Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Murder of the Times-Picayune: Part Three

exploring the possibilities of worker control


Some are crowing, crowing over the murder. Neoliberal Young Creatives are circling the Times-Picayune corpse, eager to dart in and nip at a tender undefended eyeball or internal organ, eager to feast on a once-mighty newspaper rendered defenseless by the superior Newhouse superpredators.

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For a pair of prime examples, we need look no further than the horrendous young-privilege circle jerk Next American City, a bizarre media hub that elevates gentrification to a fetish, in fact to an entire identity-- "new urbanism."

There we find the opinions of Michael Martin, who since arriving here in 2010 has been made Manager of "St. Claude Main St," the recent recipient of a massive $275,000 grant to be shared with globe-trotter Candy Chang of "Blank Slate Neighborland" infamy. From his comfortable position deep in the non-profit clover, Martin urges largely web-unsavvy New Orleans to see the murder of the Times-Picayune as "an opportunity."

Crisis, opportunity. But an opportunity for whom? Ariella Cohen knows for whom!

"[C]ommunities need to understand," Cohen patiently informs us non-understanders, "that news is community infrastructure that must be valued and paid for, just like roads and bridges." Her solution is that everyone pour money into The Lens, which she helped found before following the NGO money train back north. By suggesting we respond to the death of our daily by investing in her internet site, she also promulgates the inaccurate notion that the murder of the Times-Picayune was due to it not being valued or paid for.

In the shadows beneath this gigantic, unselfconscious Shock Doctrine pitch for Knight Foundation funding, one comment by New Orleans poet Rodger Kamenetz provides a glimmer of light.
the missing piece in the discussion here is the staff of the Times Picayune. What if they had responded to this latest news-- or previous news-- and realized they needed to band together, really to unionize in some manner?

Then they as a group could have responded to this action by saying, fire all of us or keep all of us, print seven days a week or wake up tomorrow morning with no staff whatsoever. ...I really believe that had they done this-- if they did it, the whole community would support them.
I think he's absolutely right. Why didn't the Times-Picayune ever unionize?


On June 26 2012, the labor union representing about 200 employees of the Albany Times-Union Newspaper sent out a press release: eleven former employees would be compensated for their unjust firings. "We are proud to welcome back three of our colleagues, and we are glad all 11 will be compensated for their lost wages, health care costs and pension losses," wrote Albany Newspaper Guild Guild President Tim O’Brien. "But this case is not just about the past. It is about the future of all our members. Never again will employees be treated the way these colleagues were."

That kind of success story is what happens when workers-- even newspaper workers-- organize with one another. The Times-Picayune, of course, had no union. Instead, it had the Pledge:
No full-time, non-represented employee will be laid off or otherwise lose his or her job due to technological change or economic conditions, as long as our newspaper continues to publish daily in its current newsprint form.
This promise from the men of the Newhouse family to their employees stood for decades: if you remain non-union, you will not be laid off. It's why a Newhouse job was once considered the holy grail of newspaper work.

What kind of a substitute for the protections of worker organizing did the Pledge provide, long-term? “We have had a pledge not to layoff employees for economic conditions or advances in technology,” Steve Newhouse, chairman of Advance, told Editor & Publisher magazine in 2009. The occasion of this interview was his announcement that the pledge was ending. Firings were to follow. "It was not a pledge that applies to the kind of transitional moment in the newspaper industry that is basically struggling to survive."

Transitional moments-- transformational moments-- moments of crisis and change.

Sure enough, Times-Picayune and staff began transitioning to joblessness. On the newspaper side, the layoffs were mixed into buyouts: higher-paid staff or those covering theater, books and other apparently obsolete aspects of New Orleans life were offered incentives to quit. With the Pledge rescinded, weeks of mandatory unpaid furlough ensured everyone understood the stick awaiting those who didn't accept these generously proffered carrots.

Howard Bronson
One person who had the means and determination not to go quietly was the publisher of the Advance-owned Mobile Press-Register, Howard Bronson. Fired shortly after the rollback of the pledge and replaced with (now NOLA Media Group president) Ricky Mathews, Bronson was not satisfied with his severance package of a year’s salary, continuing health care coverage and access to University of Alabama football tickets. This ungrateful good ol' boy filed suit against the Newhouses for having violated the Pledge, and a good ol' court case commenced. On the stand, Donald Newhouse explained the Pledge was "a promise-- not a legal contract." Attorneys characterized the Pledge as simply "a protection for lower-level employees who didn’t join a union."

The ever-excellent American Zombie judges the Bronson suit and the Pledge to have played a major role in the liquidations of the Newhouse newspapers. In this, I disagree with him. Bronson had the means to sue the Newhouses; the rank-and-file never would have. The Pledge was a successful swindle. The reverence Newhouse staffers felt towards the Pledge imbued it with a mystic aura, and its warm glow kept them safe and secure right up until that warm glow ceased to be cost-effective.

