By Sarah Robertson
NORTHAMPTON—Last month Newspapers of New England announced the closure of the printing press at their flagship Northampton newspaper, and the termination of 29 print and distribution employees by the end of July. The nation’s largest newspaper publisher, Gannett Company Inc., is expected to take over printing responsibilities from their Auburn facility, but union members are fighting to keep the jobs local and the press running.
Publisher Michael Moses announced the decision in an email to
Gazette staff, “This is, without question, the business model that best positions us for the future, allowing us to continue the award winning coverage our readers require,” he said.
“The decision came as a total blindside. I would have asked them to take humanity into consideration during a time when the country and our communities need to come together more than ever,” said Laila Hussein, a distribution worker whose job was cut by the layoffs. “If these layoffs happen I can assure you that many of us would no longer be able to keep calling ourselves Northampton residents.”
In response to the surprise news, the Pioneer Valley NewsGuild started a petition calling on the company to reverse the decision, and is now urging community members to write to the newspaper with their feelings on why the distribution jobs should stay local.
“Our power entirely rests in the hands of the Pioneer Valley community as this point,”said Bera Dunau, unit council chair of the Pioneer Valley NewsGuild. “We believe there is a future here for the Daily Hampshire Gazette to be printed here. We think there is a future for these jobs.”
The NewsGuild members are calling the layoffs, happening just as enhanced federal unemployment through the CARES Act is set to expire at the end of July, “morally reprehensible.” If the company refuses to reverse their decision and still closes the press, the union is pushing for better severance pay and benefits for the 29 workers, none of whom have been receiving hazard pay, they said. Newspapers of New England is offering severance packages equal to one week of pay for every two years worked for full-time workers, with a cap of $5,000. Part-time workers, like Hussein, would receive $500 regardless of their time spent with the company. Even an employee of 14 years working part-time would only receive part-time severance, union members said.
“We are advocating for significantly more than that and also advocating for better health[care packages],” Dunau said. “As long as there are pandemic restrictions in place we want people to be covered by their healthcare.”
Many workers in the print and distribution departments earn minimum wage, some are disabled and need the flexibility and physical accommodations the job provides them, and others don’t drive. In order for the daily newspaper to be delivered in the morning, many work the night shift.
“People don’t work night shifts for fun—we all have a story and a reason why we were choosing to work an extremely physical labor intensive job which entailed solely night shifts and paid minimum wage,” Hussein said. “We don’t fit the mold of what the average Northampton resident looks like but thanks to the flexible nature of the Distribution Center we were able to be a part of the Northampton community.”
At home, Hussein has a son with special needs and working nights at the Gazette allows her to take care of him. “The hours and location offers me the flexibility to be there to assist my son with whatever he needs during the day and then work to keep supporting him and my family at night,” she said.
The Pioneer Valley NewsGuild is unique in that it is a “wall-to-wall” union representing all non-managerial workers in all departments—from printing and distribution to advertising, layout, news and other departments at the newspaper. The NewsGuild is a national media workers union under the auspices of the Communication Workers of America. Union organizers at the Gazette, however, made a point to include everyone in the building involved with different aspects of the company.
“We stand in solidarity with the people who print our newspaper and the people who distribute our newspaper, and we feel an injury to one is an injury to all,” Dunau said. “We feel the Gazette as a whole institution is strengthened by being printed here.”
Newspapers of New England already saw a round of layoffs triggered by the coronavirus crisis back in March, when 13 employees were laid off, including several sports reporters. Their latest decision to shut down the printing press, however, had been in the works for months prior, according to union members.
“This is not being presented as a Covid thing, this is being presented as a business decision,” said Dunau. “[Distribution employees] have been risking their health, even their lives, to make sure we have a printed product and to lay them off seems outrageous.”
According to the NewsGuild, closing the printing press would save the Gazette around $300,000 this year, while the current offer of severance packages would cost the company about $60,000.
“My colleagues worked side by side throughout all shutdown phases of COVID-19. They could not work from home. Instead they were there day in and day out risking their health to provide for the City of Northampton—while those in charge at the Gazette prepared to lay off their entire department,” Hussein said.
The closure would lay off 9 full-time and 20 part-time employees. This includes 25 of about 60 union members working at the Gazette. A guest editorial in the Gazette co-authored by president of the Western Mass Area Labor Federation Jeff Jones and Patrick Burke, president of the Hampshire-Franklin Labor Assembly AFL-CIO, emphasized this fact.
“The decision by the Gazette to cut its in-house printing department and outsource to a commercial printer in Auburn should be understood for what it is—a classic example of union busting,” their letter read. “These cuts will be devastating and it’s no coincidence that they come as staff, which unionized in 2018 to form the Pioneer Valley News Guild, are in the midst of negotiating their first contract.”
Publisher Michael Moses explained the company’s decision in a short editorial on July 15th, saying how the flexographic newspaper press had been a uniquely expensive and obscure investment for the business. “This decision has nothing to do with ‘union busting’ but is one driven by the economics of the printing business,” Moses wrote. “We are taking this reasonable step, one that many other newspapers have already taken, because we care about the long-term health of the paper and the communities we serve.”
However, Moses also said that the commercial press in Northampton was a “healthy revenue stream” in a story co-published last December by the Montague Reporter and the Shoestring. “It is a healthy revenue stream for us, and it certainly helps us support other areas of the company as well,” Moses said.
