When you see journalists on picket lines, they’re typically snapping photos, scribbling in notepads, or pulling a protester or striking worker aside for an interview. But in Texas, increasingly, journalists have found themselves adopting a less familiar role: holding signs, leading chants, giving the interviews themselves—all in a bid to improve their own deteriorating work conditions and, thus, save local media institutions that form part of the bedrock of American democracy.
On Monday, about 20 unionized journalists from the Austin American-Statesman—the 152-year-old daily covering Texas’ fast-growing capital metro—took to the city’s iconic Congress Avenue bridge holding signs reading “Save our Statesman” and “Journalists are worth more.” As a few passing cars honked, they chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, corporate greed has got to go.” The paper’s name was still emblazoned on a building in the background, the outlet’s former headquarters before the Statesman relocated to a less-central location. Not simply protesting, these media workers were engaging in a one-day strike—alongside hundreds of others from two dozen newsrooms nationwide—against Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain with more than 200 daily publications including the Statesman.
“We love this community; we want to be able to cover this community, but we cannot do it under the current conditions,” said Nicole Villalpando, a health editor and vice chair of the Austin NewsGuild, the union formed by Statesman workers in early 2021. “Today we are on strike, and we are here to save our Statesman.”
The Austin union is part of the national NewsGuild, a fast-growing organization now representing some 26,000 media workers. In recent years, Austin’s daily paper has hemorrhaged employees, losing some 80 percent of newsroom staff since 2013, according to a NewsGuild statement. Statesman journalists report making as little as around $40,000 in a city where the median house goes for well over half a million dollars; some say they haven’t had a raise in years. The paper’s union workers are demanding a wage floor of $60,000 as part of ongoing contract negotiations.
“When I saw how little the journalists were being paid who were doing the critical work of upholding local democracy I was honestly stunned,” said Democratic Congressman Greg Casar, who attended the picket Monday. “You being on strike today, basically taking this paper off the shelf for a day, is what it’s going to take, I think, to keep this paper on the shelves for decades and generations to come.”
Monday’s strike coincided with a Gannett shareholder meeting. Since a 2019 merger with GateHouse Media (the Statesman’s former owner)—which saddled the resulting newspaper corporation with significant debt—Gannett has gutted newsrooms nationwide, according to the NewsGuild and industry analysts. From late 2019 through 2022, its total U.S. employees fell from around 21,000 to around 11,000, alongside vertiginous declines in circulation at many papers, according to a damning Nieman Lab analysis. Mike Reed, Gannett’s CEO and board chair, earned a combined $11.1 million in 2021 and 2022—enough to employ 92 reporters with $60,000 salaries.
Back in late 2019, Reed referred to the NewsGuild as “a big problem.” Today, about 17 percent of Gannett’s U.S. workforce is represented by labor unions. In an annual SEC filing, submitted in February, Gannett said its operations could be “adversely affected” by current or additional union negotiations. The company further stated: “Although our newspapers have not experienced a union strike in the recent past nor do we anticipate a union strike to occur, we cannot preclude the possibility.”
On Monday, the NewsGuild urged Gannett shareholders to issue a vote of no-confidence in Reed by withholding their votes to reelect him to the board. “Under Mike Reed’s watch, Gannett has become radioactive to investors. Reed doesn’t care one bit about a long-term strategy to invest in the company by investing in journalists,” said Jon Schleuss, NewsGuild president, in a statement. “Instead, Reed’s singular focus has been on stuffing his own pockets. Reed has overstayed his welcome at Gannett and needs to go.”
Gannett’s stock price is down significantly over the last year and saw another dip the morning of Monday’s strike. Nevertheless, Reed was successfully reelected to the board in a minutes-long meeting.
“Despite the work stoppage in some of our markets, there will be no disruption to the Austin American-Statesman‘s content or ability to deliver trusted news,” a Gannett spokesperson told the Observer in a statement. “Our goal is to preserve journalism and serve our communities across the country as we continue to bargain in good faith to finalize contracts that provide equitable wages and benefits for our valued employees.”
When Statesman journalists unionized in early 2021, they followed workers at the Dallas Morning Newsand the Fort Worth Star-Telegram by joining the NewsGuild. Prior, there hadn’t been a union newspaper in the Lone Star State since the San Antonio Light shuttered in 1993.
In Dallas, contract negotiations—which follow union elections—started off fairly amicably but eventually bogged down over intractable sticking points. The Morning News is owned by the DallasNews Corporation, which runs no other papers outside Dallas. In May, after more than two-and-a-half years of bargaining, the sides finally reached an agreement that established a wage floor of $55,000 and improved severance procedures.
Over in neighboring Cowtown, where the daily is owned by the McClatchy Company, which runs about 30 papers, negotiations were essentially stuck in the mud until workers engaged late last year in a 24-day labor strike—likely the first open-ended newsroom work stoppage in Texas history. That action secured the workers a collective contract, after a little over two years of bargaining, establishing a wage floor of $52,000 for current employees and $50,000 for future hires. Workers credited the strike for forcing the company’s hand.
In Austin, meanwhile, negotiations with Gannett have moved glacially since early 2021, and the union has filed complaints with federal regulators about unfair bargaining practices.
At Monday’s picket line, Luz Moreno-Lozano, local government reporter and chair of the Austin NewsGuild, told the Observer that the day of the strike was her last day working for the Statesman. She’d taken a reporting job at KUT, the local NPR station. Her main reason for leaving, she said, was that staff attrition had left her doing “the job of what was once five people.”
To break through at the bargaining table, Moreno-Lozano said she expected Statesman workers would ultimately need to launch a full-fledged, open-ended strike like that in Fort Worth. “I think that today is just a warning shot; it kind of lets them know [that] we can do this, we can organize our entire newsroom,” she said.