Journalists at McClatchy’s four Washington state newspapers announced Wednesday that they are unionizing, a move that has received support from more than 90% of their union-eligible staff.
The union representing the papers — The Bellingham Herald, The Olympian, The News Tribune and the Tri-City Herald — is seeking voluntary recognition from McClatchy, which has received the request but not yet made a decision. If recognized, the Washington State NewsGuild will be part of The Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild of The NewsGuild-CWA.
The announcement marks the latest in a string of recent unionization efforts at other McClatchy papers. The company, which holds about 30 newspapers, voluntarily recognized the unions at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and at The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette earlier this fall. In total, there are nine unionized newsrooms at McClatchy including flagship paper The Sacramento Bee.
As the media industry undergoes rapid changes, unions have popped up in newsrooms across the country. In the past few years, journalists at outlets ranging from legacy papers like the Los Angeles Times to digital news sites like Slate have unionized to fight for better wages and more stability in a volatile industry.
Washington State NewsGuild organizers said they are unionizing to secure working conditions that will allow them to properly cover their communities.
“We’re ultimately doing this because we want to make sure that there will be local papers and local journalists covering each of these communities for decades,” said Denver Pratt, an organizer and The Bellingham Herald’s courts and criminal justice reporter.
The unionization effort has been months in the making and started in earnest this summer after hedge fund Chatham Asset Management won the auction to buy McClatchy in July. The company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February to shed their debt.
The auction sparked conversation among staff at the Washington papers, organizers said. Some were worried about what the recent turmoil at McClatchy would mean for their newsrooms, and they decided it was the right time to unionize.
Though Chatham pledged at the time of the auction to keep all of McClatchy’s papers open, some hedge funds have grown a reputation for cutting jobs and closing newsrooms. In fact, a court filing after the auction revealed that the other bidder, hedge fund Alden Global Capital, would have cut roughly 1,000 of 2,800 jobs at McClatchy if it had won.
“There’s the saying that a hedge fund is a vulture fund, that they do their best to turn a profit, and they don’t care how many people are cut in that process,“ said Josephine Peterson, an organizer and the county reporter at The News Tribune. “It’s the decimation of local news, and we wanted to make sure that we did everything in our power to ensure that wasn’t going to happen.”
Matt Driscoll, an organizer and a reporter and columnist, said he has watched his newsroom slowly empty over the nearly six years he has worked at The News Tribune. He estimated that at one point, The News Tribune alone had more than 50 newsroom staff. Today, there are fewer than 40 union-eligible staff between the four Washington papers.
“After years and years of disinvestment, we want to push for investments, and that means hiring reporters. That means diversifying newsrooms. That means making sure that the reporters that we do have, have livable wages and can afford to live in the communities they cover,” Driscoll said.
The organizers have not yet officially discussed their demands for a new contract. But some individual priorities include improving newsroom diversity, addressing salary discrepancies and receiving pay for a 40-hour workweek. Currently staff at the Washington papers are receiving pay for 37.5 hours per week, but some unionized newspapers have 40-hour workweeks, Pratt said. Organizers also pointed out that as journalists, their work often requires more than 37.5 hours per week.
The staff at the four papers decided to unionize together in part because they already work together for certain reporting projects. They also realized in conversations with each other that certain newsrooms had benefits or support that others lacked.
“We came to the conclusion that we didn’t want to leave anyone behind,” said Chase Hutchinson, an organizer and reporter for The Peninsula Gateway and The News Tribune. “The necessity for good local journalism transcends across the state.”
McClatchy spokesperson Jeanne Segal wrote in an emailed statement that the company is currently reviewing the request but did not indicate when it would make a decision.
“We appreciate the passion and dedication of the reporters at The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and the Tri-City Herald and respect their aim to form a union,” Segal wrote. “We recognize that it’s not an easy time to be a journalist. We value the tremendous work they have produced in these unprecedented times and together with them share a dedication to the mission of local journalism.”
If McClatchy does not voluntarily recognize the Washington State NewsGuild, the decision to unionize will go to a vote. However, organizers have already seen widespread support for the union among the four newsrooms.
“I’ve gotten to know my coworkers in such a different light. We were a pretty close newsroom before, but now it’s been so nice to see us all make this concerted effort to come together for the collective good,” Peterson said. “This is something that will outlast all of us hopefully. We’re trying to make a better newsroom for the community that will last through to, hopefully, generations.”