This is not the first time Newspapers of New England leadership has chosen to surprise employees with major business decisions. In December 2017, the company announced they had bought the Athol Daily News, then proceeded to close the paper’s on-site printing press and lay off about half the staff in the building. They’ve since closed the Athol office of the Athol Daily News entirely and shifted all newsgathering responsibilities to Greenfield.
Neither Moses nor Newspapers of New England president and CEO Aaron Julien, responded to repeated requests for comment on this story.
According to union members, a “notoriously anti-union law firm,” Seyfarth Shaw, is representing NNE in their negotiations with the NewsGuild. Founded in 1945 during a wave of post-war labor strikes, the law firm today boasts of their history representing employers and quelling organized labor. They served as negotiators for newspaper publishers during the lengthy 1978 trade union strikes in New York City, fought Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the 1970s, and recently represented the Weinstein Company as they challenged dozens of sexual assault allegations in court. One founding member, Lee Shaw, helped draft the Taft-Hartley Act which weakened the power of national labor unions. The act included a McCarthy era-inspired clause requiring union leaders to sign affidavits claiming they were not members of the Communist Party and would not try to overthrow the American government.
“They’ve been on the wrong side of every moral question when it comes to the history of labor and workers,” said Dusty Christensen, a newsroom steward for the union. “And these lawyers are expensive.”
Seyfarth Shaw public relations manager Martin Grego declined to comment on this story. The firm has represented Gannett and Gatehouse in the past, too.
“They are not the kind of people that we want to see operating in our community,” Dunau said.
In an annual report on workplace class action litigation suits published last year, the law firm’s Chair and managing partner Peter C. Miller illuminates exactly who they choose to fight for. “Defense of corporations in complex, high-stakes workplace litigation is one of the hallmarks of Seyfarth Shaw’s practice,” the introduction states. “Through that work, our attorneys are on the forefront of the myriad of issues confronting employers in class action litigation.”
A Corporate Behemoth
This is not the first time jobs from the Gazette have been sent to Gannett. In June 2018, four positions from the advertising design and graphics department were eliminated and outsourced to the mass media company.Then-publisher Michael Rifanburg assured the move did not foreshadow an acquisition, but did say that the company continues to look for new partners and ways to operate more efficiently. Rifanburg was abruptly replaced as publisher by NNE president and CEO Aaron Julien in November 2018, one week after the Pioneer Valley NewsGuild went public with their union.
“Unfortunately our struggle is one we’re seeing across the country,” said Dunau.“We see across the country the consolidation of the new industry into fewer and fewer hands. As workers that concerns us. As people who care about local control and local news that concerns us.”
According to an analysis by the Boston Business Journal, more than 80% of Gannett-owned newspapers are losing circulation faster than the national average due to cost-cutting measures.
In November 2019 Gannett merged with GateHouse Media to create the largest newspaper publishing company in the United States. They control the USA Today network, daily newspapers in 260 communities in 46 states, plus a large share of community newspapers and magazines circulation in the U.K. In Massachusetts they publish 10 daily newspapers and 75 weeklies from one production facility in Auburn, where the Gazette will soon be printed if all goes according to plan.
“There was and still is a lot more that can be done to help us keep our jobs and the fact that these avenues weren’t explored and that those in charge jumped straight to layoffs is disappointing and says something about their character,” Hussein said.
First published in 1786 by businessmen hoping to counteract Shay’s Rebellion, the Daily Hampshire Gazette was bought by Newspapers of New England in 2005, around the same time the company invested in the new $10 million flexographic printing press. Today NNE publishes nine daily and weekly newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and just last year shut down their other flexographic printing press in Concord.
Keeping The Gazette Local
If Newspapers of New England cannot commit to keeping print jobs local, then union members are hoping for a new arrangement, or perhaps new owners, that will. The union’s campaign can be followed and shared online with the hashtag #KeepTheGazetteAtHome.
“We’re not fully clear on what the alternative is,” Christensen said. “They could become a nonprofit, they could sell to the workers, they could sell to a different owner, they could do a more robust fundraising drive. There’s a whole bunch of ways.”
Other newsmakers have shifted to new business models in response to troubling trends in the industry. A group of local investors bought the Berkshire Eagle from Digital First Media in 2016 after seeing dramatic cuts to news quality and staff. Former staff members from the Denver Post founded the cryptocurrency-backed Colorado Sun in 2018 after their newsroom was gutted by Alden Global Capital (the hedge fund that owns a 50% stake in Digital First Media).
Just last year Digital First Media made a bid to acquire Gannett, which was rejected just before Gannett merged with Gatehouse Media in a move backed by the publicly traded New Media Investment Group. Consolidation of legacy newspapers at the hands of hedge funds and venture capitalists is an increasing trend nationally, with fewer key players vying for a dominant share of the market each year.
“Our main focus right now is basically getting community support. We don’t necessarily know what form this will take,” Dunau said. “If they don’t want to keep those jobs here, then we envision other folks stepping forward with models that would allow us to keep the jobs here.”
Sarah Robertson is a freelance reporter who worked as a staff writer for the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Athol Daily News between 2017 and 2019. Photo by Harrison Greene.