PITTSBURGH— In April, the staff of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue last October. The win caught much of the staff by surprise, and, according to a staff writer who was there, the office erupted in havoc. Executive editor Keith Burris brought out a microphone to deliver some remarks, telling his staff that this shouldn’t be a day of celebration. His predecessor, David Shribman, who was in charge of the Post-Gazette when the story broke, followed, leading a moment of silence, and putting the bittersweet honor into further perspective. “There isn’t one of us in this room who wouldn’t exchange the Pulitzer Prize for those 11 lives,” he said.
Notably missing from all of this was the newspaper’s publisher, John Robinson Block, who, according to Post-Gazette staffers, hadn’t meaningfully acknowledged the newsroom’s courageous work once, either in public or internally. (After the Pulitzer ceremony, he would issue a brief statement saying, in part, “We have always known that the Post-Gazette’s reporting is first-rate. We did our jobs.”) Meanwhile, that same week, Susan Allan Block, John’s sister-in-law and fellow board member of Block Communications Inc. (BCI), the privately held family company that owns the paper, fired off some Islamophobic conspiracy theories about the Notre Dame fire on Facebook.
In most newsrooms, this sort of behavior from the newspaper’s owners would cause an uproar. At the Post-Gazette, it barely raised an eyebrow, because the paper has been at loggerheads with its bosses for much of the last two years. Here’s just a shortlist of John Block’s recent offenses: screaming at union employees and allegedly manhandling his daughter in a possibly drunken tirade; refusing to budge in a contentious contract dispute; being found to have illegally deprived union employees of healthcare premium increases; and further rattling the newsroom by appointing Burris, the author of a notorious racist editorial, to the position of executive editor.
This long list of offenses has been exacerbated by the unveiling of a lifestyle site run by the paper’s marketing department that staffers fear is dangerously blurring the lines between business and editorial and is threatening their job security (though the paper’s management has denied this). It has all added up to a virtual civil war, and turned the Post-Gazette into a troubling emblem of the decay of local news outlets across the country.
Splinter interviewed six current and former Post-Gazette staffers for this piece; several of them were granted anonymity due to their fear of reprisals for speaking out. We also reached out to both Block and to Burris with a list of detailed questions about the claims put forth by their staff members. Neither responded.
Depending on who you ask, Pittsburgh is either the next Portland, Austin, or Silicon Valley, but its journalistic crisis is universal enough to match any market size. Most of the problems plaguing modern local journalism can be found in Pittsburgh. In 2018, it became the largest American city without a daily print newspaper, as the Post-Gazette slashed its production to five days a week; its primary print competitor, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, had moved to all-digital in 2016, laying off dozens. There are two alternative papers, along with a number of digital-only sources for local coverage, but the hubs for local news are significantly depleted from a decade ago. Once journalists get jobs in this city, they tend to try and hang on to them, until they reach their threshold for untenable working conditions, or are let go.
The Post-Gazette has adapted to market shifts in ad revenue and shrinking subscription numbers in mystifying ways, often years behind schedule. Its decision to reduce print circulation came just four years after investing in a massive, 245,000-square-foot printing press facility, designed to rake in other local newspapers as clients. The paper’s next major initiative was the NewsSlide tablet app, which came paired with a disparaging ad campaign toward the paper’s older readers—the newspaper industry’s most reliable demographic. One commercial featured an older woman flailing at the thought of giving up her print product. “It feels like they are just throwing money into a furnace, and then yelling at us about it,” one Post-Gazette staffer told Splinter.
Some staffers told Splinter that they are concerned the company will soon seek a new round of buyouts, ahead of a shift to all-digital in the near future. The Blocks have gradually chipped away at the paper, most recently with two rounds of buyouts in 2015 and 2016 — ultimately reducing the newsroom to half its size from more than 10 years ago, when they employed a 300-person staff.
BCI is operated by John and his twin brother Allan, who is the company chairman. Part of a third-generation newspaper family, the Blocks also own the Toledo Blade in Ohio, and have shed any pro-union sentiments of their predecessors, who were mostly strong advocates of organized labor.
