The Pen Is Mightier
The year 2021 is on its way to becoming the year of the union, from Kellogg’s workers striking to Oregon universities securing a historic contract with administration.
But with a few weeks left in the year, The Register-Guard’s newsroom union is raising awareness about its expired contract with Gannett.
For nearly four years, employees represented by the Eugene Newspaper Guild union have been working on an expired contract. The newspaper’s staff and bargaining team say they’re receiving outdated wages that don’t match today’s cost of living. And if Gannett wants to retain local knowledge of the community, they add, the company should pay better.
“It’s shameful. People do more and more,” says Stevie Blanchard, who’s an administrative officer for the Newspaper Guild of Detroit and is a bargaining member for the RG’s union. “Everyone is doing more for less. That’s why they need a wage increase. They’re doing great work and are pillars of the community. And they’re suffering.”
Contract negotiations between management and RG newsroom workers have been at a standstill for nearly four years because of ownership changes. In 2018, the Baker family, which owned the newspaper for decades, sold the company to GateHouse Media. One year later, GateHouse’s parent company, New Media Investment Group, merged with Gannett.
Since the union has been working on an expired contract for four years, newsroom wages are stuck at 2018 levels, Blanchard says. The starting wage for a photojournalist, for example, is around $14 an hour, she adds.
Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick is the newspaper’s “causes” reporter, whose beat includes homelessness, and is the guild’s co-president. She says she’s one of the lowest paid reporters in the newsroom and is struggling to pay bills in the Eugene area with increasing inflation and rent. “I’m budgeting down to the dollar,” she says.
Low wages in the newsroom, where reporters start at around $18 an hour, are demoralizing and don’t provide her with enough income to save for an emergency, to buy a home or start a family, she says. She’s asked management for a raise, but has been told they can’t give her one due to the ongoing union negotiations.
Parafiniuk-Talesnick says she loves reporting on the local community, but she wonders at what point “just making it” won’t cut it anymore. “It’s sad. This is a career I should have as long as I want, not until my costs go up.”
Working at the newspaper for the past two years has allowed her to build trust with the community, she says. But with low wages, the newspaper risks losing local knowledge as reporters grapple with burnout and leave the industry.
“As a newsroom, it’s valuable to have people who know their community and are embedded in the community,” Parafiniuk-Talesnick says. “But if folks can’t afford to have a family, to have a house, to pay for costs that kids bring on, then they go on.”
She says she’s watched RG reporters leave journalism for professions that offer more of a living wage because their pay couldn’t support a family.
The RG lost many of its experienced newsroom staff when the longtime owners, the Baker family, sold the newspaper to GateHouse. And when Gannett moved printing to Vancouver, Washington, in March 2021, the corporation laid off Teamster-represented press workers.
Blanchard says she can’t provide specifics of the union’s bargaining proposal because the union is trying to work in good faith with management. But among the proposal’s economics are wage step increases for senior employees and increasing the minimum entry wage for new staff.
Workers are paying 2018 rates for health insurance because of the outdated contract, so Gannett management wants to increase health care premiums to 2021 rates, which could be a range of $400 to $1,200 for some in the newsroom, Blanchard says. The company has offered a one-time bonus for reporters on staff, but she says that wouldn’t cover the health insurance increases. And management isn’t considering an increase of wages that reflect current inflation.
In 2021 alone, inflation has increased the cost of living 6.2 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And according to a 2021 National Low Income Housing Coalition, residents in Eugene-Springfield need to earn $23.10 an hour to afford a market-rate rent two-bedroom unit.
“We uphold the legacy of this newsroom. We want to reward people for staying,” Parafiniuk-Talesnick says. “We want to keep people from burnout and want to serve the community. We’re not in it to be fabulously wealthy.”
According to Gannett’s third quarter 2021 financial report, the company collected $800 million in revenue, 33 percent of which was from digital subscriptions. The revenue increased almost 1 percent compared to 2020’s third quarter report.
Subscribers have a unique relationship with the newspaper, Parafiniuk-Talesnick says. “I’ve worked at newspapers before, and it is astounding how much this community cares about the Register-Guard. I hope Gannett pays attention to it.”
She says it’s shocking that Gannett doesn’t capitalize on the strong reader support for the newspaper, and that instead the corporation is pushing reporters away by not investing in newsrooms.
She says Gannett should be using its recent revenue increase to support reporters in newsrooms, including Eugene. “Subscriptions are up. Profits are up,” she says. “Why aren’t investments not being made in our newsrooms for our journalists?”
Gannett did not reply to Eugene Weekly’s request for comment, citing ongoing negotiations.
Visit here to go to The Eugene Newspaper Guild’s online petition.
This story is a part of Eugene Weekly’s reporting series on the labor movement in Oregon, funded by the Wayne L. Morse Center for Law and Politics.