"Concern" for Pittsburgh Post-Gazette publisher following newsroom meltdown
On Saturday, Feb. 9, John Robinson Block, the publisher of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, entered the newsroom intoxicated and shouting. In an apparent meltdown, Block went “berserk,” threatened employees, and “manhandled” his pre-teen daughter who was accompanying him.
The Pittsburgh Newspaper Guild has been engaged in contentious contract negotiations with the publisher. They have been working without a contract since March 31, 2017. For the second year in a row, the Blocks have refused to pay the five percent increase for the health insurance premium, which is required by contract and by federal law.
The newsroom posted a sign reading “Shame on the Blocks” in the newsroom in early December, after the Blocks announced that once again they would not be paying the increase.
On Friday, Feb. 9, Block threatened to close the paper if the sign was not taken down, according to multiple accounts published by the Pittsburgh News Guild. Reporters described him as “angry and irate,” “violent” and clearly “intoxicated.” He was “slapping and kicking” the wall.
Block attempted to pose his daughter for a photograph with it, and demanded that it run on “the front page of tomorrow’s paper,” according to the Post-Gazette’s web editor, Marianne Mizera.
He “forcefully grabbed” his daughter, who was “crying, shaking and pleading.” Web editor Marianne Mizera, who was present at the time, reported that the publisher shouted at her “You’re a Block, don’t you forget it. You’re a Block you’re not one of them!”
“Do you want to be high class or low class?” he shouted, according to another employee statement. “You’re a Block, you’re one of us! You have to learn how to lead!”
In the days after the incident John Robinson Block’s twin brother and the chairman Block Communications Inc., Allan Block, released a contradictory statement to Next Pittsburgh.
Allan Block’s statement addressed an “unfortunate exchange with employees,” which he attributed to the financial challenges of the newspaper industry. He expressed regret “if anyone present may have misconstrued what occurred as anything other than an indication of strong concern and support for the legacy and future of the Post-Gazette.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was founded in 1786. The paper has been published by the Blocks family since 1927. John Robinson Block has been publisher since 2002.
Last year the Post-Gazette published an editorial title “Reason as Racism,” defending President Trump’s comments about “sh-thole countries.” The editorial, which was published on Martin Luther King Jr. day, drew national criticism as “racist.” On Monday Feb. 18, The Post-Gazette named the editorial page director who wrote the controversial editorial, Keith C. Burris, as leader of the newsroom.
The Pittsburgh Newspaper Guild released four corroborating employee accounts in response to Allan Block’s statement. The Guild also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
Michael A. Fuoco, enterprise reporter and President of the Newspaper Guild, spoke with The Tartan to comment on the incident. He called it a “human crisis” that “had nothing to do with journalism.” Fuoco told The Tartan that “he should not be allowed back in the building until he received some type of evaluation that says he is not a threat to himself, his child, or his employees.”
Fuoco told NEXTpittsburgh that “We are very concerned for his safety and for ours.” He added that “given the statement issued by Allan Block, we no longer believe [company representatives] have the same empathy and concern for John Block’s mental health that we do.”
Shortly after the event the Guild sent out an email encouraging employees to work from home if they felt concerned for their safety, as reported by NEXTpittsburgh.
Yet Fuoco told The Tartan that “you won’t notice any drop off in the excellent journalism that we produce on a daily basis.”
Fuoco, who has been reporting at the Post-Gazette for 35 years, said he was proud of the “high degree of professionalism exhibited by [his] colleagues.”
“There has not been any drop off in the way that we [do] our job.” said Fuoco. “There’s tension, but people are putting that aside to do our job. This is our calling, to be journalists. We went into this profession to report for our community, and will continue to do that until they close the doors. We hope they don’t.”