Sick of understaffing and overreach, Courier-Journal moves to unionize


Brennan Eberwine

The Courier-Journal has been in turmoil over layoffs, unpaid furloughs, and low morale since the beginning of the pandemic, causing employees to unionize. Graphic by Brennan Eberwine

Brennan Eberwine

Employees at the largest newspaper in Kentucky filed their intent to unionize their newsroom with the National Labor Relations Council on August 30th. 

The Courier-Journal Guild made its intent public through a tweet listing the adversities the paper has faced and explaining that “time after time, Gannett’s actions have chipped away at morale and our product.” 

The Courier-Journal has been owned by media conglomerate Gannett since 1986, when longtime owner Barry Bingham sold it along with the family’s other media properties after major rifts began tearing the family apart. 

Unlike the Binghams, who were well known in the community for putting quality journalism over the profitability of the paper, Gannett has mainly focused on a business-first approach. This has led to many journalists at Gannett papers feeling undervalued and frustrated with decisions made at the corporate level that have hurt newsrooms owned by Gannett. The Courier-Journal is no exception.

One of the biggest concerns has been minimal pay raises and unpaid furloughs at the paper for employees. According to education reporter Olivia Krauth, the staff at the Courier were put on involuntary furlough at the start of the pandemic, creating headaches as reporters struggled to get their unemployment payments like a lot of other Americans.

Many were laid off or bought out in 2020 as well, resulting in the loss of a data journalist, a business reporter, and video editor. In total over 34 people have left the paper since the beginning of the pandemic, lowering morale and leaving a lot of journalists frustrated with a lack of resources. Even with fewer writers, Krauth says journalists still aren’t being paid what they’re worth.

“​​It consistently has felt as if the staff — the people who make the paper and win the Pulitzers — are left out of major decisions, even though those major decisions often make it even more difficult to do our jobs well. The actions themselves limit what we can do, and the lower morale often turns into departures, which further limit what we can do. It doesn’t have to be like this, and that’s why we’re unionizing.” Krauth said in an email to RedEye.

Another issue that has also become more and more pronounced is Gannett’s control over the paper without consulting with journalists on its decisions. In early 2021, Gannett made the decision to shut down the printing plant adjoining the Courier-Journal offices on Broadway and start printing the paper in Indianapolis as a cost-cutting measure. This has caused print deadlines for the next-day paper to be moved before 3:30 pm, causing headaches in the newsroom and delays in getting stories published as well as papers on porches.

The Courier-Journal’s offices on Broadway and 6th street. Photo by Brennan Eberwine (Brennan Eberwine)

Gannett has also cut both company landlines and cell phones for reporters, now only offering a reimbursement for a phone bill. Krauth also states the company also did not pay the suggested  IRS mileage rate for business travel until last year. 

Courier-Journal employees also did not hear about layoffs in August from Gannett, but instead from a Poynter article and announcements from their colleagues on Twitter. All of these oversights have put the paper into crisis, making unionization feel like the only option.

The Courier-Journal is not alone in its move to unionize, with several other newspapers under Gannett’s ownership also hoping to win a contract such as The Indianapolis Star. As of 2021, 41 of Gannett’s 260 newsrooms are unionized; however, Gannett has had a history of stonewalling newsrooms’ requests for unionization and engaging in union-busting.

 In 2020, three Florida newspapers moved to unionize amid the involuntary unpaid furloughs. Gannett refused to hold elections, saying the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had no authority to hold mail-in ballot elections amid the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. All three papers eventually unionized.

In 1995, members of The Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press, papers owned by Gannett and KnightRidder at the time, went on strike for unfair labor practices. The strike involved six unions and lasted for over a year, ultimately ending when a federal court reversed a NLRB ruling that the newspapers had not engaged in unfair labor practices.

Gannett was also accused of repudiation and bad faith bargaining by two papers in New Jersey in the middle of contract negotiations this August.

RedEye reached out to the public relations department at Gannett for comment on this story, Amy Garrard, Gannett Labor Relations counsel replied: 

“We respect the right of employees at the Courier-Journal to make a fully informed choice for themselves whether to unionize or not unionize. Gannett strongly supports the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) election process and has always participated in that process fairly and in good faith. Central to that process is a democratic election in which every employee’s voice is heard.”

Although The Courier-Journal Guild petitioned for Gannett to recognize the union, the company rejected the proposal. Now the guild is moving towards a vote to unionzing, something Food & Dining reporter Dahlia Ghabour says is a forgone conclusion. 

“When we spoke about the majority support. That’s not just 25 year-old reporters, we’ve got majority support from everybody from the newest employees to the people who have been here for decades. This is not a millennial thing or a trendy thing. This is something that everybody from all levels of the Courier-Journal agrees is necessary if we want to continue.” Ghabour said.

Local news has been in crisis for years, with newsroom employees dropping 57% since 2004. But the need for local journalism to fight misinformation has only grown in the past few years. Local papers cover the news and inform people in places where juggernauts of journalism such as The New York Times can’t. In order for local journalism to survive and serve their cities, the newsrooms also need to adapt. That starts with making journalists feel valued, something papers like the Courier-Journal feel is lacking from Gannett. To take power back and save their industry, unionization seems to be the only option.