Guild lobbying for direct federal payments to journalists faces ethical questions and political headwinds

When NewsGuild members elected Jon Schleuss president of the national union in December, he planned to spend this year fighting against hedge fund control of newspapers and helping locals muster enough votes to unionize their newsrooms. .

But the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed it. On Monday, he launched the union on a delicate new path: lobbying Congress and the Trump administration for a direct subsidy for media workers.

The Guild’s position paper urges Congress to fund grants to be paid to individual journalists. Many of them report to the federal government and will cover stimulus fund proposals from other industries. The grants offered by NewsGuild would go directly to journalists in local newspapers and online media. Recipients would be required to prove their financial need and that the grants compensated for salary or wage cuts during the pandemic financial crisis.

News publishers opposed this approach, proposing instead that funds flow through news agencies and that these organizations be subject to clawback penalties if the funds are not used for newsroom payroll.

The risks of engaging in lobbying are what is required right now, Schleuss said. With more than 36,000 media workers laid off, on leave or facing pay cuts during the pandemic economic freeze, according to a New York Times estimate, he is seeking emergency funding to keep local journalism afloat at a moment when the news audience has never been higher.

During the pandemic, government agencies from the World Health Organization to local governments labeled local journalists as essential workers and journalism as an essential service. In addition to the union’s campaign, many efforts are underway to compensate for the disappearance of advertising revenue that was used to pay newsroom salaries.

“Three months ago, I had no intention of engaging politically at all,” Schleuss said on May 15 before the “Save the news” campaign launch. He declined to detail the budget, but said the Guild’s parent union, Communications Workers of America, pays the six-figure costs of research, advertising and two professional lobbyists: one focused on Republicans. in Congress and the other on Democrats.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump regularly calls the press an “enemy of the people” and even, this past week, attacked his supporters reliably and flatteringly to Fox News for reporting the controversy over its announcement that it is using an unproven cure, hydroxychloroquine, to ward off COVID-19.

Nationally, 24,000 members including:

• journalists

• columnists

• copy editors

• photojournalists

• graphic designers

• editorial cartoonists

Plus workers in advertising, delivery, business offices and other departments.

– Source: The News Guild

Schleuss quit his job as a data reporter at the Los Angeles Times when he won his post and now finds himself collaborating with newspaper owners the News Guild faces in contract talks.

Campaign pushes Congress and administration to pass three things: direct federal funding for journalists, paycheck protection program ready for local media left out the first round of loans and a nationwide federal advertising campaign to replace lost newspaper revenue.

It is the job of a union to testify before Congress to protect bargaining rights and improve working conditions. But Schleuss acknowledged that this campaign breaks new ground by demanding direct federal payments from journalists and hiring professional lobbyists instead of using staff and union leaders to advocate for their cause.

“We need to support (journalism) because it is essential to the functioning of our democracy. We have to hold the government accountable, ”Schleuss said.

And this is where the lobbying campaign runs into problems with industry ethical standards, which call on journalists to seek the truth, minimize unnecessary damage, maintain independence and be accountable to the public.

“Public confidence in journalism can be eroded even with a perception of personal interest,” said Bob Steele, co-author of the standard guide to journalism ethics and longtime leader of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “It is not unusual for the Guild or the owners to lobby. It has always been a reality, ”he said. “The difficulty arises when it is the journalists who seek, in this case, the financial support of the government through the lobbying influence of the NewsGuild.

It could erode journalists’ credibility, said Bruce Pinkleton, dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

“It made me feel a bit sick to my stomach,” Pinkleton said of her response to the NewsGuild lobbying announcement. “Lobbying for government support makes journalism in debt to the government or appears to be in debt to the government,” Pinkleton said.

He and Steele both admit the circumstances are dire, with media likely to shut down without a major cash injection, but Steele said he would rather see the NewsGuild run a nationwide campaign for donations and reader subscriptions. rather than pushing for federal grants.

At the Seattle Times, where NewsGuild Local 82 represents workers, editor-in-chief Michele Matassa Flores said she was following social media and other discussions among journalists about the lobbying campaign.

“I don’t think we need disclosure with every story right now that the Guild is lobbying Congress,” she said. “It would be tedious, and we don’t know where it leads. If we get relief, I think it behooves us to be transparent about it. “

Although both Steele and Pinkleton have said they fear critics will exploit the conflict between subsidies to news companies and the public interest, Matassa Flores said she is convinced Times readers have a long experience of which reflect.

“The Seattle Times has a lot of experience with funding transparency through our community-funded labs,” she said. At the Seattle Times, Education lab, Homeless Project, the IInvestigative Journalism Fund and other coverage teams are funded by donations from readers, private foundation funds, and corporate donations. It’s a pioneering approach from The Times, which includes strict rules about donors’ interactions with journalists.

“The work we have done in our community-funded labs has been independent, evidence-based, and fearless, and I think readers have understood that we will not be swayed by funders or other forces. external, ”she said.

Schleuss said the union responded to ethical concerns by pledging to seek bipartisan solutions, hence the hiring of a Republican lobbyist and a Democratic lobbyist.

“It’s a historic effort to save the news,” he said. “Journalists covering national politics are not engaged in our advocacy efforts. But thousands of members are deeply concerned about the demise of our free press. They are therefore committed to saving it – for our news-dependent communities. “

Editor’s Note: The author is not covered by the NewsGuild contract with the Seattle Times.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct Jon Schluess’ status with the Los Angeles Times and to clarify the nature of the job losses and changes in the news industry.

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