News & Opinion » News

D&C journalists walk off the job for a day


Reporters and photographers at the Democrat and Chronicle walked off the job Friday in what their union’s leaders described as a one-day strike to protest a lack of movement on labor contract negotiations and “no confidence” in the stewardship of the company.

Union leaders said the walkout involved 16 employees in Rochester who were scheduled to work and was done in concert with scores of journalists who walked out at 14 other news outlets in New York, New Jersey, Arizona, and California owned by Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the country.

The Newspaper Guild of Rochester, a local chapter of the Communications Workers of America, represents 20 journalists at the Democrat and Chronicle, according to the union. Thirty years ago, the union reportedly had 150 journalists in its ranks.

“I’ve been at the D&C for 10 years, and for every one of those 10 years, there’s been layoffs or buyouts or positions going unfilled,” said Justin Murphy, an education reporter at the Democrat and Chronicle and co-chair of the Newspaper Guild of Rochester. “And every time, we think, ‘Surely this must be the end of it, we can’t deal with fewer people.’ And every time we’re wrong, including, I’m sure, at the present.”

Michael Kilian, executive editor of the Democrat and Chronicle, referred inquiries about the walkout early Friday to Gannett corporate communications. A Gannett spokesperson, in a statement, said the company plans to work to negotiate labor contracts.

“Our goal is to preserve journalism and serve our communities across the country. Despite the anticipated work stoppage in some of our markets, we will not cease delivering trusted news to our loyal readers," the statement reads. "In addition, we continue to bargain in good faith to finalize contracts that provide equitable wages and benefits for our valued employees."

The strike is the most visible job action taken at the Democrat and Chronicle in years, and comes three weeks after the chief executive of Gannett announced widespread cost-cutting measures for its newsrooms.

The reductions included requiring employees to take unpaid leave in December, offering voluntary buyouts, temporarily suspending 401(k) contribution matches, and freezing hiring except for open positions the company deemed “crucial.”

In August, the company laid off 400 employees — about 3 percent of its workforce — and cut 400 open positions, after reporting weak second-quarter earnings results. The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism research organization, reported that the layoffs affected roughly 70 properties, with the Democrat and Chronicle having been spared.

Gannett publishes the Democrat and Chronicle and roughly 220 other daily newspapers. - FILE PHOTO
  • Gannett publishes the Democrat and Chronicle and roughly 220 other daily newspapers.
Gannett publishes more than 220 daily newspapers, including USA Today. The company has been struggling to pay down more than $1 billion in debt it assumed from its merger in 2019 with GateHouse Media.

“I’m baffled about what the business plan is,” said Tracy Schuhmacher, the food and drink reporter at the Democrat and Chronicle and co-chair of the union. “I just don’t understand, you have a product and you keep making the product worse, and you keep charging more for it, how is that a good business strategy?”

Readers of the printed Democrat and Chronicle are unlikely to notice much of a difference in the newspaper’s Saturday edition, despite the absence of journalists to churn out news of the day. Most of the daily newspaper is typically designed a day or more in advance of publication, and often includes news items that were reported online more than a day earlier.

But union leaders said the walkouts were an effort to force Gannett to finalize collective bargaining agreements for journalists at the striking newspapers. The company’s contract with the Newspaper Guild of Rochester expired in March 2019.

At issue, according to the union, are demands for contract provisions that address minimum staffing levels, salary floors and pay equity, and a stronger commitment to diversify newsrooms.

Gannett announced two years ago a broad initiative to make its workforce as diverse as the country by 2025 and to expand coverage areas on matters related to race and identity, social justice, and equality.

Labor strife at Gannett newspapers dates back decades.

Journalists in Rochester have periodically picketed outside their offices over the years, and at least twice in the 1970s engaged in “byline strikes” in which reporters and photographers continued working but withheld their names from articles and photo credits.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson joined picketing Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and Times-Union journalists outside the Gannett Building in September 1989. - PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE NEWSPAPER GUILD OF ROCHESTER
  • The Rev. Jesse Jackson joined picketing Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and Times-Union journalists outside the Gannett Building in September 1989.
In August, Gannett journalists here and across the country staged a lunch-hour walkout as angst mounted over another round of newsroom layoffs.

The Newspaper Guild of Rochester struck its first contract with Gannett in 1937, a deal that reportedly established a minimum wage of $45 a week for reporters, photographers, and copy editors, and created a five-day workweek.

Murphy said what is on the line in negotiations nowadays is the vitality of a local institution and a source of credible information.

“We have always taken great pride in our work, providing a daily report of what’s happening in our community,” Murphy said. “More so than losing our 401(k) match or losing various aspects of our personal work lives, what’s really disheartening for us is being unable to provide that basic function, which is the whole reason why we take this job in the first place.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or