(File photo, Trevor T. Trujillo; Oil City)
March 25, 2020 Andrew Graham, WyoFile
The company, which owns most of the newspapers along the I-80 corridor in southern Wyoming, is limiting workers, cutting wages and putting at least one person out of work in response to financial fallout from the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.
Separately, Buffalo Bulletin, a locally-owned newspaper in Johnson County, fired two of its four reporters and another employee Wednesday, according to an employee there.
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Adams Publishing Group, the Tennessee-based company that owns Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Laramie Boomerang, Rawlins’ Times, Rock Springs Rocket-Miner, Wyoming Business Report and more than 100 other publications nationwide cited the financial impact of the virus in a letter to employees Tuesday.
In the letter, CEO Mark Adams ordered compensation for employees, beginning with the April 15 paycheck, eliminating “most part-time positions,” ending overtime, and holding all employees for a 30-hour work week.
Two reporters – and co-chairs of the Cheyenne News Guild, a newly formed union of newspaper workers at the Wyoming Tribune Eagle – said they were concerned about the ability of already overworked reporters to cover a public crisis.
“It’s almost like what piece of important information we cover or don’t cover,” said Isabella Alves, Tribune-Eagles criminal justice reporter.
The company had already eliminated the ability of journalists to work overtime as they strove to report on an illness that has supported every aspect of state and national life, the reporters said. Now they have even less time to report.
Social media and email inboxes are inundated with misinformation about the pandemic, both panic-driven and deliberate, said state Rep. Tom Coulter. “Newspapers are an essential part of media literacy and help correct some of those stories that are being thrown out there,” he said.
Coulter recently moved from covering the 2020 legislative session to covering the state’s response to the virus. The newspaper lacked a reporter dedicated to health care and business at the beginning of the crisis after APG decided it would not fill the vacant position, Coulter said. “From the beginning of this we have had a disadvantage,” he said.
The union disputes the management decision, Coulter and Alves said, arguing that labor laws prevent the company from making drastic labor changes in the time between union formation and its negotiation of a contract. On Wednesday, the union published a letter stating that discussions were underway with the company.
“While this may still mean temporary changes to our schedule … we are relieved to look for solutions where every voice is heard,” the letter read.
Regional President Rory Palm said he “will not comment” on the decision.
APG’s other Wyoming newspapers do not have unions and have seen the editors be paired significantly in recent years. In Rawlins, for example, the Times has an editorial board of one – editor Ray Erku – to cover the city of more than 9,000 residents and the surrounding county.
“I have been using (freelance writers) for more than seven months now,” Erku wrote to WyoFile. “Instead of boots on the ground, I have personally covered various news strokes, sporting events and features.”
He is concerned but still uncertain whether he will be able to continue to pay these writers, he wrote. “I was already working well beyond my salary before this … pandemic event,” Erku wrote. “But I’m lucky. I’m 30. I’m single. These are APG employees with families I am more concerned about. ”
APG is far from the only media company to have received body blows from COVID-19. As the pandemic worsens, the reaction to the diminishing pool of print advertisers – especially those in the service, hospitality and event industries – is a recent report in The New York Times. Independent weekly papers and other small businesses around the country are laying out staff, cutting print editions or closing their doors, according to the report.
“Some of you have to accept that this is the broader national trend that sucks and it’s scary,” Coulter said. “Publications across the country are reviewing this.”
Small town family business
Robb Hicks, a co-owner and publisher of the Buffalo Bulletin, also declined to comment. “Things are still pretty raw and emotional,” he said.
The newspaper has a circulation of 4,457 according to the Wyoming Press Association website. Hicks has been running the community newspaper for years. He owns it with his wife, executive editor Jen Hicks.
In an editorial published today, the husband and wife team urged the community to support each other through the pandemic. “We are in the same boat as every family in this community,” the editorial read, “trying to cushion the financial effects of social distancing, trying to run a business, trying to keep our kids busy and encouraging them to keep up with school work. , try to stay informed, but make sure to set it all and regain our health every day. ”
The editors do not mention the setup directly. It concluded with the following:
“We promise to continue to bring you the news with honesty and integrity. You will see a change to these pages this week. In light of the fact that there are no sports competitions, no sports department is happening this week. “
Unlike the Bulletin, the Adams Publishing Group is no small independent newspaper. The company owns 37 daily newspapers and 90 daily newspapers across 20 states, according to its website. A 2017 report by Poynter Media estimated the value of the Adams family-owned business at more than $ 1 billion. The company began buying newspapers in 2014, Poynter reported. The family owns vineyards in France and California, and an Adams family member gave $ 100 million to the Yale School of Music in 2005, according to the article.
APG did not respond to a voicemail that was left with its company’s headquarters in press hours.
In danger and then without work
On Tuesday, photo and video journalist Nadav Soroker continued his coverage of the state capital under the siege of COVID-19. He had just posted a video of a director of a hospital foundation describing how citizens could make homemade protective masks for health workers when he saw the APG letter, Soroker told WyoFile that night.
For several days he had been out documenting the reaction of the community, along with press conferences held by state officials. The work put him in the community and risked catching the virus as he worked to document the city’s response to it.
Soroker had held an exciting position at APG for months, he said. The journalist had a contract for 20 hours of work a week with Tribune Eagle and 20 hours of work with Laramie Boomerang – which added a 40-hour work week for APG, but not a full-time position as a staff member, he said. He did not receive benefits through the company and acted as an independent contractor.
APG concluded both of those contracts, essentially firing Soroker. Although he intended to pursue unemployment insurance, he was doubtful he would qualify given his role as a contractor, he said. The union is also contesting APG’s choice to cut Soroker, it wrote in the letter published Wednesday. Whether Soroker qualified for union membership was a bone of contention between the Cheyenne News Guild and the company even before the recent events.
Currently, Soroker will go from looking for photos and videos to informing Cheyenne residents to work whatever job he can find while seeking freelance journalism work. It was disappointing that any news committee chooses to reduce resources in light of the pandemic’s attack on the economy, he said.
“If you show people that you don’t want to be there covering things in a crisis when you are most needed, why should they support you when you are not?” he asked.