Leading a strike paper isn’t terribly different than being in charge of a regular publication. Just ask Bob Batz Jr., the interim editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress, the recently launched digital outlet run by striking Pittsburgh Post-Gazette journalists.
“It feels like work,” Batz said. “I’m just doing what I always do. I’m planning, editing, writing and collaborating on telling Pittsburgh stories. That’s what I did on Tuesday before the strike, and I was back to doing what I do quickly thereafter.”
The Pittsburgh Union Progress first published stories on Oct. 21, just three days after Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh members joined three other Post-Gazette unions that had walked out earlier this month over alleged unfair labor practices perpetrated by the Post-Gazette.
The publication joins a long, storied history of strike papers formed by striking journalists who still wanted to keep their communities engaged and informed. Some of those papers dissolved once those labor disputes were settled, while others are still around today in various forms.
The Union Progress talked to people involved with multiple strike papers that sprung up over the past 40-plus years to get a better perspective on how those publications operated, their role in those unions’ goals and how the Union Progress can carry on their legacies as the first strike paper started during the digital age.
“You’re cutting kind of a path for starting over and doing a playbook from scratch for journalists in other places who feel the need to do this,” said Linda Foley, a former Newspaper Guild president and Communications Workers of America vice president. “That’s pretty exciting.”
From strike paper to community staple
In October 1978, workers at the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., decided enough was enough.
The Wyoming Valley was still reeling from the damage wrought by two major floods only three years apart when the Wilkes-Barre Publishing Co. opted in May 1978 to sell the Times Leader to New York-based Capital Cities Communications. Some of Capital Cities’ first moves as the paper’s new owner were to erect barbed-wire fencing and install security cameras around the building that housed the newsroom and printing press.
“This company purchased and took over this ongoing business that had a long and storied existence in Wilkes-Barre with an intention to break the unions,” said Irwin Aronson, a 71-year-old Squirrel Hill native and lawyer specializing in labor and employment law who at the time was a lobbyist and news editor for the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.
That Oct. 6, about 200 Times Leader employees across four unions went on strike. Three days later, striking workers launched a strike paper called The Citizens’ Voice, consisting of 24 tab pages in its first edition and a circulation of about 45,000, according to Paul Golias, a 79-year-old Wyoming Valley lifer who was a 35-year-old Times Leader reporter at the time.
As Golias put it, the Wilkes-Barre community quickly “just rallied around The Citizens’ Voice.” Aronson, who spent much time strategizing with strike leaders during the early days of the Citizens’ Voice, remembered many newspaper delivery boys opting to hand out copies of the strike paper rather than the Times Leader. Once advertisers began flocking to The Citizens’ Voice, it no longer had to rely on money from the Newspaper Guild and other unions.
“People were clamoring to be supportive of the strikers and to subscribe to The Citizens’ Voice,” Aronson said. “Pretty soon, this went from being a strike paper to a business.”
The Voice gained such a strong foothold in the area that it was able to stick around after the Times Leader strike officially ended in 1982. It operated as a strike paper until 1989, when Citizens’ Voice employees formed their own company that was eventually sold in 2000 to Scranton-based Times-Shamrock Communications. The Citizens’ Voice is still a staple of the Wilkes-Barre community 44 years later.
“Clearly, with community support and unity, a strike paper cannot merely just survive, but can prosper,” Aronson said.
The Wilkes-Barre strike forever damaged the Times Leader’s standing among its readership. That publication is still known as a “scab paper” by many Wyoming Valley residents, said Golias, who served as The Citizens’ Voice’s managing editor from 1983 to 2004.
“If there’s ever going to be a time when there’s going to be one newspaper in Wilkes-Barre,” he said, “it will be The Citizens’ Voice.”
The name lives on
Earlier this year, a nonprofit news website called The Baltimore Banner launched in Baltimore. It brought aboard former Baltimore Sun heavy hitters such as Justin Fenton, Liz Bowie, Pamela Wood and Tim Prudente to boost the staff of this fledgling endeavor.
If the name Baltimore Banner sounds familiar, that’s because it was originally the name of a newspaper formed by striking Baltimore News-American, Baltimore Evening Sun and Baltimore Sun employees in 1965. Though that strike paper was only published for a short time that year, its name lives on more than 50 years later through the new Baltimore Banner.
Walter McCardell was a photographer for The Baltimore Sun who then went to work for the Baltimore Banner during the 1965 strike. McCardell, now 95, was able to speak with the Union Progress with the help of his son, longtime Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell.
“We were on strike for a couple of weeks when the strike paper was started,” the elder McCardell recalled via email. “Employees were encouraged to sell ads for the paper. I was anxious to sell ads to support the strike. I remember going to a car dealership in the area to sell an ad and was told by the owner, ‘I would love to advertise in the strike paper, but my bank has told me if I place an ad in the paper, they would no longer deal with my company.'”
McCardell said it didn’t bother him at all to work for a publication in direct competition with his employer, since “I did not feel we were being treated properly.” He remembered anecdotally hearing from many Baltimore news consumers that they “enjoyed getting some news from the strike paper,” including scores from the day’s action at the Pimlico Race Course.
