About Town - December, 2007

Monday, December 31, 2007

Byline Strike at Morning Sentinel

Reporters and photographers belonging to the Portland Newspaper Guild chapter at the Central Maine Morning Sentinel, a Waterville-based sister paper of the Portland Press Herald, are not allowing the newspaper to print their names above articles or in photo captions, hoping to draw attention to the fact that they have not agreed on a contract since the expiration of the previous one in January 2006, and have not received raises since January 2005. The so-called byline strike comes at a time the papers’ parent, the Seattle Times Company, is in poor financial straits, according to its own account.

The job action began December 26, according to union head CJ Betit, and is based on a line in the previous Morning Sentinel contract that allows union members to withhold their bylines and photo credits for any reason. But the paper’s executive editor, Eric Conrad (who used to be a managing editor at the Press Herald), wrote in a December 27 memo to employees that the company disagrees with the union’s interpretation, and believes the contract language it is applicable only “in rare instances of profound journalistic difference — if a story is significantly altered and a reporter disagrees with the final version, for example.” (The full text of Conrad’s memo appears below.)

Darla Pickett, union chairman in Waterville, said Monday that there had been no new developments — except that her own byline has also been withdrawn. (A broken fax machine failed to transmit her request to withhold it, resulting in her name running in the December 28 issue. Her subsequent pleas to extend the deadline for submitting the request fell on deaf ears).

In addition to the contract and pay disputes, the union is objecting to Blethen Maine Newspapers’ unwillingness to limit mandatory staff transfers to the Augusta-based Kennebec Journal, also a sister paper, and its refusal to limit outsourcing of work to non-union workers.

Pickett says the union members are dedicated workers who want to be able to negotiate. “We got one guy that came in on his Christmas holiday and submitted a picture and a story,” she says, “On his holiday!” But that level of commitment has, union leaders say, gone unrecognized.

“The company has been unwilling even to agree to the protections that Portland got,” Betit says, referring to a month-old contract with employees at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, which guarantees workers a two-percent raise each year through 2010 and lower health-insurance premiums for a plan almost identical to the one in the last contract. The previous Press Herald contract expired at the end of May.

That same Portland contract does allow 15 percent of Press Herald workers to be non-union, a union concession to the company’s “flexibility” demands, but guarantees that workers employed at the time the contract was signed can’t be laid off as a result of non-union hires doing their work. It also allows existing employees to keep their guaranteed-benefit pension plans, but gives new hires a 401(k) plan, which includes a company match for a portion of contributions.

Conrad didn’t return multiple phone calls seeking comment, which is in keeping with the Blethen Maine Newspapers’ standard practice of not speaking to other media organizations.

Conrad’s December 27 memo asserts that he (or other unnamed company officials) may not allow staffers to withhold their bylines and photo credits, a response that would likely draw a formal objection from the union. If Conrad does allow staffers to withhold their names from print, Conrad writes, management will decide when the to resume publishing bylines and credits — a stipulation some interpret as a potential way for the company to punish protestors by depriving them of published credit even after the dispute is resolved.

This development in Maine comes as the Seattle Times Company, which owns the Blethen Maine papers, announced to staffers December 27 that 2008 would bring “the most difficult and painful downsizing” in company history, according to the Seattle Times. No details were forthcoming, but $6 million in spending will have to be eliminated, on top of $21 million already removed, the Times said, citing an internal memo from publisher and family patriarch Frank Blethen, who refused to comment further, even to his own paper.


The full text of Conrad’s internal memo is below:


Eric Conrad/Augusta/CMN

To msedit@CMN, News Staff-MS

12/27/07 01:52 PM

cc News Staff-KJ, Editorial, Editors, Directors, Eric Conrad/Augusta/CMN@CMN,

Subject A process for withholding byline and credit lines

Morning Sentinel staffers: By now, we are all aware of the action taken by Guild members at the Morning Sentinel regarding bylines and photo credits. Most of these were withheld in Thursday’s newspapers. It appears some were withheld Wednesday as well.

