Once upon a time, publishing a newspaper was about more than profit margins. It was a public service, a means of righting wrongs and exposing corruption. And then came the big "C" -- consolidation. Newspapers are no longer their own special entity. They're part of a chain and answer to directors and CEOs and shareholders in different parts of the country who don't give a damn if the paper covers City Hall well. If the advertising revenues are up, they're happy.
That's the nature of the modern media beast. It's no coincidence that the best newspaper in Florida, The St. Petersburg Times, is the only major privately owned daily in the state. In fact, it's one of just 60 privately owned papers out of 1,600 dailies across the country. Other top-shelf papers around the country, from the New York Times to the Washington Post, are the flagships of their respective empires, and hence, the standard-bearers for cutting-edge, first-rate reporting.
Elsewhere, conglomerates produce mediocrity. Excellence costs money, and they're under pressure to basically kick out filler in between ads on the cheap. So why bother? Most cities only have one daily. TV news sucks and alternative publications are cash-starved, so there's no real competition.
Tribune Co., which owns the Orlando Sentinel and nine other dailies, is no different. If you have any doubt how cutthroat Tribune's corporate side is, check out what's happening in Baltimore.
Since April 29, Tribune has been negotiating its collective-bargaining agreement with the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, which represents about 600 of the Baltimore Sun's 1,400 employees, specifically reporters, editors and ad reps. The current collective-bargaining agreement is up June 24. The guild is seeking a 6-percent wage increase. Tribune has yet to respond and refuses to discuss its salary proposal, sources say.
They're going to get low-balled. Already, Tribune wants to slash sick leave and make employees pay up to 45 percent of their health-insurance premiums. But there's more writing on the wall: A month before the deadline, Tribune is preparing for a strike -- and fighting dirty.
Tribune is actively recruiting scabs from the Sun's sister papers, including the Orlando Sentinel and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. At best, it's bad faith, a sign that Tribune doesn't expect to reach a compromise anytime soon.
"We think it's terrible," says guild rep Set Parks. "It sends a bad message on how negotiations are going. There are Baltimore jobs at stake, and they are replacing them with outsiders."
At worst, it's union busting. Put simply, Tribune is trying to cram a bad deal down Sun workers' throats -- scabs are already training inside Sun headquarters -- and trying to show the regulars that, unless they fall in line, they'll be out on their butts.
Of course, one man's union busting is another's journalistic integrity -- or at least that's how Sun spokesman Charles Fancher wants you to see it.
"The Baltimore Sun has committed to publishing a first-class newspaper," he says. "In the unfortunate event of a strike -- which is the last thing we want -- we have made a commitment to our readers and advertisers, and we are preparing to do that. Part of that preparation has been the recruitment of temporary -- I emphasize 'temporary' -- work force that would enable us to publish."
While Tribune proposes increased health-insurance costs to its regulars, the scabs will make out like kings. According to sources, potential scabs are offered Sun pay on top of their normal salary -- more than double their pay, for scabs coming from regional papers like the Sentinel -- plus per-diem expenses and even security to deal with the hecklers.
Fancher won't confirm that, saying only that the scabs are voluntary. "I would not discuss any of the arrangements that are being made with these people," he says.
Guess where Tribune's finding its scabs? "Florida is supplying them with a lot," says one Sentinel source who, for obvious reasons, shall remain anonymous. Perhaps it's because we're a right-to-work state where unions are largely ineffectual, so the greedy and/or brown-nosed feel no compunction about selling out their compatriots for a buck.
For the advertising scabs, I'll let you off with the hopes that one day you will grow a conscience. For the rest of you Sentinel scabs, this is the deal: I will find and publish the names of every reporter or editor who heads north. Why? Because you have no integrity. You are soulless, corporate slaves with no sense of social justice and no moral obligation to stand up to the powers-that-be and say, "This is wrong."
You have no spine, and you're in the wrong profession. You're a stooge masquerading as a journalist. The people of this town have the right to know that. You should be ashamed of yourself.
Tribune should be, too, but I guarantee you it isn't. It's strictly business, and hardball tactics are OK if they cut costs.
That attitude may work for shareholders, but it doesn't bode well for the Orlando Sentinel.(Bob Whitby and Baltimore City Paper contributed to this column.)