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Look for the Union Label

Former employees of KWAB general manager Chuck Lontine say he has a cutting management style.
Michael Miller

In the month or so since the announcement of a proposed joint operating agreement pairing the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, staffers opposed to the plan have seldom voiced their objections in the press, to absolutely no one's surprise. Privately, though, many remain plenty pissed off, ranting that the folks at E.W. Scripps, the News's parent company, lied for years about losses before exaggerating them in its JOA application and made no attempt to sell what some see as a very marketable property: a circulation leader in an area that's booming.

News bigwigs will never plead guilty to these charges, but that doesn't make the accusations any less true. Last September Alan Horton, the senior vice president for Scripps's newspaper division, told Editor & Publisher that the News was "cash-flow positive" -- a far cry from the $19.7 million loss for 1999 that was claimed in the JOA paperwork. More recently, in an endless Q&A published on May 21 in both the News and the Post (were they preparing us for the time when there'll be just one Sunday newspaper?), Scripps CEO Bill Burleigh made it seem as if his baby had sucked down still more red ink, declaring that shareholders had poured "$250 million in cash" into the News over the past fifteen years "for which, to this day, they have received zero return."

Yet in the same interview, Burleigh not only implied that Scripps hadn't shopped the News, but pointedly announced that it was "not for sale." Obviously, the earnings guaranteed by a government-supported monopoly like a JOA hold the promise of far greater returns than a humble purchaser could possibly offer.

Of course, Scripps doesn't have to prove that it tried to peddle the News; the Newspaper Act of 1970, which Maryland-based newspaper analyst John Morton says was designed "to help newspapers skirt the anti-trust laws," doesn't require any evidence in this regard. Morton, who writes a weekly business column in the American Journalism Review, adds that a good investor might well have been impossible for Scripps to find. "Over the last twenty years, the only buyers for weak second newspapers in markets -- and despite its circulation figures, that's what the Rocky is -- are companies that aren't very sophisticated about the newspaper business. Take Time Inc., which bought the Washington Star in the late '70s. At the time, I wrote that it was the dumbest decision of the year, and three years and $35 million in losses later, they agreed and shut it down."

Such realities no doubt made a JOA significantly more attractive to Scripps, as did the Justice Department's reputation as an easy mark; the department has approved every JOA put forward since the passage of the Newspaper Act. But this history hasn't prevented various organizations from trying to fight JOA proposals in other cities -- especially unions, whose members often wind up paying for cost reductions and consolidation with their jobs.

Understanding that the unions are the biggest potential obstacle to a cash bonanza that even Regis Philbin couldn't come close to matching, the Post and the News have been going out of their way to romance area reps. Carol Green, vice president of human resources and labor relations for the Post (and ex-wife of columnist/pet worshiper Chuck Green), says she met with union officials for ninety minutes the day after the JOA was announced. Another get-together involving these parties took place on June 5, shortly after the announcement that Green (Carol, not Chuck) was taking over the human-resources chores for the Denver Newspaper Agency, the entity slated to oversee business operations at the publications following the approval of the JOA. The fact she's the first executive to be hired by the agency indicates that preventing war with the unions is job one.

The articles about the latest chats published by the papers on June 6 were typically content-free, focusing on peace, love and understanding -- and Tom Botelho, spokesman for MediaNews, which owns the Post, takes the same tack. Because the JOA calls for the publications to maintain separate printing plants and editorial facilities, Botelho thinks overall job losses will be minimal, and he repeats the contention that most advertising, management and circulation positions that will vanish following the merging of departments can be handled through attrition. "Right now we're looking to hire," he says. "We have over a hundred openings."

That won't be the case for long -- but to date, no organized union resistance to the Post-News JOA has arisen, and reps have kept unaccountably quiet. Tony Mulligan, administrative officer for the Denver Newspaper Guild, which represents 1,400 employees who work in editorial, advertising, circulation, business and maintenance departments at the two papers, will say only that "we don't have enough information on the possible impact, so we need to collect more information so that we can make an educated decision" about JOA policy -- a statement that's positively bold by comparison with the quotes he's given to the Post and the News.

Nevertheless, the majority of union workers remains wary, and for good reason: Dean "Dinky" Singleton, CEO of MediaNews, has gained a well-deserved reputation for increasing profits at his papers by cutting pay and positions. For example, after Singleton bought the Post from the Times Mirror Company of Los Angeles in 1987, he convinced workers to accept a multi-year wage freeze and return a salary increase that was part of their previous contract by arguing that the paper might go under otherwise.