John Block harbors an “I was born in the wrong era” sort of nostalgia for the Citizen Kane days of newspapers. A bespectacled man with a proclivity for bow ties, dogs, and rare books, he sat down for a deeply surreal and comprehensive interview with Pittsburgh Quarterly last year, saying the word “father” or “grandfather” 51 times, and seeming to pine for his grandfather’s life with William Randolph Hearst. “The two men often went to the theater together, without their wives, and what can I say? They ‘womanized.’ Sure, the two had fun together, meeting chorus girls and actresses by the score,” he said. He also admitted to having voted for Donald Trump.
This year, Block’s lavish trip to the Kentucky Derby was documented by the Blade’s society editor for a story that ran prominently in both Block papers. Spotlighting his trip in a private jet, “oodles of parties and people,” private bourbon tours, and entertainment by Kid Rock and Boyz II Men, the piece was a distillation of Block’s extravagant blinders. Block can also be found displaying his occasional weakness for the horny Facebook post, or, according to one Post-Gazette staffer, screaming about office TVs being set to the wrong channel, but the chronic distaste for his workers will ultimately be his legacy.
The Post-Gazette, whose staffers are represented by the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, has been without a new union contract for two years. Most staff members Splinter spoke to are not optimistic that the company will back down from its hundreds of alterations to their proposed deal anytime soon. According to excerpts of one version of the management’s desired contract which was obtained by Splinter, the proposed changes range from provisions to allow up to 20 percent freelance or stringer labor in the newsroom to ones that would slash employee bereavement time. (Sources told Splinter that the company has since conceded on that last point).
For a newsroom that, according to the Guild, hasn’t received a pay raise in 13 years and gone “two straight years in which the company has defied federal labor law by refusing to pay healthcare premium increases,” the main points of contention reside in a continued 8 percent pay cut, and no guaranteed healthcare coverage. The National Labor Relations Board’s regional director and an administrative law judge have ruled with the union that the Post-Gazette violated federal law in not paying a healthcare premium increase in 2018, but the company has instead appealed the ruling to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C. to further prolong the process.
BCI has long employed Nashville law firm King & Ballow, known for decades for its obstructionist, union-busting tactics, as its negotiators with the Guild. “For 40 years, this has been their playbook, this is how they ‘negotiate,’” Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh president and PG enterprise reporter Michael Fuoco told Splinter. “They try to wear you down with death by a thousand cuts. You start to negotiate against yourself.” King & Ballow has been a familiar specter to both Block-owned newsrooms; negotiations with the Toledo Blade in 2006 led to a nine-month lockout for hundreds of employees. (King & Ballow ultimately agreeing to pay $3.5 million to the employees as part of a back pay settlement.) As of May 20, the latest round of negotiations with King & Ballow were underway, with similarly aggressive tactics from the firm.
In December, Block commented publicly on the state of the paper, saying, “We have been covering the red ink. We can’t be expected to permanently cover the losses.” He also referenced the contract negotiations, calling them “tough” and saying, “It’s very upsetting to all of us, but we’re losing money, and they know it.”
The Blade is currently embroiled in similar struggles to the Post-Gazette, albeit in a smaller market. The paper has gone just six months without a contract, but 16 years without a raise, and no indication that the company intends to cover healthcare premium increases from 2017, according to Toledo Newspaper Guild president and Blade reporter Nolan Rosenkrans. During the 2006 and 2007 lockout, guild members launched a Boycott the Blade campaign. Rosenkrans told Splinter that it can be exceedingly difficult to win back readers who never returned after the boycott, or any subsequent Block controversy. “Once you have that kind of rupture, it’s hard to have that conversation with a person. ‘We appreciate that you’ve supported us, we want you to support us in a different way, so give money to these evil bastards,’” he said. “It’s the issue that you’ll always face when you have privately owned newspapers run by wealthy families divorced from the community. It’s hard to convince someone to spend money on the paper when they know it goes to the Blocks and it doesn’t go to the employees.”
On the night of Saturday February 9, Post-Gazette photo editor Jim Mendenhall texted the paper’s then-managing editor, Sally Stapleton to prepare for the worst. “He’s abusing his daughter,” he wrote, according to an eyewitness account he submitted to the Newspaper Guild.