Workers believed the benevolent patriarchs of the Newhouse family would look after them, based on nothing more than the Newhouses having said so. In practice, the Pledge was like the "privacy agreements" users have with Google or the fine-print fee structures of a credit card: subject to change at any time with basically no notice & no recourse. It was designed that way. The Newhouses might've misjudged how cheaply they could buy off Bronson, but billionaires aren't generally naive about labor.

The Pledge served its purpose: it bought worker loyalty. When the time came, heads rolled just the same as they had at Gannett & other news companies. The Pledge was never more than a facet of Newhouse efforts to suppress worker organizing.


Strikers published their own
newspaper, the "Valley Voice."
Photo by William D. Lewis
Back in late 2004, when employees of Youngstown, Ohio's daily "Vindicator" went on strike, Advance was one of the media companies who provided the Vindicator's owners with scab labor. New Orleans anarchists, the tediously scolding voice of idealism, painted the neighborhood around the Times-Pic building with anti-scab graffiti. "Scabs Are Scum," the spraypaint read. "Don't scab. Fuck your boss."

Some listened, some didn't. Times-Picayune managing editor Dan Shea was among those who took the bonus pay to go cross the picket line. He was deluded enough to believe himself on the side of the publishers. He, like many workers in many fields, mistakenly conflated his interests with those of his overseers.

"I'm a manager," Shea told picketers who asked him why he was stabbing fellow newspapermen in the back. "Publishers stick together just like unions do, and this paper has the right to publish. So we're just here helping out.... I hope you wrap this up soon; I want to go home to my kids."

Remember BP CEO Tony Hayward's words, in the wake of the BP oil disaster? "There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I'd like my life back." Shea, like Hayward, considered himself unfairly inconvenienced-- a victim of these other people's tragedy.

In May 2012 Shea found out how the publishers reciprocated his loyalty: he and the Times-Pic's other managing editor were excluded from the secret meetings new honcho Ricky Mathews held at the Windsor Court Hotel. Shea, like the common union rabble he'd sided against, was out in the cold, unsure of whether he'd have a job and depending on third-party reporting for his information.

"Since the New York Times story I have not heard anything," Shea told The Nation. "I’m in the same boat as the majority of the staff.”

Then, like the majority of the staff, he was fired.


There is, for better or worse, one prominent and semi-recent example I can cite of the Times-Picayune staffers working collectively, autonomously and without orders from above.

According to an article in the US News, in the teeth of the 2005 federal levee failure and the flooding of New Orleans, at the Times-Picyaune "a new, unexpected kind of leadership emerged-- one in which people at all levels banded together to do what they had to do: put out a newspaper." The writers of the article, titled "Out of Disaster, Power in Numbers" describe this dynamic as an example of organizations "shifting away from 'top down' approaches, in which a few leaders call all the shots, in favor of more collective processes."

I find it very telling that in the Times-Picayune's finest hour, its greatest triumph over adversity, the period for which it's been justly lauded, there was "no grand plan directed by senior editors." According to editor Jim Amoss, "It became immediately apparent that our very survival as a publication depended on collaboration and cooperation." The crisis "dramatically leveled all hierarchical considerations."

The conduct of Times-Pic staffers was heroic, and it also happened to be an example of cooperative, collective action. The work those employed by the Times-Pic did through Katrina and its aftermath remains a shining moment in that newspaper's history, in our community's history and in journalism's history.

Nothing-- neither the death of the Times-Picayune, nor the crass invocations of Katrina by those killing it-- will ever dim that luster.


a six-part series on the destruction of New Orleans' daily newspaper
Part  One - Two - Three - Four - Five - Six
written by Jules Bentley


  1. God damnnnnnn...

    And I mean that in a good way.

  2. Love how you weave the non-profit industrial complex and its role in touting and exploiting disaster capitalism. Looking forward to the next installment!!

  3. This is some incredible writing. Great series. Great work.

  4. Picayune employees never unionized because the company provided very good benefits and pay; the company did that precisely to dampen efforts at unionizing.

    1. The times picayune and its reporters have been pushing a neoliberal agenda in New Orleans for quite some time now. They were unprepared for this because they had not developed a community consciousness that would lend itself to this type of organizing. they are victims of the very forces they have been touting for years: demolition of public housing, backing the new hospital and concurrent destruction of midcity, crime initiatives that put a band aid on the problem and continue the creation of an exploitable, criminal class...etc, etc.

  5. Very good series. And no, The sleazy non-profit types have no shame.

  6. I was following this series already with great interest even before I read my name! Anyway, that was a surprise but I am so glad you picked up on this point and added much much more to it. It surprised me and saddened me that the Times Picayune staff allowed their bosses to fire them in this humiliating way and never once thought to band together. It was a pure case of divide and conquer.

  7. this is an invaluable series. it should be mandatory reading for everyone at the t-p, as well as the jokers at the lens and whatever "next american city" is. your curation of the facts and your analysis are really, really something special. thank you so much for writing this! and this is my favorite installment yet.. i can't wait to see what's to come!

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