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The August 30, 2019, edition of the Arizona Republic.EXPAND
The August 30, 2019, edition of the Arizona Republic.
Steven Hsieh

Arizona Republic Boss Compares Unionizing Staff to 'Crackpots and Criminals'

The top editor of the Arizona Republic accused unionizing employees of surveilling co-workers and compared newsroom organizers to "crackpots and criminals," according to an email obtained by Phoenix New Times.

Executive editor Greg Burton sent the email to the Republic's newsroom staff on Thursday. Burton accused pro-union employees of "tracking the comings and goings" of colleagues who do not support unionization, without further elaboration. Republic staffers told New Times that Burton's accusations of "surveillance" likely referred to the common organizing practice of meeting with co-workers to gauge their amenability to unionizing.

"I reference this incident to underscore the fact that journalists are targets of political haymakers and troublemakers, of operatives and would-be intimidators, of crackpots and criminals. We are targets on social media," Burton wrote.

He continued his email by alluding to unsavory characters from stories covered by the Republic in recent years. "We are targets when we stand firm on a story that unmasks a murderer running for office, a teacher who molests children, an appointee who bulldozes indigenous artifacts or stockpiles weapons, a mobster who doesn’t much like being called a scam artist or a dirty trickster intent on DOXing a critic."

"These are the types who surveil journalists," Burton added. "Journalists don’t surveil other journalists."

Finally, Burton noted that "surveillance activities or any type of harassment or intimidation of employees" will be "addressed through disciplinary channels."

In response to questions from New Times, Burton said: "The email speaks for itself, and we do not comment on personnel matters." (Read Burton's entire email at the bottom of this story.)

Republic columnist E.J. Montini, a union supporter, called the accusation of surveillance "inappropriate," adding that he does not "think anything like that is going on."

Although he is not a member of the organizing committee leading the union drive, Montini laughed off the idea that its members could engage in the thuggery implied by Burton's email.

"If you saw them as a group, the notion they could be intimidating to anybody is hysterical. They're just reporting types," Montini said in a phone call. "It's not like we're looking at the Sopranos, you know? Forget about it."

Journalists at the Republic have been undergoing a union drive with NewsGuild-CWA since January, following a round of layoffs at the paper that claimed the job of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson. The campaign intensified after the announcement of a proposed merger between the Republic's parent company, Gannett, and GateHouse Media, another newspaper conglomerate.

Gannett owns the USA Today network of papers, which in addition to the Republic includes the Detroit Free Press, the Indianapolis Star, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and more. GateHouse has been acquiring several papers in the last year, including the Austin American-Statesman, the Palm Beach Post, and the Akron Beacon Journal. It's also the parent company of Dolan LLC, which owns the Arizona Capitol Times.

The $1.4 billion agreement would produce the biggest newspaper company in the U.S. While media executives stand to benefit from the deal, journalists working for the new media behemoth would almost certainly face layoffs. In the week after announcing its intent to merge with Gannett, GateHouse Media laid off more than two dozen newsroom staffers from at least 10 papers.

Cuts at GateHouse Media follow a decade-long trend in newsrooms across the country, as online classifieds and the growth of social media have decimated print advertising revenue. Shrinking staffs have been fueled by consolidation and newspaper companies stripping down papers to maximize profits.

The Republic has not been immune. Republic investigative reporter Rebekah Sanders, a member of the organizing committee, said the paper has gone from about 400 staffers to just over 100 in the last 12 years. Part of that downsizing was the result of a decision by Gannett to centralize production jobs across papers in the company's western region.

In January, Gannett faced a hostile takeover attempt from Digital First Media, a company notorious for buying up papers before enacting brutal newsroom layoffs. As Digital First Media sought to acquire Gannett, the Republic's owner laid off several journalists and asked shareholding employees to vote against the bid. NewsGuild-CWA also actively campaigned against the merger.

"And now they’re rewarding us with a deal that could cut 20 to 50 percent of our newsrooms based on the track record Gatehouse has when they buy newspapers," Sanders said in a phone interview.

