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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.

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).

Pepe says there's nothing unusual or unfair about the disparity in pay: "Well, you're talking about two different companies. If you want to talk about the New York Times and the Post-Dispatch, you could argue the same thing. You have to look at size of company and the skill sets of its employees. With the Post, you're looking at an organization that is tremendously larger and at a higher financial position in the marketplace [compared with the Journals]. The pay we offer is going to be commensurate to the earnings of this company, and our employees know that. I think Pulitzer's been very clear that as we grow this company, we're interested in sharing in that growth with our employees. We want them to feel a sense of ownership and pride in the results of their work."

Journals management may want the newsroom staff to wait until the economy gets better and the company grows, but at least some of those staffers aren't sitting still.

They may be shopping their résumés around, but the options are limited. "The journalism business is very competitive," says Kelemen, 41, a copy editor with the Journals since 1997, "and that's what drives salaries down. It's not easy to go someplace else if you want to stay in this line of work. My choices are limited -- the Post, the RFT and a few other papers. Sometimes people in the company will say, 'If you're not happy, why not go someplace else?' I love this sort of work. I feel like this is what I was called to do, but I don't have the freedom to move to another town. I have a spouse and a child, and I'm pretty rooted here."

So Kelemen and Cole fight the lonely battle of getting their co-workers to sign the little off-white cards to indicate support for unionization. Herb Goodrick, executive secretary of the Newspaper Guild, says the union would like to get 60 percent of the employees to sign cards, even though only 30 percent are needed under National Labor Relations Board rules. Once the signature requirement is met, a union can be set up if more than 50 percent of full-time employees vote to do so. If that happens, collective bargaining begins.

That's not likely to happen very soon. Asked just how many signatures have been gathered, Goodrick is cagey. "For the sake of the campaign, we don't think it's wise to reveal how many signatures we have," he says. "Let's just say we've got the required 30 percent, but we're shooting for a sufficient percentage to make us believe that we would win the election." Besides, he says, the numbers change from week to week. "There's a tremendous amount of turnover at the Journals. For every two people you sign up, one leaves.

"We've been working on this thing since 1988," he notes, "trying to build support, trying to explain advantages of being represented by union. The wages are pitiful over there at the Journals."

But Goodrick is not in the trenches, as Cole and Kelemen are. They know all too well the potholes and speed bumps that litter the road to Unionville. "The first meeting was back in October, at Julie's house," says Cole. "We had 30 people show up from various pubs." A "pub," in Journals parlance, is not a tavern but a publication. The Journals group consists of 38 pubs from nine different pub groups, or offices, located in St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Charles County and the Metro East. This far-flung operation is perhaps the biggest obstacle to solidarity. "We don't even know half the people we supposedly work with," says Cole, "because they're in different offices, all spread out. You can't recruit people in the lunchroom, because you don't have same lunchroom. We tried picnics. We handbill at the quarterly meetings. Mostly, these days, it's got to be phone work."

At the start, they preached to the choir, and the choir readily signed the cards. What remained were the holdouts, the skeptics. They needed extra convincing. Says Kelemen, "I have noticed that, because the Journals are lower-paying, we get a lot of young people straight out of school who are not really familiar with unions -- what they are or what they can do and why they exist. Union affiliation in this country has been going down in recent years, plus newspaper guilds no longer are going on campuses, and so there's a lot of educating to do on our part."

Complacency is another roadblock. "Sometimes," says Kelemen, "I sense they don't want to rock the boat. They may have heard something or read something, saw something on TV that turned them off to unions. Also, there are a lot of people working there with spouses who earn enough income for both of them. That's my situation. My husband makes enough money, but if I had to support this household on my own, I couldn't do it."

And so the little off-white cards are trickling in. "This is a pretty low-key organizing effort," says Kelemen. "We're not out there with pamphlets and banners every day, agitating and all that. Early on, last fall, we got a pretty good idea who was with us, who wasn't. After that, the real assertive kind of organizing doesn't work. You can call a person who's on the fence a couple times, and if they stay on the fence, you can pretty much assume that's where they'll stay -- or they'll say, 'Don't bug me anymore,' and we honor that. So now it's at a slower and more challenging stage where you try and talk to people one on one."

Meanwhile, Cole will climb those same marble steps to the aldermanic chambers as Schlinkmann, sit at the same press table, cover the same meetings, try to elicit pithy quotes from the same politicians and file more stories than her counterpart does. When Schlinkmann gets his paycheck, there will be a deduction for union dues, but when Cole gets hers, there will be no such deduction -- at least not for a while. She'll continue wondering when she will be paid like a professional.

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