Sweatshop Muzzle

Labor loss and the prospect of restricted coverage at the Suburban Journals

Jul 3, 2002 at 4:00 am
Two years ago, when Pulitzer Inc. bought the Suburban Journals, some thought the change of ownership might improve the newspapers. The thinking was that the mythic magic associated with the Pulitzer name would make the owners of the Post-Dispatch raise the standards and quality of the Journals.

Fat chance. Just ask Bob Schaper.

A few Fridays ago, Schaper quit his $10.50-an-hour job as a Journal reporter when he was confronted about his productivity. It seems he only wrote 173 articles in 24 weeks while covering City Hall for the twice-weekly South Side Journal.

Most Post-Dispatch reporters don't write that many articles in a year -- or two.

Schaper was a good City Hall reporter, but his output was at the bottom of the productivity list of the Journals' South Office reporters. The next-lowest tally was 180. After Schaper was told to pick up the pace, one of his bosses told him to rewrite a couple of press releases a week to boost his total.

"That tells you exactly what the Journals are all about," says Schaper. Fed up with low pay, long hours and shoddy treatment, Schaper walked.

That was Friday, June 14, the day after Journal employees at four of nine offices voted on whether to join the St. Louis Newspaper Guild. Three of the offices rejected the union by a total of five votes; one office approved it by one vote.

When Schaper quit, it was hours before the vote totals were announced. He thought the union was going to win at all the offices. "It's inconceivable to me that somebody would vote against the union when the pay is so appalling," Schaper says.

Aside from the union struggle, there are other messy details in the Pulitzer purchase of the Suburban Journals. Management types from the Post-Dispatch, the Journals and STLtoday.com have been meeting for months to discuss how the news is covered.

Leaks of the committee's initial recommendations make them appear bland and benign, but what's really cancerous is that these people met in the first place. By definition, that type of committee "coordinating" news coverage among three outlets stifles information and weakens the job done by local print media.

Some Journals reporters are worried that issues considered to be of regional interest, such as the new stadium, will be relegated to the Post-Dispatch and that the Journals will be limited to articles about neighborhood concerns.

When Pulitzer bought the suburban papers, the company vigorously rejected the notion that the Post-Dispatch might meddle with the Journals' news coverage. In June 2000, Pulitzer CEO Robert Woodworth said the plan was to run the Post-Dispatch and the Journals "very separately."

Schaper's not buying that line.

"Woodworth said it was their intention to keep the Journals and the Post as separate competitors, that there would be absolutely no collusion between them at all. Now they're divvying up the editorial part of it," Schaper says. "They're eliminating coverage, and you're narrowing it down to one voice. This is just a pathetic attempt by the Post-Dispatch to limit its competition. It wasn't enough that they put the Globe-Democrat out of business and they have the whole major daily market to themselves -- now they don't want competition from anyone."

Pulitzer Inc. took a scene right out of the John Sayles movie Matewan by bringing in operatives from King & Ballow, a Nashville law firm, to run the campaign against the union. King & Ballow bills itself on its Web site as representing "management in every facet of labor and employment relations."

Herb Goodrick, executive director of the St. Louis Newspaper Guild, says he is familiar with the union-busting reputation of the law firm hired by Pulitzer and the canned propaganda it uses.

The split at the Journals appeared to be between the editorial side and the sales/clerical side, with the editorial types lining up with the Guild.

"When the company started talking about 'You're going to lose your job, this will cause layoffs, there's going to be strikes, there's going to be strike violence,' the people downstairs in editorial just kind of laughed it off, because we could see through it," says Schaper.

The Guild will have to wait a year before another vote can be taken at the three offices where it lost. Goodrick says the Guild is developing a proposal for the company to negotiate a contract for workers at the Wentzville-Warrenton office, where it won the vote.

Goodrick says the Guild also filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board about tactics used during the campaign leading up to the union vote.

Cosmetic improvements to the Journals might make sense, but common sense would suggest that the Pulitzer brain trust doesn't want to improve the news product of the Journals too much. Each week, the Suburban Journals gives away 1.3 million copies of its various editions, but the daily newspaper continues to sell fewer and fewer copies.

Even replacing the much-maligned Cole Campbell at the Post-Dispatch hasn't helped the paper's circulation woes.

Since Ellen Soeteber became editor in early 2001, the Post's circulation drop has continued unabated, Audit Bureau of Circulations figures show. The average daily circulation for the six-month period that ended March 31 was 290,372, a significant decrease of 3.5 percent compared with the year-earlier period; Sunday circulation averaged 472,322, a loss of 2.3 percent in the same period.

"At some point, the lack of quality in the Journals chain is going to become an embarrassment to Pulitzer," says Schaper. "It has to be an embarrassment at some point when people in charge hear stories about newsrooms' being turned into sweatshops and reporters' being told just to plagiarize press releases."

Maybe, but it probably won't matter. The ideals of a reporter who just quit his job on principle are much higher than those of the journalistic flatliners who make the fiscal decisions for Pulitzer Inc.