Reporters at Tronc-owned papers in Virginia plan to unionize

Journalists at two daily newspapers in Virginia announced plans Tuesday to form a union, a move that reflects a trend in an industry that continues to face declining profits, ownership changes and layoffs.

Plans to unionize the Daily Press in Newport News and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, both owned by Chicago-based Tronc Inc., were announced as management for both papers streamlines operations between the two, fueling fears of future layoffs.

The Pilot and Daily Press had traditionally covered different portions of Virginia's Hampton Roads region. But Tronc bought the Pilot in late May and has owned the Daily Press since 1986.

The papers' journalists also noted reports that a private equity firm could soon buy Tronc, which also owns the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the New York Daily News.

"We're taking this step to give our newsroom a seat at the table with whoever our owners may be," Brock Vergakis, a Pilot reporter and member of the union's organizing committee, said in a statement.

"Without a contract, we're guaranteed nothing," he said. "In these uncertain times, a union is the best way to ensure fair compensation and a work environment that will help stem an exodus of talented journalists who move elsewhere in search of better pay and job security."

NPR first reported the journalists' plans.

Marisa Kollias, a Tronc spokeswoman, declined to comment on the unionization effort.

If the papers' union is approved, it will follow successful efforts elsewhere. In 2018, unions were formed at the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker magazine.

"We're in times of great turmoil," said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with The Poynter Institute.

Newspaper advertising revenue has been plummeting for years, threatening journalists' jobs, pay and benefits. But they're still forming unions in hopes of getting a fair share, even if it's from significantly diminished profit margins, Edmonds said.

But the strength of newspaper unions has significantly diminished, too.

"Their power to do much of anything is greatly reduced, certainly from what it was 20 or 30 years ago and even 10 years ago," Edmonds said, adding that unions cannot prevent layoffs.

The journalists at the Pilot and Daily Press said they want to "ensure wage equity, fair hiring practices and diversity in the workforce, among other goals."

They said that more than 75 percent of the staff at both papers had signed union authorization cards by Tuesday morning and asked the papers' management to voluntarily recognize the union. If it's not recognized, the organizers said they will file their union authorization cards with the National Labor Relations Board and hold a vote to unionize.

Named the Tidewater Media Guild, it would be represented under the larger NewsGuild, which is part of the Communications Workers of America.

"We all know we're in a struggling industry," said Joanne Kimberlin, a longtime Pilot reporter and a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

"But this isn't just any business," she said. "Newspapers are vital to our communities and our country."