News Hole

A chasm gapes between the Post-Dispatch and the Suburban Journals -- even though they're both Pulitzer holdings

In the staid old edifice at Market Street and Tucker Boulevard, two reporters, their offices a scant 10 feet apart, labor to cover aldermanic meetings and City Hall happenings. One office door, labeled "St. Louis Post-Dispatch," leads to the cluttered lair of reporter Mark Schlinkmann. The other is emblazoned "Suburban Journals" and opens on the den of Heather Cole. Schlinkmann is a seasoned reporter, assigned to City Hall in 1997; Cole is a former Peace Corps worker who came on board with the Journals as staff writer in 1998 and was assigned to City Hall in 1999. Both are solid and prolific writers. And yet Cole, 30, an expectant mother, could certainly benefit from even half of the $54,800 yearly minimum of her counterpart, a sum more than two-and-a-half times her annual take of $20,800.

Oddly, both are employed by Pulitzer Inc., which bought the Journal Register Co. last summer for the sum of $164 million. Whereas the Pulitzer name is associated with journalistic excellence, this newest acquisition, a string of community newspapers, comes with a contingent of unhappy workers grousing about low pay and high stress -- and wanting to organize a union.

Cole and two colleagues -- copy editor Julie Kelemen and sportswriter Joe Harris -- are among the organizers, trying, under the aegis of the St. Louis Newspaper Guild, to get enough signatures to call for a union vote. The effort has been under way since last fall, but the determining vote is nowhere in sight.

Joe Harris and Julie Kelemen
Joe Harris and Julie Kelemen

Cole and Kelemen paint a gloomy picture of life at the Journals: The hourly rate of $8.50-$9 for a staff writer is comparable to the pay received by a shirt presser or dishwasher; employees receive no money for overtime hours, only comp time; new employees get no accrued vacation days and no personal days until they've been on the job for two Januaries. Journals staff writers are expected to crank out 10 stories per week, a combination of short and long pieces.

Membership in the Pulitzer family has its privileges: a better 401(k) plan and an improved vacation policy. Although Post-Dispatch newsroom employees have long been organized under the Newspaper Guild, the Journals management doesn't want a union. "Bob Woodworth [president and CEO of Pulitzer Inc.] and Joe Pepe [Journals president] have repeatedly told us that they want to grow the company before raises and other improved benefits can happen," says Cole. "'Give us a chance' has been the mantra, hoping to avert unionization."

Growing the company in these days is out of the question; Pulitzer -- and, by extension, the Journals -- is currently experiencing earnings below projected estimates as a result of a slump in ad revenue, something common to all newspapers.

Kelemen says the Journals staff was told at last week's quarterly meeting that the company fell $2 million short of expected earnings in the first three months of this year. That hasn't dampened the organizing drive. "It's not always about money," she says. "It has as much to do with people wanting more of a voice in personnel matters. We understand that with the economy being in a slump lately and with news of layoffs here and there, job security might be just as much of an issue. They say no layoffs are on the horizon, but you wonder, 'What if the next time around it's $3 million short in expected revenues?' What will they do then?"

Fridays are the most demanding for Cole: That's when the Board of Aldermen meets, and it's the deadline for the Sunday edition. At 9:55 a.m. on a recent Friday, Cole -- reporter's notebook clasped in her left hand -- walks up the marble steps to the aldermanic chambers and takes her seat at the press table, ready for the 10 o'clock powwow. Seated nearby is Schlinkmann. Although they hear the same patter for two hours, the two write entirely different stories. Readers of the Saturday Post are treated to Schlinkmann's report singling out a brake-service owner as one of the beneficiaries of a tax subsidy for a North Grand strip mall -- essentially a follow-up to a previous Post story about the brake service's being accused of overbilling the St. Louis Housing Authority. Cole writes three stories for the Sunday edition: coverage of a bill to extend the city's contract with a cable-service provider, a short piece on the malfunctioning elevators at the city Health Department and a longer piece on the current squabble over ward redistricting. "We're pretty divergent in terms of what he's expected to cover and what I'm expected to cover," says Cole. "My priority is local. I do neighborhood stuff that he won't bother with."

Does it rankle her that her counterpart is far better rewarded for his work? "In the marketplace, I don't know if I'm worth as much as a Mark Schlinkmann -- if he's got 20 years or more and I've got three," she says. "Frankly, if I were hiring, I wouldn't pay me as much as Mark, but I would pay me more than I am getting paid now."

And the Journals' low pay is driving the union-organizing effort. Cole, for instance, started at $9 per hour three years ago and has almost made it to $10 this year. Call that $400 per week. Had Cole started at the Post three years ago, she'd now be making $766 per week. (Inexperienced reporters start out at the Post making $659 per week and after eight years get the top minimum of $1,054 a week).

Next Page »