Dozens gather to mark printing workers’ last shift change
By Sarah Robertson
NORTHAMPTON—Dozens gathered outside the Daily Hampshire Gazette office Monday evening to mark the end of an era: the last day the 234-year-old newspaper would be printed locally. Newspapers of New England announced last month that their printing press in Northampton was to be shut down, with all work outsourced to Gannett Company Inc.
“After thoughtful analysis and deliberation, we have reached a decision to cease the in-house production of our newspapers and cease all commercial work,” read an email from publisher Michael Moses to staff. “Our new printer, Gannett, will print our papers at its Auburn, Mass. plant commencing on or about July 28, 2020.”
Monday was the last day of work for the 29 employees who lost their jobs to the closure, 24 of whom were members of the union, the Pioneer Valley NewsGuild. While the NewsGuild tried to convince the Newspapers of New England CEO Aaron Julien to reverse the decision through a petition and publicity campaign, the company showed no signs of changing their mind before the press’s final day.
“We weren’t able to win what we really wanted, which was to save these jobs and to keep the press here local,” reporter and union member Dusty Christensen said to rally goers. “It’s a sad day I think for all of us.”
NewsGuild members criticized management for waiting until after enhanced unemployment benefits through the CARES Act expired to lay off the press room employees. They started a petition calling for the reversal of the decision, and urged community members to write to the newspaper with their support for a local press.
“This fight is not over in terms of what the future of the Gazette is going to look like,” said reporter and union council chair Bera Dunau. “We couch this in terms of saving these local jobs, but this is also about keeping the focus here locally and keeping local control.”
The nation’s largest newspaper publisher by circulation, Gannett owns the USA Today network, and publishes 260 newspapers nationwide, including 10 daily and 75 weekly papers in Massachusetts. Now the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Greenfield Recorder, and Athol Daily News will also be printed from Gannett’s offset printing press in Auburn.
“This is the second time we have outsourced jobs to Gannett,” Dunau said. “I do dearly hope this is the last, but we need to make sure this is the last time.”
In June 2018, four positions from the advertising design and graphics department were eliminated and outsourced to the mass media company. Citing a decrease in advertising revenue due to the pandemic, Newspapers of New England laid off another 13 employees last March. However, the latest decision to shut down the press was in the works before the pandemic, and was an “economically motivated decision,” according to the publisher.
“Content, particularly local news content, is the Company’s core mission and the Gazette wants to focus on this by redirecting capital, and reducing expenses and the expenditure of time and effort that does not further that core mission,” Moses wrote in his email to 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.”
The Gazette reported on July 26 that the outsourcing would come with “a significant cost savings.” However, publisher Michael Moses told the Montague Reporter in December 2019 that the press was profitable.
“It is a healthy revenue stream for us, and it certainly helps us support other areas of the company as well,” Moses said of their commercial printing operation.
Nationwide, most Gannett-owned newspapers are losing circulation faster than the national average.
Though the press is now closed, the NewsGuild did succeed in negotiating better severance packages for those laid off.
“When we first started this the company had offered a really shit severance offer for everybody impacted, people who were considered essential just months ago and came in to the building risking infection to bring you all the news,” Christensen said. “Because of the pressure we were able to put on the company we were able to get a far more just severance package for everybody.”
The tentative terms of the new severance deal are one week’s pay for each year of service, with a maximum of 15 weeks, the Gazette reported. Health and dental insurance for employees covered by the company will also last through the remainder of 2020. Nine full-time and 20 part-time employees lost their jobs in the outsourcing move, none of whom received hazard pay throughout the pandemic.
“It’s going to be very hard for people to find jobs in other places, said Laila Hussein, a distribution employee whose job was lost to the layoffs. “If it was not for the union, really, I know they would have just said bye, you are out the door and that’s it.”
Hussein described how in her three years working for the company, press room employees had not felt a part of the work culture at the Gazette, and were never invited to the annual Christmas party, before the union reached out.
“We never felt we were part of the Gazette,” she said. “It was something else until the union came. Then really, really for me it was kind of like oh yeah we are part of this. I work for the Gazette!”
During the rally Monday Gazette staff and community members thanked print and distribution workers on their final day of work, with applause and handmade signs. The crowd paraded around the sidewalk in front of the building with signs of support and shared pizza afterwards.
“I thank you for being here, especially people from the community,” Hussein said, addressing the crowd. “The letters that people wrote, I know that this made a difference.”
The Pioneer Valley NewsGuild is still negotiating an official contract with the company, Christensen said, while Newspapers of New England is employing a top-tier corporate defense attorney from Seyfarth Shaw to represent them in negotiations. Among the union’s list of demands are pay equity, more diversity in the newsroom, and a successor clause that would keep the union intact in the event the paper were sold to a media conglomerate like Gannett.
“I expect that there will be many questions,” Moses wrote in his email to staff. “Please be patient with me, as I will do my best to answer those questions personally and in a timely fashion. However, for those of you represented by the Guild, I think you understand that these matters, including your questions, are things that have to be addressed in discussion with your bargaining representative.”
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 Mike Jackson.