Scratch the surface of almost any regional newspaper these days and you’re likely to find low morale, diminished staffs and anxiety about the future.
But the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette may be in a class by itself. Consider just some of what’s happened:
n The newsroom’s union staff, in a rare move, has voted “no confidence” in the paper’s ownership and management.
n The executive editor, Keith Burris, appointed last winter, started his tenure with his reputation tarnished: He was the author of a notorious 2018 editorial that shook the community and the staff for its defense of President Donald Trump’s put-down of “shithole countries,” arguing that it wasn’t racist: “If every person who speaks inelegantly, or from a position of privilege, or ignorance, or expresses an idea we dislike, or happens to be a white male, is a racist, the term is devoid of meaning.”
n And the paper’s longtime editor, David Shribman — after leading the staff to a Pulitzer Prize for 2018 coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre — left abruptly last December, months earlier than his planned retirement date.
A top union official told me that he believes the highly respected editor was forced out (or found staying untenable) because he tried to protect the staff and its editorial independence from the owners’ misguided intrusions.
Shribman, whom I’ve known for many years, wouldn’t answer questions or talk about what had happened.
Most recently, the Post-Gazette’s union journalists have completed a month-long “byline strike” in which they withheld their names from articles, photographs, and columns to draw attention to what they consider the ownership’s failure to bargain in good faith and poor treatment of a staff that hasn’t had a raise in 14 years.
It’s a mess — and a tragic one.
“I don’t even recognize the newspaper that I love,” said Michael Fuoco, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh president, who has been a Post-Gazette reporter for 35 years.
It gets worse. Respected editors and reporters are leaving, taking expertise and institutional memory with them. Others, said Fuoco, have been punitively reassigned.
Publisher John Block had a tirade in the newsroom in February, reacting angrily to the Guild’s criticism of the Block family, witnesses said. The incident drew national attention, in part because Block involved his preteen daughter in the ugly episode.
The paper’s political cartoonist, Rob Rogers, was fired in 2018 after complaining that his cartoons critical of Trump weren’t being published.
Fuoco told me that Post-Gazette journalists take no joy in the turmoil or their protests.
“We want to do our jobs, we don’t want to be the story,” he said.
He credited his colleagues for keeping focused on the journalism: “They are doing their work as if they were working in nirvana.”
The paper is privately held, owned by the local Block family — some members of whom distanced themselves from the infamous editorial last year, writing in a letter to the editor: “We do not condone the whitewashing of racism, nor the normalization of it.”
I asked top editor Burris, publisher John Block and chairman Allan Block to give me their perspective but heard back only from the paper’s marketing director, who said they weren’t immediately available to comment.
The paper is reportedly losing millions of dollars a year, but the family’s larger media holdings have substantial sources of revenue and profit.
Like an increasing number of metro newspapers around the country, the Post-Gazette no longer publishes in print daily — it’s now three days a week — and is suffering the effects of sharp drops in advertising and circulation.
The real losers in all of this chaos, of course, are the readers of the Post-Gazette, one of whom I heard from this week by email.
“It’s pretty sickening and sad,” she wrote. As for the paper’s uncertain future: “I, for one, cannot imagine Pittsburgh without this daily.”
Plenty of regions around the nation are confronting that prospect. Many are suffering the effects of ownership by out-of-town private-equity firms who are interested only in squeezing the last dollars out of a declining industry.
What makes Pittsburgh’s situation particularly regrettable is that the Blocks are a family who seem to have the resources — if not the wisdom — to do much, much better.
In April, the Pulitzer Prize board recognized the Post-Gazette’s “immersive, compassionate coverage” of the October 2018 massacre that killed 11 people and wounded several others. Shribman (a Pulitzer winner himself) wrote a moving piece, “Dispatch from Squirrel Hill,” and was behind the emotionally affecting front-page headline that quoted, in Hebrew, the first words of the Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer.
The coverage, the Pulitzer award said, “captured the anguish and resilience of a community thrust into grief.”
A newspaper that has the capacity for that kind of journalism in a community’s darkest hour deserves to survive and thrive.
Its journalists deserve to be supported and respected.
That could still happen, of course. But the signs — so many signs — offer little hope that it will.