Republic management caught wind of the union drive in June. Since then, staffers have been subjected to meetings with high-level executives, including USA Today Network President Maribel Wadsworth, and several newsroom-wide emails discouraging employees from unionizing.

Burton's email on Thursday was an escalation. Previous emails sought to confuse people about the benefits of unions, but had not attacked organizing staffers.

"Frankly, I’m baffled," Sanders said in a phone call. "Employees have a federally protected right to talk to each other about their working conditions, and that is all that we’re doing. And he’s attacking us for it."

She added that she "truly believes Greg Burton cares about local journalism," noting that the newsroom has expanded its data team, increased diversity, and obtained significant grant funding under his leadership. She attributed the message in his email to the "Gannett executives who are trying to pit journalists against each other so their merger doesn’t go down."

In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday, Gannett broached the potential dissatisfaction of employees as a risk of merging with GateHouse. While recommending that shareholders approve the merger, Gannett noted that "the possibility that the announcement and pendency of the merger may result in negative reactions from Gannett's customers, clients, suppliers and employees" could weigh negatively against the agreement.

Burton's accusation of surveillance among union organizers also strikes an ironic chord. According to Sanders, Gannett executives have quoted from organizer emails and texts shared by union opponents. 

"Any company that brings in a consultant on how to stop a union drive is having meetings on what people are saying and what people are doing, and probably have a list of names where they're writing information about people," said Matt Pearce, a Los Angeles Times reporter who serves as vice chair of the paper's union.

He said he and his colleagues faced similar tactics that the Republic organizers are up against.

During their campaign, the paper's publisher sent an email raising concerns about "tactics being used" by union supporters. When one reporter leaked a recording of a meeting to the press, then-editor-in-chief Lewis D'Vorkin called the reporter "morally bankrupt."

The Los Angeles Times' union campaign was among a recent resurgence of successful newsroom organizing efforts.

Read Burton's email, below:

All: It has come to my attention that several employees, in pursuit of their goal of unionizing our newsroom, are tracking the comings and goings of a number of their co-workers (reporters, editors, producers and photographers) who do not support unionization.

This is an affront to our newsroom. It’s the antithesis of courage in the pursuit of journalism. It undermines relationships we’ve nurtured. It’s an attack on our flexible workplace, where we have freely permitted the adjustment of employee schedules to meet their needs – for a child at school or a spouse who is home sick, a parent who requires help or a medical appointment.

We have been told that one union supporter threatened that things will get “even messier” in the weeks to come. If organized surveillance and spying are already occurring in the face of a divisive unionization effort, I hope you carefully consider the consequences of bringing the Guild into our workplace.

Let me tell you about surveillance at my home because I refused to kill a story about police shootings in California. A former detective who had shot two people – including an innocent bystander – got into my house, turned on a video camera and made a recording of my dining room, my front door, my living room and my son, then 17, who didn’t know enough to turn him away.

I reference this incident to underscore the fact that journalists are targets of political haymakers and troublemakers, of operatives and would-be intimidators, of crackpots and criminals. We are targets on social media. We are targets when we stand firm on a story that unmasks a murderer running for office, a teacher who molests children, an appointee who bulldozes indigenous artifacts or stockpiles weapons, a mobster who doesn’t much like being called a scam artist or a dirty trickster intent on DOXing a critic.

These are the types who surveil journalists.

Journalists don’t surveil other journalists.

Colleagues who have produced award-winning work together as a team do not surveil one another.

Standing together to fight on behalf of the public is a surmountable task for the very reason that our newsroom is a sanctified space. It’s a place where we defend one another, where a supervisor can flex a reporter’s schedule – because they know and trust each other.

Let me make this clear: surveillance activities or any type of harassment or intimidation of employees in this newsroom will not be tolerated to any degree. Any such conduct will be addressed through disciplinary channels. I expect every employee to conduct herself or himself and treat co-workers and managers with respect and professionalism.

If you have any questions or concerns or want to discuss this, please reach out to me and/or Amber Anderson in HR.

GB

This is a developing story. It may be updated with new information.

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