What allegedly happened next has been has been well-documented at this point, including video footage (though this comprised less than a minute of the alleged incident) and five eyewitness accounts from staffers who were present at the time. According to the accounts, the scene quickly escalated: John Block arrived to the newsroom in a stupor with his 13-year-old daughter, pounding on a large “Shame on the Blocks” sign which had been hung on a bulletin board. He allegedly screamed numerous threats to shut down the paper and fire Guild employees, and bragged about forcing out recently departed executive editor David Shribman. According to the accounts, he then barked for a photographer to take he and his daughter’s photo in front of the sign and run it on the front page of the paper, despite her adamant protests.
His ire then grew violent, according to the accounts, and he forcefully grabbed his daughter’s arm until her face turned red, thrusting his elbow toward her forehead. “Do you want to be high class or low class? You’re a Block, you’re one of us,” Block reportedly screamed at his daughter as she refused to stand in front of the sign for a photo. Mendenhall captured all of this on camera, saying the images were “more distressing...than anything I witnessed in riot [coverage].”
Block Communications denied there was any violence, contrary to the Guild’s accounts:
Last Saturday evening, the Publisher of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette expressed his frustration to the newsroom staff about several issues of concern to him. We have conducted a review of all information available, and we disagree with the characterization of Saturday evening’s events as expressed by the Newspaper Guild. No one in the newsroom was physically threatened contrary to published reports ... The Publisher expresses his sincere regrets over his conduct that evening and did not intend his actions to upset anyone.
Block would not acknowledge the event to his staff beyond this statement, keeping with his closed-off leadership style.
“They employ us to observe and describe occurrences, and they are saying we are both incapable of describing and observing occurrences that happen in our newsroom,” web associate Matt Moret, who was not present when the incident happened, told Splinter. “This isn’t like some distant event that we’re just covering through wire services, or we have someone standing on a rooftop three blocks away with a telescope. This man stood in the dead center of the office and screamed at us and assaulted a child.”
Every staffer Splinter spoke to about the incident made clear that their immediate concern at the time was for the safety of Block’s daughter—followed by a desire to ensure this sort of thing wouldn’t occur again. According to Moret, one staffer asked to work from home due to anxiety that her publisher might launch into another tirade. Later that week, the Guild filed an unsafe labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, in response to Block’s alleged threat to shut down the paper.
Nine days after the incident, much of the staff was in a Guild meeting to recap the recent turmoil. While they were in the meeting, a single piece of paper unceremoniously appeared in the middle of the newsroom to announce that Burris, then serving as “editorial director” of both the Post-Gazette and the Blade, had been promoted to executive editor.
Burris had become infamous for publishing repugnant editorials while running the opinion section of first the Blade and then the Post-Gazette. The two most controversial cases came in 2018. The first was Burris’s editorial entitled “Reason Is Racism,” published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Its thesis was simple enough: calling someone a racist is the new McCarthyism, and those critical of Donald Trump’s “shithole countries” remark have obviously done some similar racism behind closed doors. The editorial was widely condemned by Post-Gazette staff members and jeopardized community goodwill; numerous staffers told Splinter that the editorial led to reporters losing interviews, or the trust of their sources.
Later that year, the Blocks and Burris attracted national attention when they fired longtime editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers, for what he alleged was their opposition to his insufficiently conservative and pro-Trump leanings. (Burris told the New York Times that he was simply opposed to constantly bashing Trump, adding, “we just don’t think he’s Satan.”) The page has since been filled with sexist cartoons by the new cartoonist, Steve Kelley.
After his promotion, Burris went on the local CBS affiliate to do a bit of damage control before addressing his staff. He gathered his newsroom the following day for a contentious meeting, including multiple staffers asking if he stands by “Reason is Racism,” and pushing him to set out his plans to protect the staff from their erratic boss. According to one staffer in attendance, he refused to expand upon the latter point, citing the paper’s complaint with the National Labor Relations Board as the reason why he couldn’t comment, and gave no indication that he’d reflected on the fallout of his editorial. None of the staffers who spoke to Splinter expressed confidence in his qualifications for the post.
On an overcast day in March, dozens of local activists gathered in front of the Post-Gazette offices on the North Shore of Pittsburgh. These were grassroots organizers, many members of local unions themselves, who were hoping to support the newsroom’s effort to land a fair contract. It had been a tireless weekend for the paper’s staff—across the river earlier that day, more than a thousand students marched to protest the not-guilty verdict of Michael Rosfeld, a local police officer acquitted of all charges in the killing of Antwon Rose II. The Post-Gazette covered all angles of the trial, from a week in the courtroom to the swell of demonstrations following the verdict.
