Why I support the Chesapeake News Guild

I’m proud and excited and nervous for my friends and colleagues who are taking the bold step to unionize with the News Guild. They are forming the Chesapeake News Guild to represent the community newspapers owned by The Baltimore Sun’s parent company, Tribune Publishing.

It’s a bold and gutsy move and they have my full support. I know they need a strong Chesapeake News Guildunion, because I’ve been in their shoes.

When I graduated from college in 2000, I landed a job as a reporter at the Maryland Gazette, a twice-weekly newspaper serving northern Anne Arundel County. I was paid $24,000 per year. Three years later, I was promoted to The Capital, a daily paper in Annapolis, where I stayed for 10 years before getting hired at The Baltimore Sun.

Community journalism is hard work without the pay or the glamour (what glamour there is in this business) that comes with jobs at larger news outlets.

Community news reporters are the ones who sit on uncomfortable chairs at lengthy zoning meetings to untangle a neighborhood dispute.

Community news reporters are the ones who profile a successful local business.

Community news photographers are the ones who stand out in the rain to capture pictures and videos of your local high school football team.

Community news photographers are the ones who were out in the snow and sleet around Maryland on Thursday, bringing images of the foul weather to the rest of us who stayed inside.

Community news designers and copy editors are the ones who put the print newspaper together, who keep the website updated, who check the stories for errors.

Community journalists do important work for our neighborhoods, our schools, our businesses.

And the community journalists who work for the Capital-Gazette newspapers, the Carroll County Times and the Baltimore Sun Media Group do this for low pay under poor working conditions.

As my friends and colleagues launched the Chesapeake News Guild this week, several of them revealed that they make barely more than $30,000.

Think about that for a moment: $30,000 per year.

That’s $14.42 per hour.

If the “fight for $15” were to be successful, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, then the lowest-paid reporters at these community papers would need a raise just to keep up with minimum wage.

It’s more lucrative to be a shift manager at a fast food joint than it is to be a journalist at these news organizations. That’s unacceptable.

If you took my skimpy $24,000 starting salary from 2000 and adjusted it for inflation, it would equate to about $35,000 per year. That means these community news salaries aren’t even keeping up with inflation. Today’s young reporters are worse off, financially, than I was.

On top of that, it’s likely that they are not regularly paid for the overtime that they work. I can count on one hand the times I was paid OT when I was at the Maryland Gazette/The Capital — usually when I was called in on a weekend.

And we had no job protections when I was at those papers.

Whenever management did something that affected us negatively, I was one of the journalists who would go to the editor or the publisher and make our case for why the company was wrong. Sometimes we were successful. Sometimes we weren’t.

Once, there was a staff meeting where the idea was floated that the news staff might have to write advertorials. The reporters were livid. I spoke up and let’s just say my commentary was not received well.

For weeks, I was sure I would be fired.

Ches News Guild postersThankfully, I was not fired. But I could have been. Maryland is an at-will state, and as long as the company wasn’t discriminating against me in certain specific ways (gender, race, age, etc.), they could have bounced me.

I eventually got hired at The Baltimore Sun, where I’m represented by the Washington-Baltimore News Guild.

Suddenly, I was making a living wage. I’m not getting rich by any stretch, but things are not as tight as when I was at The Capital. My first few years, I had guaranteed wage increases because I was climbing the steps outlined in our contract.

And I didn’t have to worry about being fired because an editor might not like me because of the protections in our contract.

I get paid overtime when I put in for it. I get paid double-time when I work holidays. There’s a tiny bump for shift differential when I work a night breaking news shift. The company pays the full IRS reimbursement rate for my mileage, and kicks in a few bucks a week toward my car insurance.

These things might sound like no-brainers to non-journalists, but these working conditions were amazing to me when I came to The Sun. And they are all because of the News Guild.

The journalists who came before me negotiated many of these conditions — pay scale, shift differential, insurance, mileage, vacation time — in our Guild contract. Paying overtime is the law, and one that the Guild will make sure that management adheres to in a way that a lone reporter can’t do on her own. There is strength in numbers.

(This is not to say the contract or working conditions at The Sun are perfect. We have work to do, too.)

I want these same types of working conditions for my friends and colleagues who work so hard at our community newspapers. Their work often appears in The Sun, but they are underappreciated and, more importantly, underpaid for that work.

They also are harassed by readers, who can be bigoted, racist, sexist and demeaning in their comments. They have to hear people talk about “fake news” — whether the comment is an insult by the president or a joke from a source, it still hurts.

And in the case of my colleagues at The Capital, they witnessed the murder of five of their colleagues and they still put the damn paper out and are still putting it out every. damn. day. since June 28.

My colleagues at our community newspapers deserve respect and they deserve to be represented.

I urge Baltimore Sun Media Group and Tribune Publishing to voluntarily recognize the Chesapeake News Guild and to work toward the fair contract that the members deserve.

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If you’d like to support the Chesapeake News Guild, click here for ways to help them, such as emailing editors and sharing their graphics on social media.

Read more about the Chesapeake News Guild in these stories in The Washington Post, The Capital, the Baltimore Brew, the Baltimore Fishbowl and Eye on Annapolis.

 

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News, even on vacation

Whenever I travel, I always try to pick up the local newspaper.

I’m the kind of traveler who doesn’t want to be limited to hotels and tourists areas. I want to get a sense of the place. And I find newspapers are a great way to learn about a city — what’s going on, what’s important, what things locals are interested in.

