The NewsGuild, a labor union that represents thousands of journalists, is investigating the workplace culture of US newspaper conglomerate Gannett (GCI), starting with the issue of unpaid overtime work.
NewsGuild President Jon Schleuss sent a letter to Gannett CEO Mike Reed last Friday about the union’s plan to launch an investigation and requested the company do the same. The union also called on Gannett, which owns USA Today and more than 260 local publications including The Arizona Republic, the Detroit Free Press and The Indianapolis Star, to agree to other labor protections proposed in the ongoing union bargaining taking place in some of its newsrooms.
The letter came in response to a public conversation on Twitter earlier this month among Gannett staffers and other journalists about unpaid overtime work. Rebekah Sanders, a reporter at The Arizona Republic, tweeted, “Don’t work for nothing” after sharing her past experiences with unpaid overtime. Michael Braga, an editor at the paper, endorsed the practice, tweeting in reply, “Every business exploits the young — it’s called gaining experience, and I don’t regret it one bit.”
Schleuss cited this exchange in his letter, saying it prompted other Gannett staffers to share their experiences with unpaid overtime.
“We saw the extremely crass comments by a top editor suggesting that the only way to get ahead in the journalism industry is by working more than 40 hours a week and not getting paid for it. It’s totally inappropriate to take advantage and it’s illegal,” Schleuss told CNN Business. “It comes from a place of a certain kind of privilege.”
Braga acknowledged his own privilege when he tweeted an apology a few days later.
“I heard from a lot of people over the past few days with a lot of different viewpoints, and after some serious reflection, I want to sincerely apologize for my comments. I’m sorry for what I posted,” Braga wrote. “When I started out in this industry, I was thankfully in a position to be able to get ahead by working unpaid hours, weekends or nights. I recognize that others may not be in that position for a multitude of reasons.”
Braga did not respond to CNN Business’ request for comment.
A day before Braga’s apology, The Arizona Republic Executive Editor Greg Burton emailed the staff about the Twitter conversation and said Gannett was committed to complying with the law in Arizona and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
“No hourly employee is ever expected or permitted to work unpaid hours under any circumstance,” Burton wrote.
In his letter, Schleuss asked Gannett to communicate this commitment to all staff and to accept the union’s proposals on wages, hours and overtime work. These proposals include paying employees the overtime rate of time and a half for a minimum of four hours if they are called back into work after their shift is over and that they are paid the overtime rate for a minimum of six hours if they are called in to work on a day off, Schleuss said.
“To end this culture of exploitation for the future and repair Gannett’s reputation as a place that best-in-class journalists want to work, the company must also agree to reasonable commitments in its union contracts,” Schleuss wrote.
Gannett spokesperson Lark-Marie Antón disagreed with the NewsGuild’s characterization of its workplace practices.
“Gannett values all our employees,” Antón said in a statement to CNN Business. “We strive to provide meaningful opportunities and fair compensation in a very challenging time for our industry and we strongly disagree that there is a culture of exploitation. Quite the contrary, we respect the law and have extensive policies, procedures, and training to ensure compliance with the FLSA and other workplace laws and regulations.”
“The company also takes any formal allegations made by current or former employees seriously and we investigate each thoroughly,” she continued. “As part of that commitment, Gannett has an ethics hotline or website where concerns may be submitted on an anonymous basis. We see this as just another example of The NewsGuild’s agenda to share misinformation as it attempts to organize and expand its membership ranks.”
But some Gannett journalists have a fear of retaliation for recording overtime. The Arizona Republic reporter Priscilla Totiyapungprasert told CNN Business that some of the paper’s managers have “berated” her when she asked for overtime pay.
“So I stopped asking and stopped logging,” Totiyapungprasert said. “It was less emotionally taxing to just not ask for overtime and not go through a whole condescending ordeal that makes you feel like you are doing something wrong.”
Antón declined to comment on that matter.
The NewsGuild is planning to create a form on its website for Gannett staffers to share their experiences with unpaid overtime work, Schleuss said.
In recent years, many local journalists have been seeking better workplace protections by unionizing. More than 40 Gannett newsrooms have organized with the NewsGuild, according to the labor union. The NewsGuild represents more than 25,000 journalists and more than 200 media organizations in the US and Canada.
This is not the first time the NewsGuild publicly shamed Gannett for its workplace practices. Earlier this year, the NewsGuild published a pay equity study of 14 Gannett-owned unionized newsrooms that found women and journalists of color are underpaid compared to their peers. Spokesperson Antón at the time accused the NewsGuild of providing outdated information and criticized the methodology.
“There’s a lot of issues at Gannett,” Schleuss said. “They claim that they’re supporting diversity. Well, a lot of people who are taken advantage of most when it comes to unpaid overtime are people of color and women.”