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Like Bigger Peers, Tronc's Virginia Newsrooms Set To Unionize

Updated at 11:13 a.m. ET

The combined newsrooms of the Virginia papers for the controversy-scarred Tronc newspaper company are following the path to unionization taken by counterparts at much larger Tronc papers in Los Angeles and Chicago, NPR has learned.

The three dozen Virginia journalists who have organized the effort on behalf of news professionals at the Daily Press in Newport News and The Virginian-Pilotin Norfolk and smaller sister publications say they have the support they need to hold a vote to unionize. They said they have commitment cards signed by more than 75 percent of eligible staffers.

Tronc only completed its purchase of The Virginian-Pilotin May and is now combining the leadership and the newsrooms of both papers. The organizing group's statement pointed to recent press reports that potential buyers were circling the company.

"We're taking this step to give our newsroom a seat at the table with whoever our owners may be," Brock Vergakis, a reporter at The Virginian-Pilotand a member of the Tidewater Media Guild organizing committee, said in a statement. "Without a contract, we're guaranteed nothing. In these uncertain times, a union is the best way to ensure fair compensation and a work environment that will help stem an exodus of talented journalists who move elsewhere in search of better pay and job security. When talented journalists leave, the communities they serve also suffer."

Ryan Murphy, one of the journalists on the nascent union organizing committee, told NPR that the Virginia journalists were asking their newspapers' executives, and Tronc, for immediate voluntary recognition rather than a government-monitored process.

At the Chicago Tribune, the company called for a federally overseen election but ultimately negotiated terms of the union's recognition before the official count was to take place. Murphy compared the lot of Virginia journalists to those of their peers in Chicago and Los Angeles.

"We want as many guarantees as we can get," said Murphy, a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot who covers the city of Norfolk. "We were lucky recently. They merged our two [Virginia] newsrooms without any loss of jobs. And that's great. But they could come back to us six months from now with layoffs, and if they do, we would have no recourse."

A Tronc spokeswoman said the company had no comment on the latest unionization effort.

Tronc is the rechristened Tribune Publishing company, the newspaper spinoff of the old Tribune company. In its brief history, Tronc has witnessed successful union drives, first at the Los Angeles Timesand later at the Chicago Tribune.

At the LA Times, scandals over journalistic ethics knocked out an editor-in-chief, and revelations over past workplace conduct sidelined the publisher.

Management at Tronc vigorously fought the unionization drive in California, and its displeasure showed: Tronc sold the LA Timesalong with The San Diego Union-Tribune a few weeks later to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a Southern California billionaire and major investor in the company.

Tronc took a gentler line in Chicago with no difference in results: an overwhelming vote of support for the union.

In Virginia, the committee intends to ask Tronc for voluntary recognition, as its counterpart in Chicago received. Absent that, it will request that the federal National Labor Relations Board oversee an election in which eligible employees can cast votes seeking formal recognition for their guild.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.