltimore Sun Media Group unionized today, calling for higher wages and a more stable work environment.
The group, known as the Chesapeake News Guild, covers about 50 reporters, photographers, designers and copy editors at The Capital in Annapolis, Carroll County Times, The Aegis in Harford County, Howard County Times and other local news organizations owned and managed by the local media company.
Employees have filed cards with a lawyer from the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, the same union that represents The Sun. While the newsroom of the flagship daily paper has been unionized since the 1930s, according to an article written by Fred Rasmussen on the guild’s site, those protections do not extend to the smaller sister publications in the Baltimore Sun Media Group, several of which were purchased within the last five years.
In a video accompanying the announcement, journalists lament a lack of investment in newsrooms and low wages that, they say, have caused colleagues to choose between a career in journalism and other work, and made it harder for reporters to cover their assigned communities.
“That important works grows more difficult each day, because of decisions made by distant corporations on behalf of shareholders, decisions that have led to smaller newsrooms, stagnant wages and limited resources,” says one, no doubt a nod to the penchant for cost-cutting from Tribune Publishing (formerly known as tronc), the Chicago-based owner of Baltimore Sun Media Group, Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News and other newspapers.
“We’ve watched talented colleagues leave jobs they love in order to afford a house or start a family or just live without the constant threat of layoffs,” says another. “Nobody should have to choose between a job they love and having people they love.”
In a release, the guild says it is asking for voluntary recognition from Tribune in the next 72 hours.
One of the reporters behind the union push, Cody Boteler, who covers Catonsville and Arbutus for Baltimore Sun Media Group, says it was important for him and his colleagues to get a seat at the table and fight for a living wage. (Full disclosure: I was a Baltimore Sun Media Group employee when I worked as an editor at City Paper. Boteler and I worked together during my time there.)
He counts himself lucky to not be in a single-income household, but says even then, it’s difficult to survive in the Baltimore area on a wage that equals less than $15 an hour.
“It’s tough with that kind of salary,” he says. “And I know people who have been here for a long time and not seen any raises, or any scheduled raises.”
There’s also hope a successful unionization will break down a firewall between the smaller publications and The Sun. The way it currently works, local editors serve as a go-between for reporters, in part because the Sun is unionized and the other papers are not.
“It’s frustrating to be a young reporter at an amazing institution with a lot of talent, and to be cut off from that talent,” says Boteler.
Scott Dance, an environment and science reporter with The Sun who serves as guild chair in the newsroom union, posted on Twitter that the union effort from the smaller papers has the support of the daily paper.
They have, in effect, replaced the Sun’s shuttered suburban bureaus, but do not enjoy the same pay, benefits or protections as Sun staff. It’s time for that to change.
— Scott Dance (@ssdance) November 14, 2018
In an interview with The Washington Post, Dance said The Sun is in favor of nixing the barrier.
“We’ve always thought it didn’t make sense how they kept it so separate, and these reporters are doing the duties that our suburban unionized bureaus once did,” he says.
Tim Thomas, senior vice president for business development of Baltimore Sun Media Group, said in a statement: “We have received the letter asking the company to voluntarily recognize several non-union groups of news and editorial employees. We anticipate responding early next week.”
Last week, Tribune Publishing extended company-wide buyout offers to any non-union employee with at least 10 years of service. The company said it would make a similar offer to union workers in the coming days.
“We hope to meet our financial targets through this buyout plan; however, if we don’t we may need to explore further workforce reductions,” wrote Maya A. Bordeaux, senior vice president of human resources for Tribune.
Boteler says the Chesapeake News Guild is undeterred by this news.
“For us, it’s another reason for organization, to push and say, We don’t want to be an afterthought. We want to be involved in these decisions.”