Newspaper Strike In Pittsburgh Seen Coming to an End

But financial complications may mean only one of two area newspapers returns

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PITTSBURGH is likely to get one of its two daily newspapers back on the street, possibly within the next two months.

The tentative settlement of a six-month strike by union drivers has the local Post-Gazette gearing up to start publishing again. "We have an opportunity to put out an outstanding newspaper," says Woodene Merriman, the morning daily's assistant managing editor. The newspaper could begin appearing on the street as early as January, she says.

But the opposite mood reigns at the rival publication, the Pittsburgh Press. Although the Press is the larger of the two dailies, it looks increasingly likely the afternoon paper will not reappear.

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"At this point there are a number of things still up in the air," says Randall Notter, a Press Company spokesman. But "a number of the people in the Press newsroom have been sending resumes out."

Stung by financial losses from the strike, the E. W. Scripps Company said last month it would sell the Press to the Post- Gazette's parent company, Blade Communications in Toledo, Ohio. Although Blade Communications has not revealed its plans for the Press, the prevalent theory is that it will close the paper.

Company chairman William Block has told employees it would be hard to publish both dailies profitably. And nearly all of the Press's reporters have applied for positions at the Post-Gazette, Ms. Merriman adds.

Although the Press's demise remains the most likely scenario, several uncertainties remain. These include:

* Unions' response. Blade Communications has said it would purchase the Press only if it could reach settlements with all of its unions by Nov. 30. A key breakthrough came last Wednesday, when the company reached a tentative contract agreement with 605 Teamsters drivers. It was the Teamsters who closed down the newspapers when they walked out May 17.

The union drivers decided to strike because the company was about to institute a new distribution system, which would have eliminated up to 450 of the 605 Teamsters jobs. Details of their new agreement with the Post-Gazette were not made public, but a local television station reported that only 250 Teamsters jobs would be cut over five years.

On Friday, seven other newspaper unions also reached agreement with Blade Communications. Negotiations recommence today with the mailers and pressmen's unions.

* Federal response. In the 1960s, the Press and Post-Gazette merged business operations but kept separate editorial departments under a federally approved plan. That is why the Teamsters strike, technically aimed at the Press, closed down both newspapers.

Now, the Justice Department will have to rule whether the buyout (and potential closing) of the Press violates antitrust law, newspaper analysts say.

* Readers' response. If the future of Pittsburgh newspaper employees is becoming clear, the attitude of the city's readers is not. Typically, a sizable number of subscribers don't come back after a long newspaper strike, analysts say. Will Pittsburghers treat their newspaper (or newspapers) any differently?

"I'm used to not looking at them now," says Katherine Krummert, a Pittsburgh public-relations specialist. But "I think in a general sense that people do miss their daily paper."

Kathleen Welsh, administrative assistant at Glassport Industrial Center, says she will resubscribe. "I'd do it just to support the people."

Barney Oursler, a local activist for the unemployed, didn't read the Pittsburgh newspapers before the strike and doesn't plan to start. But "I think a lot of people will go back to it." For Pittsburghers, "the New York Times still doesn't quite make it."

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