Last week, in a long piece for Nieman Journalism Labs, Ken Doctor discusse d possible scenarios regarding how Tronc might be split up between various entities. It's looking likelier that its current owners may sell.
While Doctor explores in-depth scenarios as to how the company might look post-sale, one prediction is hard to argue with: “It is likely to be financial engineering that drives the future of Tronc’s papers from Baltimore to Fort Lauderdale to Chicago — not any new model of digital product, content, or business model. The readers, the employees, and the large affected communities remain mere spectators.”
The future of newspapers is threatened on several levels. One big concern is those outside the journalism world pursuing ownership stakes, for financial reasons vs. protecting a public trust. Another is economic protections afforded top management in down cycles, times when staffers are most vulnerable.
Such uncertainty explains the impetus to unionize at Tronc's two Virginia newspapers. (Larger Tronc papers, such as the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, have already unionized.)
The Virginia outlets say more than 75% of eligible staffers have signed commitment cards — a move to protect the careers they’ve built for decades. Many fear losing jobs, should ownership change.
"Without a contract, we're guaranteed nothing,” Brock Vergakis, a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot and a member of the Tidewater Media Guild organizing committee, said in a statement, reported by NPR.
“In these uncertain times, a union is the best way to ensure fair compensation and a work environment that will help stem an exodus of talented journalists who move elsewhere in search of better pay and job security. When talented journalists leave, the communities they serve also suffer," he added.
As Doctor notes in his piece, top Tronc executives have financial incentives built into their job titles, including bonus and stock option compensation in the event of a sale. According to his report, those agreements could amount to as much as $23.5 million in payments.
Staffers see a union as a way to secure some protections, too.
In today’s publishing world, loss of revenue due to a changing advertising climate takes precedent over vital, long-term concerns. When local media is downsized, there is a tangible cost. Enterprise reporting of business and government speaks truth to power; it also protects and informs readers of its abuses.
The Virginia papers will ask Tronc for voluntary recognition, which was received in Chicago. If that fails, it will ask the National Labor Relations Board to oversee an election in which eligible employees cast votes seeking formal recognition for their guild.