State of the Union: Q&A with The Newspaper Guild?s Bernie Lunzer

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Even as newspaper newsrooms shrank at unprecedented rates, jettisoning at least 13,500 journalists since 2007, The Newspaper Guild seems to be more active than even in the heydays of newspaper unions. The CWA unit in recent months has been an important player in some of the hottest industry stories, from the Philadelphia Newspapers bankruptcy to The Honolulu Advertiser sale to tough contract negotiations at numerous dailies. E&P Editor Mark Fitzgerald caught up with Bernie Lunzer, the longtime secretary-treasurer of union who was elected the Guild’s national president in 2008.

Q. So how is the Newspaper Guild doing?

A. The Guild is working hard to get through this difficult period, making concessions where legitimately needed while pursuing ideas that help build a future for our members and quality journalism.

Q. With all the layoffs of the last couple of years — with seemingly no one’s job safe — is there really any advantage to being represented by a union at a newspaper?

A. The Guild provides what it has always provided — a voice to workers that can’t be ignored by employers. Every day in hundreds of workplaces, we work to ensure fairness and help to resolve problems in constructive ways.

Q. You’ve frequently spoken out about the concentration of media ownership. Do you see any signs consolidation will ever stop?

A. The current trend seems to be toward consolidation, with regulatory agencies seeming to believe that this is a path that will help news organizations. In most cases, it results in more unmanageable debt and job losses. We’re working with others that care about quality news to create business models that work. It’s not simple work, and no one has quick answers. But we don’t have to accept hollowed-out news products that don’t serve their communities.

Q. To that point, of the many business models being proposed to “save” newspapers, or at least newspaper journalism, are there any you find particularly attractive — and practical?

A. We like models where equity stakes are shared with employees. It creates buy-in and helps to keep morale higher at a time when wages have dropped.

We like the L3C model, that promotes a low-profit corporation that can use non-profit money, as long as it meets a stated social purpose. This model can morph into a regular corporation if profitability returns. We also believe that there will be more “public” models, like MinnPost and others, where the goal is to get money either directly from the public or foundation and grant money — in a way that is sustainable. There’s no question the old model is in trouble.

Q. Newhouse Newspapers last year ended its so-called pledge to never lay off newsroom employees as long as they didn’t try to organize. There’s no sign, so far as I can see, that any of the employees left at those papers are trying to organize, now that they’ve got, so to speak, nothing to lose. What’s the state of Guild organizing?

A. I wouldn’t focus on one property, and we won’t speak openly about any [organizing] drive. But there is a lot of interest and we are gearing up for organizing in a big way.

We think the Guild community, along with the tools of a union, is the best way to build a future for news organizations. We think we’ll demonstrate over the next few years that workers who understand what we have to offer, will choose the Guild. This is not about confrontation or not liking your boss — it’s about building democratic workplaces that preserve quality journalism.

We want to work with owners and editors, employed and freelance workers and all media workers to build a viable future. We don’t accept that this exciting new digital era has to create an information dark ages. People want and need credible, factual news — our members can deliver on that need.

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