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'New York Times' editors hustle to prepare stories for newsroom strike

More than 1,100 members of the newsroom union at <em>The New York Times</em> say they'll participate in a day-long walkout today to protest the paper's failure to meet salary demands. They have been working without a contract for nearly two years.
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More than 1,100 members of the newsroom union at The New York Times say they'll participate in a day-long walkout today to protest the paper's failure to meet salary demands. They have been working without a contract for nearly two years.

More than 1,100 unionized New York Times staffers are intending to embark on a 24-hour strike today, leaving editors at the newspaper scrambling to put out a credible digital report for the day and print editions for the days following.

A protest featuring some of the paper's most celebrated names is scheduled outside the Times' midtown Manhattan headquarters for 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones is among those expected to speak.

"It's disappointing that they're taking such drastic action," Times Co. CEO Meredith Kopit Levien wrote in a memo late last night. She cited what she called "the clear commitment we've shown to negotiate our way to a contract that provides Times journalists with substantial pay increases, market-leading benefits, and flexible working conditions.

The paper's journalists have not had a working contract since March 2021. Negotiations between the paper's management and the Times Guild have broken down mainly over pay.

Union members, most of whom are journalists, but also ad salespeople, security guards and others, are questioning why they cannot share more concretely in the strong financial run The Times has enjoyed. In other words: If not during flush times, then when? And they say that drawing out negotiations has not aided them, contending that management only picked up the pace of concessions as the day-long strike neared.

The New York Times Co. share price has risen by about half in the past four years. The newspaper remains on a path to 15 million digital subscriptions by the end of 2027. It recently acquired the Athletic for $550 million dollars and has embarked on an ambitious stock buy-back initiative. Top executives — including CEO Levien and Publisher A.G. Sulzberger — have received major raises.

The work stoppage — a way to simultaneously inflict short-term pain and convey solidarity for the proposition of longer-term action — is a measure of the fractious relationship between the paper's greatly expanded newsroom (now at 1,800 staffers) and its management. It is also happening as unions are flexing their muscle at newsrooms as varied as eroded local papers, newer digital sites and public broadcasting outlets.

A "necessary shot across the bow"

The paper's guild members say they are unified and expect to prevail.

"From my point of view, this is an absolutely necessary shot across the bow," says guild member Michael Powell, a veteran reporter who covers free speech matters for the New York Times national desk. "We've seen our salaries - almost all of us - go straight backward, over the years. That's not acceptable."

"Each month that goes by," Powell says, "they're taking more money out of our pocket."

Several managers at the Times, speaking to NPR on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment, acknowledge concern about the tensions and the burden of putting out the paper without hundreds of their colleagues.

Editors are scrambling to make sure long-held stories are ready for publication. Some are preparing to flex dormant reporting muscles. Others are unlikely to miss a step. But the sheer volume of copy produced by the paper's newsroom each day is unlikely to be matched with more than half of the chairs metaphorically empty.

The paper notes that its most current counter-proposals represent significant increases.

"We remain committed to working with the NYT NewsGuild to reach a contract that we can all be proud of," Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha said in a written statement.

The union's leaders and members have taken umbrage at what they characterize as the largely intransigent approach of the paper's outside law firm, Proskauer Rose. The paper argues the union's efforts to have large numbers of guild members at negotiations impede honest exchanges and compromise.

The union is arguing for a package of raises that works out to a 5.25 percent average annual raise over the four-year period covered, which includes the past two years. The company's most recent offer — as of late Tuesday night — represented exactly half of that.

Yet there are myriad other issues at play, as well as some recent movement. The Times has offered to allow the guild to decide whether to continue the current pension plan, or to convert to a 401(k) retirement plan with a 6.6 annual company contribution for all covered guild employees, its most generous benefit inside the company.

In a memo to staff, Times Deputy Managing Editor Cliff Levy acknowledged the walkout represented "an unsettling moment."

"Still, management believes that with a renewed commitment to productive negotiations on both sides, we can make significant strides toward a contract," wrote Levy, who is helping to lead negotiations for management.

A newspaper strike in Pittsburgh shows mixed results so far

Meanwhile, a full-fledged newspaper strike is playing out 370 miles to the west in Pittsburgh.

The Post-Gazette newsroom union voted by a slight margin to go on strike in mid-October to support smaller striking unions at the paper. It set up a news site powered by striking Post-Gazette journalists called the Pittsburgh Union Progress. The paper has been operating without a contract for those staffers for four years.

Yet the strike appears so far to have had mixed results on the Post-Gazette: Not all journalists joined the strike, several quit for jobs elsewhere, including the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and two strikers have returned to work. (Several who initially stayed have since joined the strikers.)

"Here in Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette only prints on Thursdays and Sundays anyway," says Andy Conte, director of Point Park University's Center for Media Innovation. "The management of the company has signaled that they are moving to a digital-first product. Most people have gotten used to the idea you're not getting a printed product."

"And so, if you're a casual observer, the Post-Gazette is the same," says Conte, author of Death of The Daily News, a new book on how the closing of the local paper affected McKeesport, Pa.

The Block family that owns the Post-Gazette notes the tough economic climate for the local newspaper industry and shows no sign of yielding.

"They have no desire to even meet their workers part-way," says Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh president Zack Tanner, an interactive designer at the paper. "The company has not even acknowledged the strike, other than to say we're welcome back to work at any time — and to make no concessions."

A strike three decades ago in Pittsburgh led to the closure of the Pittsburgh Press.

"A loss isn't even on our mind," Tanner says. "We've had three negotiating sessions since we went out on strike and they've made no concessions, there's no getting around that. But to make John and Allan Block listen to us is going to take a big effort like this."

'New York Times' walkout to be the longest at the paper in decades

In New York, against a different financial backdrop, Times journalists say they should share in the wealth.

"Our salaries have gone steadily, year by year, backwards against inflation [for decades]," says Powell, the reporter. "It's just reached the point where folks are saying enough.

"We're lucky to be working for a paper that's making money and that's doing well," he says. "We are some of the reason that it's doing well."

According to both the Times and the NewsGuild, the newspaper has a limited history of such work actions. Journalists staged lunchtime walkouts a couple of times over the past decade. In 1981, the guild struck for six-and-a-half hours. In 1978, it put up a picket line that lasted less than a day at the tail end of the paper's press operators' lengthy and contentious strike.

The only extended strike initiated by the newsroom union at the Times occurred in fall 1965. It lasted for weeks. The paper was able to produce a limited print edition thanks to its international edition based in Paris.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 8, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
A quotation from New York Times reporter Michael Powell was replaced with fresh remarks to remove misstatements.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.