“Like any other story”

Can it be when it’s your union vs. your paper?

For ten months this reporter did a delicate balancing act as he covered the negotiations between his union and The New York Daily News.

By Paul La Rosa

Paul La Rosa was a striking reporter for The New York Daily News.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 8 (November/December 1990), p. 2.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

From the start, my editors told me to treat the assignment “like any other story.” But this was not like any other story.

It was the labor negotiations at my paper, The New York Daily News. At stake: the future of the newspaper where I’d worked for fifteen years.

Even before I wrote my first story on the negotiations, I knew the situation was likely to become ugly. By hiring the law firm of King and Ballow, a Nashville-based company with a national reputation for union-busting, News management had signaled its intention to take on the ten entrenched unions at the paper. The unions, no patsies, also had let it be known they would not bow down without a fight.

The lines were clearly drawn and I felt like the referee.

There is no denying the inherent conflict I faced even agreeing to the assignment. I am a member of the Newspaper Guild of New York, the union representing editorial employees. As such, I had a vested interest in the Guild achieving a good contract.

The metropolitan editor, Arthur Browne, didn’t want me to take the job, knowing the intense pressure I’d be under from both management and labor.

He suggested the newspaper carry the wire service reports on negotiations. Editor Jim Willse overruled Browne and, when I agreed, the assignment was mine.

My instructions from editors were to follow the story wherever it went, whether it reflected badly on management or the unions. I took their advice.

At one point, I got a tip from a fellow reporter that the Tribune Company, which owns The Daily News, was asking reporters at its other papers in Chicago, Florida and Virginia, to fill in at The News should a strike take place. I called assistant editor Rich Rosen and, to his credit, he said, “Go for it.”

The next day, The News ran a surreal story under my byline about my paper recruiting reporters to take our place in case of a strike. Reporters at The New York Post and The New York Times told me they were amazed that management had allowed me to write such a story. They were even more surprised that the story was given prominent space.

But not all my dealings with editors went so smoothly. Another time, the only way I could learn of The News‘ contract offer to the pressmen’s union was through a source who refused to be quoted by name. I wrote a story about the proposal using unnamed sources. Managing editor Matt Storin refused to allow the story into the paper.

I strenuously argued the point. 

The News often used unnamed source stories. I complained that The News had promised to treat the story like any other and now it was changing the ground rules. Storin relented and this story and ones similar to it eventually ran.

As the months passed, union leaders would leak me damaging information on management; News officials would leak me damaging information on the union. I never ran with the information unless it had thoroughly been corroborated by the other side.

I was convinced I was doing a fair job because both sides complained. 

The News spokesman was annoyed his quotes were being chopped while the union leaders claimed I had shortchanged them.

The greatest pressure for me came when I wrote stories involving my own union. It came to a climax in mid-March when The News offered the Guild an unheard-of 30 percent raise over three years, a contract that would have made us the highest-paid reporters in the country.

I knew what I thought immediately. Where do I sign? I was excited at the prospect of getting that kind of raise. Who wouldn’t be?

I called Guild president Barry Lipton to get his reaction. I’ll never forget his first words when I asked what he thought of the proposal: “Utterly retrogressive.”

Lipton thought the contract was a horror because it affected job security, a change Lipton could not abide.

I took the temperature of the newsroom. The die-hard unionists hated it; others loved it. As the reporter who had to put it into the paper, I kept my opinion to myself.

On the morning of October 25, the end game between management and labor began. By the next night, nine unions at The News, including my own, went on strike. I earlier had asked Lipton for an exemption to continue working on the theory that the unions would get more balanced coverage from me than they would from the management people who would take over the coverage if I went on strike.

Lipton refused the exemption. This was no ordinary labor strike. When management began permanently replacing long-time union workers, it became a labor war.

I went on strike and the coverage, written mostly by management, immediately changed. The paper became a propaganda tool for management. The same day 13,000 union members protested outside The News building, the editors led the paper with a one-sided account of a blind newsstand dealer who’d been threatened by union drivers not to carry the paper. The dealer’s seeing-eye dog Lars was prominently featured.

On strike, I’ve had plenty of time to consider the way I handled the coverage. For anyone facing a similar assignment, I have this advice: Give both sides an equal chance to state their case, avoid analyses where opinion often creeps in, and make sure you have the backing of your editors. It also helps to have an iron stomach to ride out the tough periods when it seems everyone is against you.

For other views on this topic, see “When your newspaper is the news.”