Orlando Sentinel staff unionize to battle new 'vulture capitalist' owners

"Like the other Tribune newspaper unions, we are deeply concerned by the potential takeover of hedge fund Alden Global Capital."

Orlando Sentinel staff unionize to battle new 'vulture capitalist' owners
Photo via Sentinel Guild/Twitter

A large group of Orlando Sentinel journalists announced on Tuesday they are forming a labor union called the Sentinel Guild.

Employees distributed a letter and mission statement throughout the company, writing, "For more than 100 years, Orlando Sentinel journalists have worked to tell the story of Central Florida. As our name reminds all, we keep watch."

The group will be part of the NewsGuild-CWA, the nation's largest union for journalists and news industry employees. They are first asking Tribune Publishing to voluntarily recognize their union, with about 78 percent of eligible staffers signing cards to be represented. If that doesn't happen, the Guild's organizing committee says they are ready for an election.

In forming the Guild, the Sentinel journalists are asserting their value to the community and signaling they aren't about to take shit from yet another soulless new owner without a fight. Their latest purchaser may also be the scariest one yet.In November, hedge fund Alden Global Capital, known as "the destroyer of newspapers," disclosed it had become Tribune Publishing's largest shareholder, making it the majority owner of the Sentinel, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, the Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant and the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida.

Alden has been characterized as "vulture capitalists" by the editorial staff at the Denver Post, and the Washington Post's media columnist Margaret Sullivan described the Manhattan-based fund as "one of the most ruthless of the corporate strip-miners seemingly intent on destroying local journalism."

"Like the other Tribune newspaper unions, we are deeply concerned by the potential takeover of hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Alden has been called the 'grim reaper' and 'Darth Vader' of the newspaper industry because it harvests its properties for short-term profit and leaves the carcasses to rot," reads the Sentinel Guild mission statement.

You've probably noticed the latest talent bleed from the Sentinel, most visible in the form of essays by prominent journalists as they depart, like Lauren Ritchie and Hal Boedeker, having accepted employee buyout offers the company has been pushing for years.It's an effort to drop the most tenured and higher-paid talent, replacing them with less experienced reporters and outsourced content. Those left behind have a larger workload but feel no less accountability to the public, and the emotional toll can be crushing.

Longtime Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell described the decline in newsroom volume and morale last month, writing he intended to stay as long as possible, along with colleagues like education reporter Leslie Postal and business columnist Beth Kassab. Maxwell noted the buyouts are available to those who have worked there for eight years or longer. As a member of the editorial board, Maxwell says he is ineligible to join the union but supports their cause.In fact, union organizers are clear about their adversary, and it isn't their local supervisors."

The Sentinel Guild will be bargaining with Tribune Publishing, not our local leadership. As written in our mission statement, our union is not a campaign against our newsroom managers and editors. Rather, we seek to improve our working conditions, wages and benefits."Gabrielle Russon, a Sentinel reporter for more than five years, said in the union statement, "Our newsroom has been demoralized by layoffs and buyouts and reapplying for our positions. The newsroom is a sea of empty desks. As the newspaper industry continues to struggle, I’m fearful of what happens next if Alden gains control of the company. I support a union because we want a voice at the table to demand our owners invest in us and support local journalism.”

"Journalism is my passion," said Russon. "It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s also a career where every single day, I worry about losing my job."Jason Garcia, a 14-year veteran reporter at the Sentinel, said, "This cannot continue. All of us here are committed to preserving our community’s access to quality local journalism. Our union will help us do that."

Other recent successful drives by the NewsGuild include the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald, Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union, and fellow Tribune papers the Hartford Courant and the Chicago Tribune. Within the past week, staff at the Palm Beach PostPalm Beach Daily NewsNaples Daily News, the News-Press, the Banner and the Marco Eagle also announced they are unionizing. You can follow the Sentinel Guild on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

Orlando Sentinel is a vital part of keeping Central Florida informed, and we read them every day, along with hundreds of thousands of our neighbors. To those joining the effort, your friends at Orlando Weekly wish you much luck and success.

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