By: Ken Liebeskind

Dow Jones Joins Others In Offering Health Benefits

The number of newspaper companies that offer domestic-partner benefits is growing, with New York-based Dow Jones & Co. Inc. advising employees this month that their partners will be eligible for health benefits as of New Year’s Day.

Richard Tofel, vice president of corporate communications for Dow Jones, said the company announced Sept. 8 that it would begin providing domestic-partner benefits. He added that employees can sign up for the new benefits during open enrollment in November, when about 8,000 employees choose from among an assortment of insurance options.

The benefits will be available to unmarried gay and lesbian employees as well as heterosexual workers. “We don’t want to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation,” Tofel said. “We’d been thinking about [domestic-partner benefits] for some months and were urged to do it by longtime employees. We took a hard look at it, and it was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”

Deborah Price, a nationally syndicated columnist with The Detroit News who writes about gay and lesbian issues, said, “Dow Jones is a big deal, because The Wall Street Journal is the most widely read newspaper in the country.”

“They’re heading in the right direction,” said Sherry Boschert, a medical news reporter for the International Medical News Group and a board member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA).

Also in January, Booth Newspapers Inc., based in Grand Rapids, Mich., will begin offering domestic-partner benefits to employees at six of its eight newspapers, according to the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune Co. flagship newspaper reported Thursday that the papers planning to provide the benefits are The Ann Arbor News, The Bay City Times, The Flint Journal, the Jackson Citizen Patriot, the Kalamazoo Gazette, and The Saginaw News.

Booth is a subsidiary of Advance Publications, the Staten Island, N.Y.-based media giant owned by the Newhouse family and led by S.I. Newhouse as chairman and Donald E. Newhouse as president. In addition to major newspapers such as The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and The Oregonian in Portland, Advance properties include Parade Publications Inc., Cond? Nast magazines, and the American City Business Journals group.

Advance representatives declined to comment by E&P’s deadline either on the Booth papers’ move to offer domestic-partner benefits or on whether such benefits will be made available to employees throughout all of Advance’s holdings.

Another newspaper-related company, Bloomberg L.P. – a multimedia concern with a syndication service – announced Sept. 1 that its domestic-partner benefits would be available to all employees immediately, company spokeswoman Chris Taylor said.

In 1994, only 10 media companies offered domestic-partner benefits, but now 69 do, Boschert pointed out. Among major newspaper companies that provide domestic-partner benefits are Cox Newspapers Inc., Hearst Newspapers, Knight Ridder, the McClatchy Co., the New York Times Co., and the Washington Post Co. Newspapers offering the benefits include The Seattle Times, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, and former Times Mirror Co. papers now owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Co., which does not provide them to employees at its other properties.

The NLGJA’s Boschert said media companies are following the path of high-tech companies, which were the first to offer domestic-partner benefits to employees. Most companies that provide the benefits have found that few employees request the coverage, so the cost is negligible.

The Seattle Times, which began offering the benefits in 1994 and was the second paper after The Boston Globe to do so, has only 10 to 15 employees enrolled, said Jim Schafer, senior vice president of employee resources. “The number of employees who have signed up for the program has always been relatively insignificant,” so the cost is low, he said.

He added that the initial fears that there would be higher medical-claim costs for gay employees proved to be unfounded. “There’s no significant difference. That’s been our experience here, and we’ve tested it,” he said.

Although the number of companies providing domestic-partner benefits to employees is growing, only 20% of Fortune 500 companies currently offer them, according to the NLGJA.

“We don’t do it now, but we’re studying it,” said Tara Connell, director of public affairs and government relations for Gannett Co. Inc., the nation’s No. 1 newspaper company in terms of circulation. “It’s something we’re looking at,” said Connell, who added that there is no time frame for a decision.

“We’ve got a team that represents different business units from the company studying the entire range of benefits,” said John Lyday, a Tribune spokesman. The acquisition of Times Mirror by Tribune has provoked speculation that Tribune will begin offering the benefits to its employees because employees of former Times Mirror properties get them. However, Lyday said, all of Tribune’s employees will retain their current benefits through 2001 and nothing will change until the company’s study has been completed.

Working for The Detroit News, a Gannett paper, means that columnist Price is unable to provide benefits for her partner, Joyce Murdoch, a former reporter for The Washington Post who is now a free-lance writer. The two made news in July when they went to Vermont and were one of the first couples to enter into a civil union.

“We have all the rights of a full marriage in Vermont, but our status is unclear outside of the state borders,” she said. And, of course, the union brings no insurance benefits for Murdoch.

“It’s a financial hardship,” Price said. Providing full insurance coverage to gay employees is “just a matter of fairness,” she added. “We’ve been together for 15 years. Someone who’s been married for 15 minutes gets benefits we aren’t entitled to.”

Ken Liebeskind is a free-lancer for E&P.

Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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