It’s a little more difficult, however, to read newspapers when they are in a foreign language! This year, I traveled to two foreign destinations where French is the primary language: Paris and Montreal.

Even though my French is rudimentary at best, I still could fumble through enough of it to learn that some important European soccer figure had died (that was in a French sports paper) and that elections were coming up in Montreal. I even “read” in a Montreal newspaper about a study of neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides thought to harm bees — an issue I’ve written about in Maryland.

Montreal newspaper October 2017
Eating poutine and trying to read a newspaper in Montreal’s Plateau-Mile End neighborhood, October 2017.
Paris newspaper June 2017
Attempting to read L’Equipe, a sports newspaper, in a cafe in the Marais neighborhood of Paris, July 2017.

Back to school

Twice this month, I had the privilege of being asked to speak with college classes about my work.

I enjoy talking with college students and hearing their thoughts on journalism. (As I said to one group: “I talk with old people all the time. So I like hearing from young people.”)

Two days after the general election, my colleague/competitor Ron Snyder invited me to talk with his media ethics class at Towson University. (Ron and I worked together at the Capital-Gazette Newspapers, and now he’s a digital editor with WBAL-TV.)

I had planned to talk about ethical decision-making as a journalist and some of the steps I take to avoid ethical issues such as conflict of interest or showing bias. But with the surprising victory of President-elect Donald Trump, we threw that out the window and talked instead with students about media coverage of the campaign, where it fell short and how journalists can improve. The students were eager to talk about the election.

Then this week, I spoke to a political science class for the first time. Dr. Mileah Kromer invited me to talk with her introductory class at Goucher College.

For the Goucher class, I talked about the importance of the press as a watchdog on the government — especially as we enter a time with a Republican president, Republican-controlled Congress and a Supreme Court that’s likely soon to tilt conservative. I also talked about Baltimore County’s emerging role as a swing or bellweather county in Maryland politics. The students had lots of great questions for me.

Interestingly enough, the day that I spoke at Goucher started and ended on college campuses. My day started at 8 a.m. at Goucher in Towson and ended at 9 p.m. with the final session of a French class that I’ve been taking at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold.

Here I am with the Goucher students. Thanks to Dr. Kromer for the picture.

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Sunflowers, sunflowers, sunflowers.

I was recently reunited with my DSLR camera after sending it to Nikon to fix focusing issues that were driving me batty. I took my newly repaired camera out for a spin over the weekend to the McKee Breshers Wildlife Management Area in Poolesville, where the Maryland Department of Natural Resources plants sunflowers for their habitat benefits.

It’s a great spot to photograph sunflowers because it’s public property and so there’s no chance of trespassing and no chance of ruining someone’s crop. The sunflowers bloom in July, and you can check with the DNR for the exact dates and field locations each year. There is no entrance fee.

Here are some tips from my trip to McKee Breshers:

  • Even though it is HOT in July, wear long pants tucked into boots to avoid bug bites and to prevent scraping up your legs while walking through the fields.
  • Use bug spray and check for bugs. I found a tick crawling on my camera.
  • There are lots of bees, but they are all about the flowers. I shot for two hours and didn’t get any bee stings.
  • Bring a stepstool or small ladder if you want to shoot from above the sunflowers. Many of the plants were 6 feet tall.
  • There are other neat things to see there, too. I walked by some swampy areas that had cool plants and what sounded like bullfrogs.

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Here is DNR’s map of the 2016 sunflower fields. I shot in the field that’s second from the left:

McKee DNR map

Moving on …

For the past 14 (!) years, I’ve had the privilege of covering news in Anne Arundel County.

From a dialysis clinic in the basement of a state prison in Jessup to the top of the State House dome in Annapolis, my career has literally taken me all over the county.

Now I have a new adventure: Covering politics and government in Baltimore County, still with The Baltimore Sun.

I’m trading Gott’s garage for one in Towson; the Arundel Center and City Hall for the Historic Courthouse; I-97 for the Baltimore Beltway; WRNR for WTMD.

As I switch to Baltimore County, I hope my Anne Arundel readers stay tuned, as I have a few more Anne Arundel stories in the works in the coming weeks.

On the radio again

I was fortunate to be asked to appear on WYPR radio again this week. This time, I recorded an interview with Joel McCord for “Inside Maryland Politics,” a short segment that airs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during “Morning Edition.”

We talked about the 2014 race for county executive in Anne Arundel County, which so far features Republican County Executive Laura Neuman, Republican Del. Steve Schuh and Democrat Joanna Conti.

You can listen to it here.

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Discussing Naval Academy on the radio

I’ve been covering a case of alleged sexual assault involving Naval Academy midshipmen, and appeared on WYPR radio this week to discuss the case.

Here’s audio from my appearance on “Midday with Dan Rodricks” with my Baltimore Sun colleague Dan Rodricks, victims’ Imageadvocate and attorney Susan Burke, and Anne Kendzior, a former midshipman who is suing the Naval Academy.

In the case I’ve been covering, three male midshipmen were facing possible charges related to an off-campus party in April 2012, where a female classmate has testified that they may have engaged in sexual activities without her consent. Following an eight-day preliminary hearing called and Article 32 hearing and a review by the academy superintendent, two are being formally charged and charges were dropped against the third.

We learned that off-campus party houses have long been an issue for the Naval Academy. And advocates who want changes in the military justice system are using the case as an example in their arguments.

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