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Gannett journalists are walking off the job to protest papers' working conditions

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today and tomorrow, hundreds of journalists at newspapers across this country walk off the job.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

They all work for Gannett, which owns papers across the country, including USA Today.

INSKEEP: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us. Hey there, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How widespread is this strike?

FOLKENFLIK: So it's starting this morning in seven states - California, Arizona, Texas, Indiana and New Jersey, near where I live. That includes papers like the Arizona Republic, the Austin American-Statesman, some big ones where journalists are working without contracts. They say that they have not received fair pay and compensation, but more to the point, haven't received it in many, many years. And meanwhile, their newsrooms have been cut back deeply.

INSKEEP: David, we've paid a lot of attention to the cutbacks in local newsrooms. And in fact, they've been cut so savagely over the years, I was a little surprised there's anybody left in some newsrooms to walk out. What do they want?

FOLKENFLIK: You know - and by the way, that's literally true in some cases. Salinas, Calif., a city of 150,000 owned by Gannett, has no local reporters or at last check, none locally based.

INSKEEP: Wow.

FOLKENFLIK: Journalists want to draw attention to their circumstances, sure, but it's a more profound critique. Today is the day in which shareholders are meeting. They want to draw attention to, among other things, the compensation of millions of dollars in pay and shares to chief executive Mike Reed. He's been at the helm at a time where for the last four years you've had these merger of these two large newspaper companies, Gannett and former GateHouse community newspaper company. I talked to the president of the News Guild in recent days. He says those newspapers have been cut by Gannett since that merger four years ago by 54%.

And you can see it throughout the properties - the meagerness of the report at times. Sometimes just one or a handful of staffers are intended to report on the texture of lives in all these cities and communities. One newspaper in Springfield, Ill., where the editor is based and also overseeing the editor in Lakeland, Fla., several states away. Another smaller one nearby - if you look at the top five stories on any given day, it looks like two or three of them are going to be about Powerball winnings. That is something that could be produced by bots.

INSKEEP: How does Gannett explain itself?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, they talk about the tough times of the news business, which have been significant and real. They talk about a new news leader they brought over from McClatchy, and they say this will be part of a new strategy to infuse real life and vigor into their local reporting. But the financial realities of that merger that I talked about a few moments ago are such that they were required to cut, initially, it looked like between 2 to $300 million. Now it looks like it's more like $400 million in cuts. And I think that scythe cutting across the newsrooms across the country is what you're seeing really as - much more as a result of that.

INSKEEP: Well, this short-term walkout is being led, I know, by the News Guild, which represents staffers at a lot of news outlets. Do they have very much leverage?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, they've won some wins. They've been organizing it in digital and print newsrooms around the country in recent years because of these pressures on the industry. You know, in Pittsburgh, there's been a many months long strike at the Post-Gazette that has not really yielded any more advances for the workers than what they were experiencing in the years that negotiations were taking there to achieve. But meanwhile, at The New York Times, most august name in news, after years of sort of conflict, you saw a recent pact in which there was a 10% minimum increase for all newsroom employees and a 7% signing bonus and a lot of other concessions as well. So I think you're seeing to some degree wind at the back of these News Guild workers, even as I think the greater dynamics in the industry and especially at Gannett are very daunting.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Folkenflik. Thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.