Omaha World-Herald staff working together after unionization

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Greg Staskiewicz

The Omaha World-Herald moves to make the newsroom sustainable after the 71-5 vote to unionize on Oct. 8.

NewsGuild-CWA represents the new union named The Omaha World-Herald Guild, according to the Omaha World-Herald Guild website. As the largest newspaper union in the country, NewsGuild-CWA also represents The Chicago Tribune, The New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times.

The decision to form a union came in response to the decision of BH Media Group, which owns the Omaha World-Herald, to hand management of the newspaper to Lee Enterprises, Inc. of Davenport, Iowa.

According to Omaha World-Herald staff writer Christopher Burbach, journalists objected to the change of management primarily because the newsroom wants to preserve high-quality local journalism in Omaha. Layoffs immediately followed the change.

“I think somebody added it up. Like 12 people, with 200 years of experience walked out the door,” Burbach said. “We got started working on the union right away.”

Enterprise reporter Erin Duffy said the reaction of World Herald management to the union was mostly confusion as to why the newsroom would want to unionize.

“Lee Enterprises doesn’t have the greatest reputation in the journalistic world,” Duffy said.

Senior World-Herald leadership declined to comment on the union for this story, including President Phil Taylor; Roshelle Campbell, vice president of human resources; Julie Bechtel, executive vice president of BH Media; and Melissa Matczak, executive editor.

The industry is going through changes, causing layoffs at the World-Herald in the past 10 years, Burbach said. News organizations are trying to adapt to a new business model in a period that has seen declining advertising revenue and circulation and less staff in newsrooms.

However, according to Burbach, after Warren Buffett bought the newspaper in 2011 there were few changes to the journalistic quality or management style at the World-Herald. The reporters were allowed to work the same way they always had, without new editorial direction or slant, though there is a common perception in Omaha that because Buffett himself is liberal, the World-Herald was pushed toward liberalism.

The union has not yet chosen its leaders, Burbach said. For now, everyone is a leader, with people stepping up to get work done according to what they can do.

“So that’ll all be democratic, with a small ‘d’, voting on who our leaders will be,” Burbach said.

The union’s next step will be to negotiate a contract with BH Media, covering topics such as pay raises, benefits, severance packages and prior notice of layoffs, he said.
The union has the same interest as management in making local journalism work and in making the newspaper profitable and sustainable. Future newsroom layoffs are possible, but the journalists at The Omaha World-Herald want a voice.

Burbach said as a reporter, he is skeptical of labor unions and will reserve his judgment for the future. However, he said he is also optimistic about the Omaha World-Herald Guild and generally has a positive attitude toward unions.

“They have been, through American history, a strong force for good in the lives of people and generally in the industries where they exist,” Burbach said. “What’s good for workers is good for America, including business.”

Duffy said unionization has been good for newsroom morale at the World Herald and that employees feel more unified than ever.

“We’re not so naive to think that forming a union will solve all the problems facing the journalism industry,” Duffy said. “But we do want a voice, a seat at the table, when decisions are being made that affect the paper and its employees.”

“With doing this together, I feel new pride and motivation about who we are and what we do, like German craftspeople,” Burbach said. “This is a craft, this is a profession, dadgummit.”