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 union, 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.
Thankfully, 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.
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.