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Post-Gazette takes a stand

Last week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published no bylines in their paper. Their byline strike against the owners of the paper, Block Communications, Inc. (BCI), the editorializing and megalomaniacal owners of the paper, targets the numerous and repeated behaviors that have degraded public trust in the journalistic standards of the Post-Gazette.

On a Friday night in February, J.R. Block, the publisher of the Post-Gazette, burst into the newsroom in a tizzy. That night, people in the newsroom made four incident reports. These reports suggested that Block came into the newsroom acting erratically, not only making the staffers uncomfortable but also his own daughter cry. Block forced his daughter to take a photo in front of a sign on the workers’ union board that read “Shame on the Blocks!” and was reported by another staffer to have said, “Do you want to be high class or low class? You’re a Block; you’re one of us! You have to learn how to lead!”

Even before this, Block’s hand had begun to creep into the editorial processes of the paper. In Jan. 2018, Keith Burris, the former editorial page director, wrote an infamous opinion piece titled, “Reason as Racism,” which begins with the line, “Calling someone a racist is the new McCarthyism.” Burris appears to be the right-hand man of J.R. BCI considering his quick progression up the corporate ladder at BCI, where he went from an editorial director at the Toledo Blade to the VP/Editorial Director of all Block Newspapers.

Burris is a central figure in this strike, with the union for the Post-Gazette voting no confidence in his and J.R. Block’s leadership of the newspaper. A press release from the Newspaper Guild specifically cites Burris and the Blocks for their complicity in pushing out or firing multiple newsroom managers since Burris’ rise to control at the paper. The two of them are responsible for forcing out cartoonist and former executive editor Rob Rogers and recent Carnegie Mellon hire, David Shribman, executive editor and former Vice President of the Post-Gazette. Burris now holds both positions. In addition, the press release states that 16 journalists and three newsroom managers, unnamed in the release, left or were fired as a result of the Block-Burris teaming.

For these reasons and more, The Tartan Editorial Board supports the Post-Gazette’s staff's decision to strike. The union workers at the Post-Gazette have not seen a pay increase in a decade. Their insurance premiums keep rising. No contract between the Guild and the Blocks has been in place for three years. Their workplace is an increasingly toxic environment. And most worryingly, the journalistic goals of the newsroom are in danger. For these reasons, we support the staff of the Post-Gazette.

The goal of journalism — prioritizing facts over ideology or profit — is in danger, and J.R. Block personifies that danger. The Blocks do not care about journalism, only the bottom line. While it’s a necessary evil to make sure the books are in the black, the Blocks have taken the monetization of the Post-Gazette too far.

Since the early 90s, when Block Communications bought out the Pittsburgh Press, then the larger paper, and folded it into the Post-Gazette, they have spent every minute "trimming the fat" of the paper. They’ve eliminated journalistic staff and cut their pay. They’ve cut the days of print publication down to three per week from a daily publication. This byline strike is the latest action by the workers, not only to retain their freedom but to retain some semblance of journalistic ethics, in spite of the overwhelming forces of monetization that Block has pushed onto his asset.

The byline strike is also the last gasp of the regional, daily newspaper. Pittsburgh has seen its newspapers steadily close since its heyday. The city is not alone, as regional newspapers close across the country. With that said, other newspapers and other models of monetization will have to pick up the slack. College newspapers, weekly news, and online subscription news services are now responsible for the work that was, until recently, dedicated to the print news services like the Post-Gazette.

At The Tartan, we recognize our responsibility to report on the news in our community, and we will continue to do whatever it takes to fulfill our mission. Newspapers may be disappearing across the country, but the job of journalism is still necessary. Without it, valuable information at the local and regional levels will be lost, and the readers of news will be without local political coverage and personal stories about economic and social change.

Newspapers are often called the first line of history, as they are where we go to understand the way the world works in our regions. Without local news, we, as readers, are cast adrift in the national milieu, wondering what any of this means at home. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is not just an important asset to J.R. Block, but an asset to the city of Pittsburgh. We cannot lose the voice that the Post-Gazette provides.