Post-Gazette Reporters, Editors Speak Out In Newspaper Ad

Jun 19, 2018

In the wake of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's firing of editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers, the Post-Gazette's union reporters -- and its non-unionized editors -- took out ads in their own paper Tuesday, distancing themselves from their own publisher.

The ads, which ran on pages A-2 and A-3 of the print edition, don't mention Rogers or publisher J.R. Block explicitly. But both ads tout the independence of the paper's newsroom.

"The reporters, photographers, copy and web editors, artists, designers and managers ... want to remind our readers who WE are," reads the Guild-sponsored ad. "We are independent, impartial journalists who work without interference or influence to provide OUR community with news that matters. ... We hope that you will continue to stand with us as we perform this vital work."

While the ads themselves don't mention Rogers, an accompanying press release makes it clear that they were prompted by the controversy around the cartoonist.

The statement described its members as "shocked" by Rogers' termination, which was triggered after mounting disagreements with recently hired editorial director Keith Burris. And it expressed concern that rank-and-file staff were being hurt by readers' outrage at management.

"Rogers’ firing has created a firestorm of criticism by readers, many of whom have canceled their subscriptions and have urged others to do so," the statement reads. "Readers’ ire also has even been heaped upon newsroom employees because the public does not understand that the staffs of the newsroom and the editorial pages department are separate and do not work with each other."

Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA

The statement quotes Paula Reed Ward, the paper's longtime courthouse reporter, saying union members "appreciate our loyal readers' frustrations over recent changes on the PG's editorial page. In fact, we share them. But by canceling subscriptions -- or simply not reading -- our community members are losing out on quality, independent journalism that is absolutely essential in today's era of attacks on the First Amendment."

The Post-Gazette has offered varying accounts of the reasons for Rogers' dismissal. Orignally the paper said the disagreement had nothing to do with politics, but over the weekend, online journal Politico featured an interview with Block, who said Rogers had become "obsessed by Trump."

Block himself has worn his affection for Trump on his sleeve: He posted a photograph of himself with Trump during the 2016 campaign, and the paper's editorial page has repeatedly sought to defend Trump against charges of racism and potential collusion with Russia during the campaign.

Guild President Mike Fuoco said the paper ran the ad as the union submitted it. As to why the text didn't mention Rogers, "We wanted to talk about journalism and the value and purity of it. We didn't know if people would connect the dots, but we were buying advertising space in the paper, and any ad can be rejected."

Fuoco said the number of cancelled subscriptions was "significant' and that the paper was in "a crisis. They've created a mess that we now find ourselves trying to clean up."

In an interview, Ward said the union decided to place the ad last week, "before we knew the magnitude of the fallout. But at that point, we were hearing from sources and friends and family members: 'Oh my God, what is happening over there, we're going to cancel our subscriptions.' Sure, be mad at [editorial page leadership] but don't take it out on those of us who do good work every day."

"To be lumped in with our editorial page is unthinkable given the fact that we've spent our careers being independent," she added.

The statement from newsroom managers was signed by 18 editors, led by executive editor David Shribman and managing editor Sally Stapleton. It asserts that newsroom leaders are "committed to the independent, impartial presentation of the news," and that "the best traditions of journalism" hold that "the news pages and the opinion pages stand apart."

Like Rob Rogers himself, the editors who signed that letter do not have union protections. Shribman, who does not have jurisdiction over the paper's editorial section, declined comment.

"I think the idea that manangement recognizes the crisis that this issue has caused is really, really important," said Ward. "And so is the idea they are willing to stand behind us in trying to ensure that the community understands the separation between two departments."

Chris Potter is a former Post-Gazette employee.