Journalists at Wyoming’s statewide newspaper voted Tuesday to form a union.
Nine of the Casper Star-Tribune newsroom’s 12 non-management employees voted to form the union and one voted against it. One vote was voided because neither “yes” nor “no” was checked and another employee wasn’t eligible to vote. A majority of the news staff not in management positions filed cards with the National Labor Relations Board on Feb. 5, initiating the process toward unionization. A total of 18 people work in the newsroom.
“As we have said from the beginning, our goal is to protect and strengthen the future of the Star-Tribune, as well as Casper and Wyoming’s news, for many years to come,” the organizing committee of the newly minted Casper News Guild said in a statement. The informal organizing committee is composed of a majority of the newsroom’s non-management staff, including journalists Arno Rosenfeld, Seth Klamann, Heather Richards, Shane Sanderson, Anna Shaffer, Josh Galemore, Brandon Foster, and Brady Oltmans.
Once the vote is officially certified by the National Labor Relations Board, the union will begin contract negotiations with the Star-Tribune’s parent company, Lee Enterprises.
“A healthy newspaper is vital to our community and our state, and a vigorous newsroom is not a luxury. It is a necessity,” said Dale Bohren, who was recently named publisher of the Star-Tribune. “I will approach working with the Casper News Guild in my long-established spirit of doing what is best for the future of our community of readers, employees and customers.”
The guild will represent reporters, photographers, copy editors and community news editors.
The organizers of the union previously stated concerns about how the Iowa-based company manages its local newspapers. In a Feb. 6 statement, organizers said they hoped the union would give them “a voice in the event of future layoffs or cost-cutting measures” and the ability to communicate directly with readers. Since September 2016, the Star-Tribune newsroom has experienced one layoff. Two other positions were lost through attrition.
Bohren disputed the journalists’ right to communicate directly with readers through the paper and said the publisher retains the First Amendment right of the publication.
He also stated the challenges of an ever-evolving news industry grappling with the loss of money from print advertising, classified ads and other revenue streams. Ultimately, Lee Enterprises is responsible to its shareholders, which means that hard cost-cutting decisions must be made.
“These are not flippant decisions,” he said. “These are heartfelt decisions.”
According to its website, the publicly-traded Lee Enterprises owns more than 40 local newspapers across the country, including the Billings Gazette and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. As noted by the The Poynter Institute, the company has cut costs to remain profitable despite falling advertising revenue. The company reported more than $35 million in earnings in the first quarter of fiscal year 2018. The company cut operating expenses by almost 8 percent in the first quarter of 2018 compared to the same quarter last year.
The company has reduced the number of its full-time employees from about 7,500 in 2008 to 3,555 in 2017, according to Lee Enterprise annual reports. That change mirrors larger industry trends as revenue from print advertising continues to decline — newspaper publishing companies employed about half as many people in 2016 as they did in 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It’s an unfortunate reality of the industry, Bohren said. But a free press where those without power can have a voice and the powerful are held accountable is more important than ever, he said. The Star-Tribune has been working to embrace the new digital landscape, from a mobile app to targeted online advertising.
“If I had my druthers, I’d have twice as many reporters as I do,” he said. “We don’t live in a perfect world. We do the best we can. We do the best we can for our readers and our advertisers.”
Organizers previously stated that they decided to unionize due to concerns with Lee Enterprises and not local management. Last week, they applauded the decision to name Bohren publisher.
“Negotiating a collective agreement for the Star-Tribune’s newsgathering staff will allow us to create more stable reporting jobs in Wyoming, attract more experienced journalists and incentivize them to stay longer,” according to a Feb. 6 news release from the organizers. “It will also allow us to have a voice in the event of future layoffs or cost-cutting measures. Finally, it will enable us to speak directly to our readers so that any business decisions by Lee Enterprises that hurt Wyoming will not go unnoticed.”
The Casper News Guild is affiliated with the Denver Newspaper Guild, which includes the Denver Post and the Pueblo Chieftain. The Denver group is part of the national NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America, which represents about 25,000 journalists at many of the country’s largest news outlets, including the Associated Press, The New York Times and the Washington Post. There are no other news guild units in Wyoming.
According to the national guild’s website, newsroom staff at three of Lee Enterprises’ newspapers are members: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Sioux City Journal and the Longview Daily News in Washington. According to the Casper News Guild, it is the first union to organize while owned by Lee Enterprises.