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Byline Strike at Morning Sentinel

Reporters and photographers belonging to the Portland Newspaper Guild chapter at the Central Maine Morning Sentinel, a Waterville-based sister paper of the Portland Press Herald, are not allowing the newspaper to print their names above articles or in photo captions, hoping to draw attention to the fact that they have not agreed on a contract since the expiration of the previous one in January 2006, and have not received raises since January 2005. The so-called byline strike comes at a time the papers’ parent, the Seattle Times Company, is in poor financial straits, according to its own account.

The job action began December 26, according to union head CJ Betit, and is based on a line in the previous Morning Sentinel contract that allows union members to withhold their bylines and photo credits for any reason. But the paper’s executive editor, Eric Conrad (who used to be a managing editor at the Press Herald), wrote in a December 27 memo to employees that the company disagrees with the union’s interpretation, and believes the contract language it is applicable only “in rare instances of profound journalistic difference — if a story is significantly altered and a reporter disagrees with the final version, for example.” (The full text of Conrad’s memo appears below.)

Darla Pickett, union chairman in Waterville, said Monday that there had been no new developments — except that her own byline has also been withdrawn. (A broken fax machine failed to transmit her request to withhold it, resulting in her name running in the December 28 issue. Her subsequent pleas to extend the deadline for submitting the request fell on deaf ears).

In addition to the contract and pay disputes, the union is objecting to Blethen Maine Newspapers’ unwillingness to limit mandatory staff transfers to the Augusta-based Kennebec Journal, also a sister paper, and its refusal to limit outsourcing of work to non-union workers.

Pickett says the union members are dedicated workers who want to be able to negotiate. “We got one guy that came in on his Christmas holiday and submitted a picture and a story,” she says, “On his holiday!” But that level of commitment has, union leaders say, gone unrecognized.

“The company has been unwilling even to agree to the protections that Portland got,” Betit says, referring to a month-old contract with employees at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, which guarantees workers a two-percent raise each year through 2010 and lower health-insurance premiums for a plan almost identical to the one in the last contract. The previous Press Herald contract expired at the end of May.

That same Portland contract does allow 15 percent of Press Herald workers to be non-union, a union concession to the company’s “flexibility” demands, but guarantees that workers employed at the time the contract was signed can’t be laid off as a result of non-union hires doing their work. It also allows existing employees to keep their guaranteed-benefit pension plans, but gives new hires a 401(k) plan, which includes a company match for a portion of contributions.

Conrad didn’t return multiple phone calls seeking comment, which is in keeping with the Blethen Maine Newspapers’ standard practice of not speaking to other media organizations.

Conrad’s December 27 memo asserts that he (or other unnamed company officials) may not allow staffers to withhold their bylines and photo credits, a response that would likely draw a formal objection from the union. If Conrad does allow staffers to withhold their names from print, Conrad writes, management will decide when the to resume publishing bylines and credits — a stipulation some interpret as a potential way for the company to punish protestors by depriving them of published credit even after the dispute is resolved.

This development in Maine comes as the Seattle Times Company, which owns the Blethen Maine papers, announced to staffers December 27 that 2008 would bring “the most difficult and painful downsizing” in company history, according to the Seattle Times. No details were forthcoming, but $6 million in spending will have to be eliminated, on top of $21 million already removed, the Times said, citing an internal memo from publisher and family patriarch Frank Blethen, who refused to comment further, even to his own paper.

 

The full text of Conrad’s internal memo is below:

 

Eric Conrad/Augusta/CMN

To msedit@CMN, News Staff-MS

12/27/07 01:52 PM

cc News Staff-KJ, Editorial, Editors, Directors, Eric Conrad/Augusta/CMN@CMN, mkelly@pressherald.com

Subject A process for withholding byline and credit lines

Morning Sentinel staffers: By now, we are all aware of the action taken by Guild members at the Morning Sentinel regarding bylines and photo credits. Most of these were withheld in Thursday’s newspapers. It appears some were withheld Wednesday as well.

First, we want to be clear that the company does not recognize the union’s right, or any employee’s right, to do this as part of any concerted effort, which is what appears to be happening in this case. The expired contract does say, “A byline or credit line may not be used over the protest of an employee.” But the company interprets that as being in the contract so the employee can cite it in rare instances of profound journalistic difference — if a story is significantly altered and a reporter disagrees with the final version, for example.

But now that it has happened we will set up a process that must be followed for individual Guild members to take a more formal step along these lines. Here it is:

 — All reporters and photographers who want their bylines and/or credit lines withheld must request that in writing, and they must legibly sign their requests. This must be done individually. We will not accept a group letter and a bunch of signatures on it. You can fax these requests to me at: 621-5744. If we do not get these requests well before your next photo or story is scheduled to appear, your work will appear with a byline or credit line. If I do get a request like this from you, signed and in writing (emails are not sufficient), we will judge them on a case by case basis. If we approve your request, we will notify you.

 — We will continue to place “shirttails” at the ends of all articles. This shirttail information includes the reporter’s name, telephone number and e-mail address. The contract does not mention shirttails so they will be included on every story from a Sentinel staffer.

 — All Morning Sentinel stories written by reporters who have formally asked that their bylines be withheld (and had those requests granted) will say, “By Morning Sentinel staff.” They will not say, “Staff report,” as they did today.

 — For Morning Sentinel staffers who write columns, the company may reserve the right to run these with staffers’ photos and names. The whole point of a column is that it often is a signed opinion.

 — Finally, in the case of reporters and photographers who request that their names are withheld and hear that the request is granted, the company will determine when is the appropriate time for that employee’s byline or credit line to return to our newspapers. This is not up to the employee; this is up to the publisher.

Eric Conrad

Executive Editor

Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel

Telephone: 207-621-5630

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