After tronc purchase of The Virginian-Pilot, local journalists seek – and gain – recognition of Tidewater Media Guild

Alissa Skelton, who covers Virginia Beach government, is among the journalists at the major local papers who recently formed the Tidewater Media Guild following the purchase of The Virginian-Pilot. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

VIRGINIA BEACH – This month journalists at The Virginian-Pilot and The Daily Press, among the leading newsrooms in Virginia, formed a guild and sought voluntary recognition as a union from tronc, a Chicago-based company that purchased The Pilot this summer and already owned the The Daily Press.

The Tidewater Media Guild, affiliated with Communication Workers of America, sought voluntary recognition from tronc in early September — gaining it this past week, according to a statement from the guild. Its members include newsroom personnel from smaller associated publications, and the guild says it has support from more than 80 percent of eligible personnel. 

On Thursday, Sept. 6, Marisa Porto, executive editor of The Pilot and The Daily Press, told the guild via letter that tronc did not have enough information to recognize them, but would work with them through the National Labor Relations Board. The guild then filed its intent to hold a vote with the board, though no election date was set.

Tronc reversed itself after the print edition of this story went to press on Thursday, Sept. 13. That means the next step is for the union to begin a collective bargaining process for a contract.

Porto has not return a call, and a tronc spokesperson would not comment. In a statement reported by The Associated Press last week, tronc said it “looks forward to a productive bargaining process with union leadership.”

Staffers have been concerned about job security, consolidation and that tronc’s purchase of The Pilot, was, to some extent, a real estate deal due to the value of The Pilot’s downtown Norfolk headquarters. Since the purchase, the newsrooms have been overseen by Porto and the staffs have been integrated, though they remain separate publications.

“Right now we just don’t have any real job security,” said Brock Vergakis, a reporter at The Pilot and a member of the guild’s organizing committee before the voluntary recognition.

“There’s been little evidence of them investing in journalism,” he said. “Ultimately, we want to have a seat at the table for decisions that affect our livelihoods and the journalism we conduct for this community.”

Vergakis said readers love the coverage that is a newspaper’s stock and trade – accountability journalism and stories about aspects of a community they may not see otherwise. This is harder to do as staffs shrink amid industry changes.

“I think the public’s frustration with local media is just that there’s not more content,” he said. “The fewer people you have, the less product you have to put out.”

Employees have concerns about pay and benefits. However, Vergakis stressed that they are not dissatisfied with editors.

“A lot of us have continued to work here because we like our managers,” he said. “This movement began the day The Virginian-Pilot was sold to tronc. … We think this is important for people in all of our communities. We want them to understand we’re doing this to keep journalism alive. If you don’t have great journalists who want to stay here, then you don’t have great journalism.”

For three years, journalist Alissa Skelton has covered city government for The Pilot. She said she and her colleagues work hard to cover local issues at a deeper level than competing outlets. The Pilot boasts the largest team of journalists dedicated to Virginia Beach, and it publishes a community insert, The Beacon

She is committed to journalism, but notes that the industry is challenged by significant cutbacks and smaller newsrooms. She has watched skilled professionals move on.

“The longer you’re in a community, the more you know a community,” Skelton said.

“I really love reporting the news,” she said. “I really love the checks and balances on government of the Fourth Estate. I like telling people’s stories.”

She said she hopes a union would help The Pilot remain stable for its staff and readers. “I think maybe the public is not as aware about how dire the situation could be in the future.”

Ed. — John Doucette, editor of The Independent News and author of this story, was a CWA member years ago, though he is no longer with the union. Additionally, The Pilot prints — but does not have editorial oversight over — The Independent News.

© 2018 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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