McGuire on Media

It was a bad day at Black Rock for newspapers

I remain besieged by grading papers. I really planned on switching the subject from ruing the decline of newspapers to explore some new topics.  That is difficult when you are gripped by melancholy and bad news. I am tempted to call Wednesday a bad day at Black Rock, but there are too many Black Rocks.

it was definitely a bad day at Black Rock in Minneapolis. E-mailers and phone callers on Wednesday wanted to talk about the “six weeks until bankruptcy” memo from Star Tribune publisher Chris Harte. That is MinnPost’s David Brauer’s characterization of the six week deadline Harte gave the paper’s unions. The Star Tribune article on the subject does not make the six week reference, but it certainly lays out the possibility that Harte thinks bankruptcy may be his only option if he does not get the concessions he thinks he needs.

From afar Brauer is THE source on this problem. He filed an incredibly insightful piece late Wednesday. His reporting and his insight are invaluable to someone who wants to watch this situation closely.  Brauer’s version struck me as totally authentic and on target. It did stimulate some random, unsubstantiated thoughts.

If the company is really trying to get a 32 percent wage reduction from the Teamsters my prediction is this thing won’t have a happy ending.  Just on its face that feels punitive and dramatic. The Teamsters know dramatic and unless that leadership has changed significantly I can’t see that ever being accepted.  There’s a possibility that’s a negotiating ploy. In my view, it’s a bad one.  Pissing off Teamsters in Minneapolis has never been a sound strategy. The union movement is not what it used to be, but that kind of proposal seems to be setting up a “see nobody can work with these craft unions in Minneapolis” kind of scenario. That’s one man’s opinion. It is an opinion informed by 23 years at the paper.

Brauer says Harte has pledged to find $10 million from nonunion sources and Brauer speculated that means change in the product. I would bet that’s going to include significant to massive news hole cuts. Brauer raised the specter of smaller papers on certain days. That is certainly possible, but I would not be surprised if Minneapolis becomes the first big newspaper to cut out Monday and/or Tuesday publication.

Brauer opined about a possible lockout, web-only publication or an attempt to put out the paper with non-union labor. While he is correct that bankruptcy does not usually put labor contracts into play, I still believe an asset sale of the company is a possible alternative. That would do away with union contracts. I fear that is the long term strategy.

Brauer’s discussion of possible suitors for the Star Tribune was informed and insightful, but I would add an exclamation to his point about Dean Singleton and media news.  NOTHING I hear on the newspaper grapevine indicates to me that Singleton has the borrowing wherewithal to pull off such a deal.  The grapevine may be withered and sour, but such a move would stun me. The one other sale observation I would add is that some of the groups sniffing around some other properties right now are investor groups with profiles similar to Avista.  Don’t be surprised by a purchase from somebody completely off the radar.

The above was quite clinical and it was a fairly detached analysis of Brauer’s fine reporting.  That’s not what I feel. As one of my e-mail buddies wrote Wednesday, “There are some mighty decent folks/friends on that diminishing staff.” My friend nailed it. There are people on that staff with whom I labored in the trenches. They are fine journalists and fine people. They do not deserve to be in a besieged industry at a besieged company. But then again neither do America’s auto workers or any other industry’s workers who have been slammed by a rapidly changing world and by leaders who couldn’t change fast enough.

As I fret and mourn the troubles of the people I stood with, I can’t help but wonder what moves I and we should have made years ago to forestall days like Wednesday. 

And then I look out my window here at the Cronkite School and I see another Black Rock two blocks away–the Arizona Republic–where another 10 percent of the workforce got unceremoniously laid off along with hundreds of other Gannetteers across the country.

There are some people on that layoff list who have been at the newspaper for almost 30 years.  I am quite sure few of them imagined circa 1980 that they’d leave after an evening phone call from the bosses three weeks before Christmas in 2008.

If you sense little more than hand wringing here, that’s probably because that’s what strikes me as appropriate today. I still have fond dreams for the newspaper business, for journalism and for the students I teach. 

Some days, however, are better than others.