First, we want to be clear that the company does not recognize the union’s right, or any employee’s right, to do this as part of any concerted effort, which is what appears to be happening in this case. The expired contract does say, “A byline or credit line may not be used over the protest of an employee.” But the company interprets that as being in the contract so the employee can cite it in rare instances of profound journalistic difference — if a story is significantly altered and a reporter disagrees with the final version, for example.

But now that it has happened we will set up a process that must be followed for individual Guild members to take a more formal step along these lines. Here it is:

 — All reporters and photographers who want their bylines and/or credit lines withheld must request that in writing, and they must legibly sign their requests. This must be done individually. We will not accept a group letter and a bunch of signatures on it. You can fax these requests to me at: 621-5744. If we do not get these requests well before your next photo or story is scheduled to appear, your work will appear with a byline or credit line. If I do get a request like this from you, signed and in writing (emails are not sufficient), we will judge them on a case by case basis. If we approve your request, we will notify you.

 — We will continue to place “shirttails” at the ends of all articles. This shirttail information includes the reporter’s name, telephone number and e-mail address. The contract does not mention shirttails so they will be included on every story from a Sentinel staffer.

 — All Morning Sentinel stories written by reporters who have formally asked that their bylines be withheld (and had those requests granted) will say, “By Morning Sentinel staff.” They will not say, “Staff report,” as they did today.

 — For Morning Sentinel staffers who write columns, the company may reserve the right to run these with staffers’ photos and names. The whole point of a column is that it often is a signed opinion.

 — Finally, in the case of reporters and photographers who request that their names are withheld and hear that the request is granted, the company will determine when is the appropriate time for that employee’s byline or credit line to return to our newspapers. This is not up to the employee; this is up to the publisher.

Eric Conrad

Executive Editor

Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel

Telephone: 207-621-5630

12/31/2007 11:28:03 AM by Jeff Inglis | Comments [1] |  

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Reality Check - Hummer's impact

During the third quarter of the Pats-Giants game, there was an ad for the Hummer line of massive SUVs, highlighting global warming-related natural disasters - wildfires, flooding, blizzards, etc. - and suggesting that Hummer owners were actually making themselves useful in these situations, by banding together to get their neighbors out of sticky situations.

Closing line? "Hummer Helps," with a shot of the Earth from space, like those enviro organizations like to use. Let's remember that Hummers are among the heaviest, least fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. And maybe some people's lives have been saved as a result of Hummers, but that's nothing to the number of people whose lives have been lost or at least endangered by global warming and its related disasters.

If you're in this life for yourself, sure, get a Hummer. But more of us are in it to make the world a better place and to help others live better lives too.

Don't let the Hummer p.r. folks get away with this latest attempt at scurrilous spin. Hummers don't equal eco-friendliness, even if they have dragged smaller vehicles out of snowbanks once in a while.

12/29/2007 10:32:55 PM by Jeff Inglis | Comments [0] |  

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Prediction - Press Herald's lead story tomorrow

My bet is that the Portland Press Herald will lead its paper tomorrow with today's news - news, in fact, from VERY early this morning. Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated at a rally near the Pakistani capital. It's all over the Web: CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and everywhere else (including the Press Herald's own site) already, and will certainly be the lead item on evening news broadcasts for the adult-diaper-wearing folks who still watch the TV news.

But my money says tomorrow's Portland Press Herald will assume that their readers are living in a media vacuum, and will begin with the shocking - and, by then, shockingly old - news that former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Its story will include a play-by-play of what happened at the event, though all of that information is already available to anyone with electricity (whether radio, TV, or Internet).

It will be an enjoyable spoof of the Press Herald's continuing attempts at "convergence" (see my analysis of their last effort - or lack thereof - back in October), in that the newspaper will again not acknowledge that we in the 21st century have many ways of getting news, and the slowest of them is the daily newspaper. Which means that - as we alt-weeklies have long since figured out - newspapers are best off positioning themselves as interpreters of news, explainers of the context, and helping people understand ramifications of events, rather than just reporting that such-and-such a thing happened and hoping the audience makes sense of it themselves.

If I'm right, you all owe me a penny. If I'm wrong, well, then maybe we're starting to get a daily newspaper made for intelligent thinking people, and that's a reward we can all be happy with.

12/27/2007 3:20:20 PM by Jeff Inglis | Comments [0] |  

Wednesday, December 26, 2007