By Mike Sato
— Reporters at Washington state’s McClatchy Company-owned newspapers, including those at the Bellingham Herald, have moved to unionize.
Nearly 90% of eligible reporters, visual journalists and digital staff at The Bellingham Herald, The News Tribune in Tacoma, The Olympian and the Tri-City Herald have authorized representation by The Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild of The NewsGuild-CWA, according to a Washington State NewsGuild news release.
“When I joined the Bellingham Herald in 1997, we were adding journalists to the newsroom to deepen coverage of our community. That was then,” wrote Bellingham Herald reporter Kie Relyea on Twitter on Dec. 16. “Since 2008, I’ve seen a lot of talented people leave as newsroom jobs were slashed. Now there are six of us trying to cover a county of nearly 230,000 people, seven days a week.”
Relyea said that the journalists “want a seat at the table. We want a say in what happens. Yes, we are concerned about our working conditions. But we also believe our communities deserve better. They deserve robust local news.”
Salish Current asked Bellingham Herald management whether unionization was something expected or unexpected, and whether unionization would affect the reporting of local news. In response, McClatchy communications director Jeanne Segal said, “We appreciate the passion and dedication of the reporters at The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and the Tri-City Herald and respect their aim to form a union. We recognize that it’s not an easy time to be a journalist. We value the tremendous work they have produced in these unprecedented times and together with them share a dedication to the mission of local journalism.”
According to Dean Kahn, former reporter, editor and columnist at the Bellingham Herald, from 1986 to 2015, the loss of newsroom staff has been dramatic.
“I understand the desire of surviving journalists to do what they can to hold onto their jobs, to have a say in their future, and to increase company resources for community journalism,” Kahn said. “Will going union improve the future of reporting at the Herald? I hope so, but I suspect broad economic forces in the industry will determine whether cutbacks continue. Unions can help, but more help will be needed, including help from government, to restore local journalism.”
John Stark began his newspaper career in 1976 working for the Gannett media company and retired as a Bellingham Herald reporter.
“Our corporate masters may focus on the bottom line with passionate intensity,” Stark said, “but in the newsroom, the reporters and editors were — and still are — equally passionate about providing Whatcom County with a reliable source of information.
“I know my old friends and colleagues are sincere when they say this unionization effort is mostly about trying to get enough leverage to enable them to do their jobs, and thereby provide some sense of community at a time when so many things seem to be falling apart. They are trying to preserve some semblance of real local news coverage in the face of what looks like corporate indifference.
“Everyone in Bellingham and Whatcom County should be rooting for them.”
Per McClatchy spokesperson Segal, “A review of this request is underway and we will reply when we have reached a decision.”
Mike Sato serves as volunteer managing editor for the Salish Current. He also compiles environmental news items for Salish Sea News and Weather and periodically blogs for Salish Sea Communications. He is the author of The Price of Taming a River: The Decline of Puget Sound’s Duwamish/Green Waterway. He resides in Bellingham and on Lopez Island.