The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh made very clear this was an organic, community effort that they had no direct involvement in, but that doesn’t mean their outreach tactics aren’t about to significantly increase. Many staffers have been photographed sporting union pins or displaying desk tents demanding premium payments and “No PG without me.”
Courtney Linder, a tech reporter and the unit secretary of the Post-Gazette guild, wants to work even further toward expanding the awareness outside of a somewhat contained group. “My concern is that some of the things we’ve been doing have been targeted to a very niche audience,” she told Splinter. Guild members have leafleted outside of Post-Gazette-sponsored events, including a panel on healthcare and a Block speech at the Rotary Club. “Those were definitely beneficial, but my thinking in mobilizing is maybe to get the people that don’t read the Post-Gazette or have felt disenfranchised by the Post-Gazette because of the racist editorials,” Linder said. She wants to think a little bigger: leafleting on public transit, in neighborhoods, displaying yard signs.
Besides the omnipresent threat of buyouts and cutbacks, staffers have been facing more immediate threats to their daily routine. According to staffers, management has recently asked certain departments to cut back on coverage — most notably food, theater, and music. Pop music critic Scott Mervis has been instructed to scale back on covering artists who aren’t popular enough to play arenas or stadiums—a trend that is not at all unique to Pittsburgh journalism. “I would say there has been a push, at times and from different editors, to cover just the ‘big’ concerts so that each story on the site is of wide interest,” he told Splinter. “I still pick and choose, to some extent, the ones I really want to do and the ones I feel are the most newsworthy, and my commitment to local music stands.”
Then, there is the issue of Made in PGH, an anodyne lifestyle website which the Guild discovered was connected to the Post-Gazette’s address and to the phone number of their marketing department. Unencumbered by the sort of church-and-state separation between newspapers and their marketing departments, MadeinPGH is a sponcon-adjacent haven for freelance labor. On its face, there isn’t a whole lot of overlap between this sort of unrestrained Pittsburgh evangelism (many, many listicles, and one article suggesting a local second-run film festival might rival… Cannes) and the Post-Gazette’s reporting, but staffers aren’t willing to take any chances.
The Guild filed a grievance with the company. “The existential threat to our livelihoods has finally emerged from the shadows and is now a reality. We are vigorously fighting back,” read an internal memo sent to members and obtained by Splinter.
The Guild updated staffers within a week with a new memo, saying it had learned that the P-G bought the website from a private vendor to target millennial readers, and hopefully steer them to other P-G sites. P-G vice president and general manager Lisa Hurm reassured Guild leaders that their intention was never to migrate coverage from the P-G over to Made in PGH. “This is not a news site. It’s not meant to be a news site,’ Hurm was quoted as saying in the memo, which was obtained by Splinter. “At its best it pumps maybe...like two or three new stories a week. We look at it as evergreen content. We’ve always bought content...its main purpose is to have content and drive certain advertisers to it.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, many staffers are heading for the door. Shribman and Stapleton, the latter of whom departed last month, were both viewed by many staffers as crucial buffers and advocates to protect the newsroom from Block’s influence. In addition to their departures, three of the paper’s most popular sportswriters left for The Athletic in April.
The Blocks hold pressure over their employees in the obvious ways that journalism bosses these days can exercise. Post-Gazette staffers are keenly aware of how much more uncertain their future would be if the rug came out from under them. “I’ve had colleagues asking me, ‘are you looking for other jobs? Are you afraid that you’re going to be laid off and basically be left with nothing?’” Linder says. “Let’s be honest, if we were all let go, Pittsburgh’s a small media market, and there’s not enough room for all these talented journalists to find jobs here and support their families.”
One former staffer walked me through the calculus of departing, and how it will always be a sort of gamble to know when your time has come. “The way that all of this looks for people at newspapers is like, ‘OK, how is my paper doing, do I need to start looking for life rafts, and then when one comes, do I take this one or do I bet on there being another one?’” the staffer said. “I hope I’m wrong, I hope that the P-G figures it out. I just had no faith that that was going to be the case. I have so many friends there that I need it to be the case.”