Collective Bargaining and Contracts and Indianapolis Star and Communications

Star diffuses flap with news union

December 25, 2006

The Indianapolis Star has averted, for now, a labor dispute over management's request that unionized news employees write advertising copy--a practice considered taboo in the newspaper industry.

The request was part of a dramatic newsroom overhaul proposed by Star management that industry experts believe is a reaction to sagging revenue, as major advertisers evaporate because of corporate mergers.

"The Star is obviously trying to cut costs any way it can," said Jim Brown, associate dean of the journalism school at IUPUI. "They must be under enormous pressure to make such a proposal. I'm stunned."

A stalemate over the issue was broken Dec. 20 when management conceded that, for the immediate future, news staffers would not be required to write ad copy. But management refused to rule out eventually raising the issue again.

The dispute could resurface in 2008, when negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement are scheduled to begin.

Judy Wolf, Star copy editor and treasurer of Newspaper Guild-CWA, said that, under the current collective bargaining agreement, the newspaper's journalists can't be forced to write advertising copy.

Star Vice President Ali Zoibi had indicated in a memo to Wolf that he disagreed with her interpretation of the contract, and that others would, too.

Management had made at least one prior attempt to compromise on the advertising issue before it backed off.

After originally proposing that all news staff could be called upon to write "advertorials"--advertising copy that looks similar to a news story--management agreed to limit such work to copy editors and layout artists.

Union officials had been told by management that if they bought into the plan, they would be allowed to bring Topics Newspapers employees and others under the Guild umbrella, Wolf said. Topics is a group of central Indiana suburban newspapers owned by the Star's parent company.

But the Guild continued its strong objections.

"You can't have one foot in editorial and one foot in advertising," Wolf told IBJ. "It undermines everything the editorial department stands for."

A series of meetings earlier this year to outline proposed changes was followed by tersely worded memos exchanged between members of management and representatives of the Guild, which represents about 180 Star news employees.

Memo warns staff

In a Dec. 13 memo to Wolf, Zoibi accused union representatives of dragging their feet on supporting proposed operational changes he said are critical to strengthening the company's finances. Zoibi sent the memo to the entire Star staff 24 minutes after it was sent to Wolf.

In almost 20 years at the Star, 18 years as a union officer, Wolf said she has never seen a memo like this released to the entire staff. She believes it was done to divide the union.

The memo stated: "We recently met with you and three other Guild representatives to invite you to join with us, as a cooperative partner, as we work to change our business model. Quite frankly we were expecting a quick and supportive 'yes' given what our future will likely be without these changes.

"Despite repeated requests to join us as we implement changes to benefit all employees, the Guild insists on knowing every detail of a plan that must, by definition, be fluid. We explained to you that we don't have all the answers now but one thing is for certain. We will make these changes with or without your assistance."

Wolf complained that officials for the Star, which is owned by Virginia-based Gannett Co., took months to craft the plan but gave Guild representatives just a few weeks to respond.

The plan includes aggressive Internet initiatives, including providing links to information-rich databases and niche Web sites, to draw in readers, and the use of reader-submitted news items and photos to engage the community.

Concern over jobs

Star Executive Editor Dennis Ryerson, who led staff meetings this fall outlining changes, told IBJ in October that the main objective of the plan is to preserve jobs at the state's largest newspaper. Zoibi's memo suggested the union was jeopardizing those jobs by not cooperating.

"If we don't work together, the company will honor every word of the current collective bargaining agreement with the result that the Guild will be limited to that work which is specifically identified in the agreement. Anything not identified in the contract (everything except the print product of The Indianapolis Star) will be performed outside the Guild," Zoibi wrote.

Editorial staffers admit there's a concern that management could start hiring non-union workers to perform jobs not directly tied to the print product, an increasingly important issue in this digital era. However, Wolf added that the union contract already covers certain workers whose primary focus is Web work.

The union had supported parts of the plan, Wolf said, but there were two major sticking points. One was the request to have news staffers write advertorials. The other was an insistence by the union that news staffers have their pay determined by performance of core duties, not new duties that result if the plan is implemented. Management on Dec. 20 also acquiesced on that issue.

Asking news employees to write ad copy is a new move by Gannett. It's unclear how many of Gannett's more than 90 daily newspapers might be considering a similar initiative.

Union representatives--including Wolf, Abe Aamidor, Sylvia Halladay and Tom Spalding--fired off a reply to Zoibi's memo, stating the union's stance and objections to Zoibi's "unpleasant note."

"We have always accepted that businesses evolve over time, and personnel must adapt where possible. And we all want The Star to be a financially successful newspaper," the union's memo said. "The Guild's responsibility here is to protect jobs and pay for covered employees, and to help maintain the editorial integrity of our product."

Management marching forward

Two days after the union's response, Zoibi sent another e-mail, saying: "The company will work within the confines of our current agreement. Given your response and the Guild's opposition we'll simply alter our plans and continue to move forward."

In an interview with IBJ, Zoibi said management remains dedicated to working within the "flexibility" of the current union agreement, which expires in December 2008.

"We have a contract and we plan to honor that contract," Zoibi said. "So I don't see any issues."

Wolf said the contract dictates that news employees can't be forced to write advertising copy.

In a second memo sent to Wolf, Zoibi said: "Needless to say, I disagree with your interpretation of the contract as I'm sure others will too. But let's not argue that now."

Publisher Barbara Henry referred all inquiries to Zoibi.

Star staffers said Ryerson called a series of meetings starting Dec. 22 to roll out specific changes coming in the features department, Intake--the Star's publication aimed at younger adults--and magazine sections.

Maintaining integrity

Ryerson said he understands news staffers' concerns, but said they must be mindful that the Star's business model is changing. He vowed to maintain the newspaper's integrity, but didn't deny that news employees eventually might be asked to write advertorials.

"I am totally confident we will be able to handle this in a way that will be totally defensible in terms of our ethics and in terms of separating our advertising side from our editorial side," Ryerson said. "We need to provide information in different ways, and we're organizing to do just that."

Journalism industry experts find the entire exchange bizarre.

"The proposal that editorial staffers write advertorials is 100-percent wrong," said Ray Begovich, Franklin College journalism professor. "It breaks one of the essential contracts a news-gathering agency has with its audience. The contract is that anything that looks like news or is produced by the news staff should not be paid for."

Begovich said the practice of having journalists write advertisements is occasionally seen in small markets where the staff is stretched especially thin, but "there's no excuse for this from a metro daily."

That Ryerson might allow this to happen is even more "stunning," said IUPUI's Brown.

"This goes beyond ethics," Begovich said. "It's good business to keep a firm wall between advertising and editorial. If the public feels the integrity of a newspaper has dropped, that can hurt circulation and that hurts ad sales.

"News copy is powerful because it has an unbiased objectivity to it. That's why some advertisers try to make ads that look like news copy."

Union representatives had offered a proposal that news staff could volunteer to train advertising personnel after hours--and for extra pay--to write advertorials.

IUPUI's Brown isn't comfortable with that arrangement, either.

"There are people in ad agencies and public relations firms that are highly trained in writing this type of copy," Brown said. "Having editorial staffers involved in this type of activity is totally ridiculous."

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