It didn't, and Singleton now boasts that the Post has made $192 million over the past decade. Yet while the Denver Newspaper Agency's Green insists that ties between the paper and its employees have improved dramatically over time and are currently first-rate, some workers gripe that they haven't been repaid for their sacrifices with adequate wage boosts or improvements in working conditions. They were luckier than the folks at the Oakland Tribune, though; after Singleton bought this Bay Area paper in 1992, nearly 400 of the 630 people on the staff were axed.

Will Singleton's approach to labor relations dominate the Denver Newspaper Agency? Probably, says Paul Greene, president of Denver's Graphics Communications International Union affiliate, which speaks for various pre-press workers at the papers; even before the announcement regarding Carol Green's new assignment, he predicted that Singleton would be "driving the train" when it comes to union negotiations. And if the results are anything like the circumstances that have arisen at MediaNews-owned papers in Southern California, Post and News employees may find themselves wishing for a different engineer.

According to Gary North, president of the Southern California Media Guild (a part of the Communications Workers of America, or CWA, which also governs the Denver Newspaper Guild), the SoCal happenings have been as difficult to watch as Boris Yeltsin at a nude beach. In 1997, Singleton purchased the Long Beach Press-Telegram from another media giant, Knight-Ridder, and at a newsroom meeting that November, "he told everyone, Don't worry about buying your Christmas gifts,'" North says. "But by December 17, eight days before Christmas, about 120 had lost their jobs, and virtually everyone else had their wages slashed by between 20 and 30 percent, with some people down by 50 percent. And another eighty to a hundred people lost their jobs about Easter." After a pause, he notes, "Timing is everything."

Singleton also managed to declaw a 57-year-old union pact at the Press-Telegram. Technically, he purchased the assets of the paper rather than the publication itself, thereby allowing him to toss out most of the contracts and start over -- something he's sworn won't take place here. Local unions will have to negotiate new pacts with the Denver Newspaper Agency, and the JOA application declares that "it is the intention" of the involved parties to provide employees with "benefits substantially comparable to those they would have received if they had remained with their prior employer." But words such as "intention" and "substantially comparable" provide a lot of wiggle room, don't they?

At the Press-Telegram, MediaNews used such loopholes to tremendous advantage, and when the Southern California Media Guild brought a complaint about these tactics to the National Labor Relations Board, it lost. However, another seven charges against MediaNews are currently before the NLRB, with rulings expected within the next couple of months.

This setback hasn't slowed Singleton down. MediaNews, operating under the name Garden State Newspapers Incorporated, owns a consortium of nine Southern California newspapers, including the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News and the Los Angeles Daily News, a growing presence in suburban L.A. with a circulation that tops 200,000. But rather than using the Daily News to challenge the honchos at Times Mirror, which owns the Los Angeles Times, Singleton has secretly been in cahoots with them, suggesting that what had seemed like competition was more of a conspiracy. In mid-May, word broke that Times Mirror had actually loaned Singleton $50 million to help him buy the Daily News, with $2.4 million of that total going toward an option for Times Mirror to buy the paper at any time between 2003 and 2010.

In a May 19 Times article, Singleton said that anticipated Justice Department objections would prevent Times Mirror from ever swallowing the Daily News. But, as North asks, "If it couldn't happen, why is there an option to do it?"

Employees at the Press-Telegram are weighing their options as well. The CWA has authorized them to go on strike, but that decision is on hold right now, and North reveals that the Denver situation is one of the reasons why. "My understanding is that the relations between the Newspaper Guild, CWA and MediaNews are being looked at in toto with regard to the support that a JOA would require of the union," he says -- the implication being that Singleton might make some concessions in Southern California if the union promises not to create stumbling blocks for the Post-News JOA.

At present, locals aren't hinting at a deal, but neither are they revealing much else. Mulligan, Greene and Les Stevens Jr., president of the Denver Typographical Union, which has bargaining units at both papers, all say that their parent unions are conducting investigations into the repercussions of JOAs with an eye toward deciding whether to oppose or support this one -- and beyond that, they're keeping their lips zipped.

Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking. On June 3 the Post reported that the antitrust division of the Justice Department is expected to begin a thirty-day review of the JOA this week -- and the Newspaper Act of 1970 states that once a notice about the agreement is published in the Federal Register, individuals have only thirty more days to file comments about it.

So if anyone knows any reason why this couple shouldn't be joined in marriage, speak soon or forever hold your peace.


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