Boston Globe: A vote on the future of newspapers?

The Globe's largest union votes Monday on whether to accept a 10 percent pay cut, among other concessions. It points to the turmoil reshaping the industry.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A customer buys a Boston Globe newspaper from a street newsstand in Boston's downtown crossing Monday. Members of the Boston Newspaper Guild, the Globe's largest union, vote Monday on whether to accept deep cuts in wages and benefits designed to avoid its possible closure.
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In a high-stakes vote Monday, members of The Boston Globe's largest union are deciding whether to accept a 10 percent reduction in pay, cuts in benefits, and the loss of job security – or whether they'd rather live with the threat of management imposing a unilateral 23 percent wage cut.

The choice is emblematic of the challenges facing many news organizations across the US. They're coping with the recession at the same time that readers and advertisers are migrating to the Internet – where, fair or not, there's an expectation that what you read should be free.

The vote at the Globe is also complicated by resentment at what some employees call the "bullying tactics" of The New York Times Co., which bought the Globe in 1993. There's also some outright anger that, according to the union, management has not been asked to make comparable sacrifices. That's led some media analysts to conclude that union members will ultimately decide against management's offer, risking a more uncertain future.

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But hovering over the debate is a larger question: Is there a future for a traditional, major metropolitan newspaper?

"Certainly, there's nobody in the union who thinks, 'OK, if we approve this deal, we make the sacrifices now, but we're guaranteeing our survival and there's smooth sailing,' " says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington. He's also a former ombudsman at the Globe. "What we're seeing here is that: 'Even if we accept this offer, what is the future of the paper?' That's the big unknown that's hovering over this."

The union, the Boston Newspaper Guild, has said that if the current contract offer is rejected and the Times imposes a 23 percent across-the-board wage cut, it will file a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), charging the Times had negotiated in bad faith. That could tie the paper up in legal proceedings for months, if not years, while the NLRB makes a determination.

The Boston Globe lost $50 million last year and is on track to lose $85 million this year. The New York Times Co. has said it needs to wring at least $20 million in savings from the Globe this year. Half of that would come from the concessions that the union, which includes about 700 employees, is voting on Monday.

Earlier this year, the Times said it would close the Globe if it couldn't make the cuts. But since winning concessions from six of the Globe's seven unions, it has focused on across-the-board wage cuts rather than a closure.

That's because The New York Times Co. would like to entertain an offer to sell the Globe, some media analysts say.

"Having some resolution about labor issues is almost a prerequisite to a sale," says Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a media research and educational foundation in St. Petersburg, Fla. "I don't think there's any real likelihood that it would be sold with the labor contract in turmoil or in appeal at the NLRB."

Earlier this year, the Monitor confirmed that at least one group of investors was actively negotiating with the Times for the purchase of the Globe. But the Times also made it clear to those investors that any press attention could undermine the prospects of a deal.

Some of the most vocal opponents of a "yes" on the contract concessions, such as reporter Brian Mooney, have declined to comment Monday until the results of the voting are known after 8 p.m. But in earlier reports, he argued strongly for a no vote, contending that management has not been asked to make similar sacrifices.

But staff members in favor of the concessions say they don't see the reasoning behind a no vote when, in the long run, it could lead to the closure of the paper.

"I don't fully fathom the rationale behind what looks like the less-economically-desirable no vote," says Alex Beam, a longtime Globe columnist. "If you want to send a message, try Western Union. That's not an original quote, but I don't get the notion of a protest vote. I don't get the notion of sending a message to The New York Times. We've all lived with this for a very long time. Reasonable people disagree about what brought us to this impasse."

Either way, Mr. Beam says, it's a terrible negotiated result for the union. A "yes" vote seems "like a way forward" for the Times to cut more staff through buyouts or "out and out layoffs." It also makes it easier to sell the Globe, he says.

"Obviously they want to get to a place where they could find a buyer for this investment that's gone wrong," he says.

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