When 21 reporters from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram announced their intention to walk out Monday, it made headlines. But as the first open-ended newsroom strike in Texas history, it was also a big step for the state’s fledgling newsroom unionizing efforts.
In addition to the Star-Telegram newsroom, reporters at the Dallas Morning News and Al Dia; and the Austin American-Statesman unionized as news guilds in the past two years. The Star-Telegram is owned by McClatchy, the Statesman by Gannett, and the Dallas Morning News and Al Dia are owned by DallasNews Corp. All three unions are in the process of negotiating contracts and all of them have cited pay issues as a major driver.
Fort Worth’s strike is the third nationally in four months. The reporters at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have been on strike since October, and in August, almost 300 employees at Reuters walked out for a day.
Time will tell if the Fort Worth NewsGuild will be successful in getting McClatchy to negotiate after a strike. (McClatchy was purchased by the hedge fund Chatham Asset Management in July 2020 for $312 million. It owns 30 papers in 29 markets across the country.)
The two sides are due to return to the bargaining table on Dec. 8, but guild vice president Kaley Johnson said she hopes that their work will help newsrooms across the state, including those that might be reluctant to organize.
“Some Texas laws and precedent try to strip unions of their power,” she said. “I think that people across a lot of sectors are tired of that, and that a lot of times it only makes people feel more empowered, which is great. We all hope that we’re creating a playbook that other unions can follow whether that’s in journalism or other industries in Texas and nationwide.”
Those Texas guilds join 200 NewsGuilds across the country—many of which are new unions. There are plenty of motivators behind this spate of newly organized unions, including a wave of acquisitions by hedge funds that have placed newspapers under the control of a handful of larger corporations. Journalists who tire of rounds of layoffs, pay cuts, and stagnant wages have begun to see unionizing as a way to claw back some of the things that were hacked away from the newsroom over time and attrition.
Almost across the board, newsroom unions are negotiating for better wages. Johnson says that McClatchy’s base wage of $45,000 was only set for newsrooms without a union presence. Since the Star-Telegram’s newsroom voted to unionize, they must bargain for a contract that sets a base wage for the newsroom. The union is asking for $57,500, citing its calculations for cost of living in Fort Worth, and is also working to improve severance pay and sick leave policies.
Like nearly every newsroom in the country, the Star-Telegram has seen its ranks dwindle. At one point, the entire enterprise employed more than 1,400 people. The News and the Statesman have also faced layoffs and buyouts that have hacked away at their newsrooms. A report by the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media found that half of all newspaper readers and journalists have disappeared in the past two decades, with total circulation decreasing by 55 million between 2004 and 2019, and 36,000 journalists leaving. Both losses, the study found, were attributable to collapse of the for-profit newspaper model.
Those shrinking newsrooms have impacted what kinds of stories publications can cover.
“The loss of journalists always results in a loss of journalism, as editors have to make hard decisions about which stories to cover and which to ignore,” the report said. “Both transparency and accountability suffer.”
It estimates that about two-thirds of those “lost” journalists worked for large daily newspapers.
Low wages and job insecurity, Johnson said, means that a great deal of institutional knowledge about Fort Worth and the surrounding area walks out the door and never comes back. Johnson said they will hear from readers who ask why they don’t cover things like they did 10 years ago, and she says she’s honest with them.
“I do tell those people that we want to, and we just don’t have the staff or resources because McClatchy has stripped away so much staff—journalists who have been here for decades and who would know how to cover those things and know the history of our community,” she said. “I have seen at least five since I’ve been here—long term journalists who have been here for decades—who left because they were not paid enough and did not get the benefits they needed. They want to put their kids through college, and they don’t have enough job stability here.”
The reporters left are “doing our best,” Johnson said, pointing to the work they’re doing. The newsroom includes a team of service journalists who are producing daily stories out on COVID and other beats, there is also a reporter dedicated to covering property taxes, and the team has also produced several investigative pieces.
“We are all very passionate and we’re doing some of our best work,” she said. “You see work like Nichole Manna, who just uncovered a possible wrongful death at the Tarrant County Jail, and Emily Brindley just did that piece on a botched vaccine rollout from UNT, and I’ve been covering the (sexual abuse at the) Fort Worth prison that resulted in a federal inquiry.
“Journalism is still happening,” she said. “I just hope that people realize that the cuts have been made by management and we’re all trying so hard to make up for those losses.”
But for now, that journalism won’t be coming from the 21 reporters who are striking. On Monday, Star-Telegram Executive Editor Steve Coffman told employees that the paper would begin posting job listings to recruit journalists during the strike. At one point, several positions had been listed, but as of today, there are listings for a breaking news reporter, accountability reporter, and audience growth producer. All three describe the position as an “on-call” position, which is different from identical jobs listed for other McClatchy newspapers. In a separate email, the company said it would revoke the health benefits of striking employees.
Johnson believes they can keep the open-ended picket going as long as it takes.
“I’m confident that we will all be here fighting until we get a fair contract,” she said. “I think we have the support and the fight to keep going as long as we need to, to make sure that present and future Star-Telegram journalists get the rights they deserve.”