As for how he feels about seeing his old strike paper’s moniker brought back in 2022: “It’s wonderful to see the Baltimore Banner carried on.”
‘A tool in our strike toolbox’
Foley, an O’Hara native and Fox Chapel High School alumna, is now serving as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. Her tenure as CWA vice president from 1995 to 2008 included helping striking newspaper employees fight for their rights everywhere from Detroit to Seattle to Youngstown, Ohio.
She happened to be a vital part of CWA’s leadership at a time when newspapers were grappling with the advent of the internet and the way it was rapidly increasing the speed at which readers were expecting to receive their news. The rise of digital media, combined with a lot of consolidation occurring throughout the newspaper industry, “caused a lot of job loss and merging of production,” she said.
“It was kind of a mess and very difficult to get a handle on it and keep up with it,” she said.
When it came to strike papers, Foley said CWA always viewed them as “a tool in our strike toolbox” that was most valuable for giving folks used to working in a newsroom “a chance to apply their skills to the strike,” advertisers a way to reach local audiences without crossing picket lines and communities a lifeline to know their trusted news gatherers hadn’t abandoned them.
“It was always expensive. But when we did it well and planned for it, we had some success,” she said.
That included launching a strike paper in late 2000 after employees with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Times went on strike. It shared a name with a union-owned newspaper from the early 20th century called the Seattle Union Record.
The Seattle strike was an odd one, Foley said, because it only lasted 45 days and the Post-Intelligencer ended up settling its issues and going back to work before the Times. She believes establishing the Union Record early on “was an effective tool to deploy during that strike” and was especially instrumental in the Times reaching an agreement on a new contract.
“It’s really important to remember where we all came from,” Foley said. “To the extent that prompts someone to say, ‘What was the story of the old Baltimore Banner or Union Record?’ that might be inspirational for people in a modern-day strike. Inspiration in a strike is really important.”
‘It was a paper to be proud of’
Michael McBride, 66, was a 39-year-old Detroit News staff member in 1995 when The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press went on strike. He said that when walkouts began in July, union leadership had no desire to start a strike paper. They thought they could get what they wanted through boycotts by subscribers and advertisers.
By September 1995, McBride said it had become clear that the News and Free Press had “invested millions of dollars” in preparing for a prolonged strike. He approached union leadership again about forming a strike paper, and this time they were more receptive. He and a small cohort began the process of renting a building, buying equipment such as computers and phones, securing a printer and making sure they had the funds necessary to get a strike paper off the ground.
In November 1995, those strikers launched the Detroit Sunday Journal with an arsenal of roughly $1 million in donations from international unions and a circulation of 300,000. The 56-page paper included news, features, sports, a classified ads section and, most crucially, a full TV guide spread in the center of each edition. McBride spent most of the Detroit Sunday Journal’s lifespan as its advertising director and general manager.
The Detroit Sunday Journal rarely encountered editorial, printing or distribution hurdles. Gaining support from advertisers was a bit of a struggle, but McBride said the ones that did work with them did so because those selling ad space made a point to frame their operation as being “not part of the strike per se.” If those businesses were growing annoyed by strikers picketing and handing out leaflets outside their stores, McBride assured them that “we had nothing to do with that.”
They continued to publish the Detroit Sunday Journal until November 1999, even though the strike technically ended in 1997. The Detroit News and Free Press took their time rehiring those who walked out, so they kept the Journal going until everyone was back to work.
“It was a paper to be proud of,” McBride said. “We had great writers with us. I still run into a lot of people today that say, ‘I wish you guys were still printing.’”
Same journalists, different paper
The Pittsburgh Union Progress is venturing into uncharted territory to keep a strike paper going in a far less analog-friendly world than the ones The Citizens’ Voice, Baltimore Banner, Seattle Union Record and Detroit Sunday Journal inhabited.
“What you may be doing there is creating a template for journalists at newspapers who have to go on strike in the future, as to how they can do it effectively through what you folks learn through best practices and things not to do,” McBride said.
Those practices have so far involved striking journalists putting out multiple stories a day in its digital-only product; creating an Instagram account for photojournalists to show off their work; launching a Twitter feed that has already earned more than 1,125 followers; and having its own email account, firstname.lastname@example.org, where any news tips, news releases and community feedback are always welcome.
Overseeing the country’s newest strike paper was not how Batz wanted to be flexing his journalistic muscles to close out this year.
“I want to go back to work,” he said. “We made that clear individually and as a collective group. It seems contradictory, but it’s really not.”
But until a fair labor agreement is reached between the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh and the Post-Gazette, Batz is proud to helm a strike paper supported by a “rock star, dream team of a staff” that’s serving the Pittsburgh community in the only way it knows how.
“This is just us doing what we do,” Batz said. “It’s nothing that Pittsburghers aren’t used to having around, because these are the same great journalists doing the same great work.”
“We want to keep doing that work. This is just where we happen to be doing this right now.”
Editor’s Note: Aronson is currently representing the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh in what he described as “various aspects of its current situation in respect to the Post-Gazette and the Blocks.”