An open letter to Lee Enterprises, amid incessant “cuts to people and paper”

An open letter to Lee Enterprises, amid incessant “cuts to people and paper”

Nov. 12, 2020

Ms. Mary Junck: 

As many of us have come to realize, there is no bottom, no low, no new nonsense that your national chain can sink to.

It’s apparently not enough that you have reduced our frontline journalists by 50 percent in the two years that you’ve run us. We started 2018 with 118 journalists. We will end 2020 with about 62. 

This year, you’ve reneged on an unbreakable vow to our readers: that when you took over BH Media, you would seek “synergies” in the executive branch and upper management of BH and Lee so that frontline journalists can continue to provide communities with reliable, relevant information they can’t get elsewhere.  

In the past two months, you’ve axed nine productive World-Herald journalists while keeping duplicative weight in the C-suite. Rather than make sacrifices, you’ve passed on the cuts to our readers, by cutting their product. 

Just to name a few of the crushing choices you’ve made: 

  • This week, you decided to end the longest-running Washington, D.C., bureau in the Midwest. Forever, the World-Herald has held Nebraska’s and Iowa’s congressional delegation to account. No one has done it better than Joe Morton, who has manned the bureau for the past 14 years. Long before Covid, he sacrificed an office, saving the company thousands of dollars in rent by working out of his home or the halls of Congress. This decision is such a gut punch: What will our readers, and the electorate, lose without a watchdog in Washington, D.C.? 
  • Jeffrey Koterba. Our award-winning cartoonist. Talented, clever, creative, sharp and productive every damn day of his more than three decades of work at the World-Herald. What a loss.  
  • Our design desk. We know what you’re up to, and our readers are coming to realize it: You’re carving away at the frontline editors who have local expertise and hold our newspaper to a gold standard when it comes to reliability and readability. Unlike you, they’ve lived here for years, have a lifelong connection to this community and the matching desire to serve it.    
  • Mike Sautter. Our workaholic preps journalist, who brought more people to omaha.com than perhaps any single individual in the newsroom. Also brought in significant revenue as one of the few journalists who sought out advertisers for his high school videos, photos, podcasts and reports. This summer, he jumped in off of his beat, chronicling George Floyd protests through video and twitter. And of course, he filled a need that traditional newspapering doesn’t — tweeting, ranking and videotaping high-school athletes, a profitable and immensely popular pursuit. You apparently have no desire to serve our readers or even to profit off of readers’ (and parents’) immense interest in videos and rankings of high-school athletes. So Sautter is off to serve readers and make money for someone else.  

Contrast those cuts with the executive branch of Lee Enterprises. The duplicative VPs that you promised would be streamlined. And of course, the diabolical way you keep rewarding yourself and your Davenport-based executives with seven- and six-figure compensation packages as they cut hard-working, community-minded journalists making $50k a year. As longtime industry analyst Rick Edmonds said, the one thing Lee knows how to do is “cuts to people and paper.” Except, apparently, for the high-priced people with oversized offices and outsized views of their value to the company.    

You have committed an unpardonable sin: Cutting content for readers, before cutting corporate waste and duplicative weight.  

Blame these cuts on a pandemic all you want. If you were a governmental agency in the midst of a budget crisis, we as journalists would scrutinize everything. 

So our questions: 

  • How do you justify paying for two publishers in Omaha? Are they producing twice as much as one publisher should? 
  • Have you looked at your v-p suite? Because we have. Please justify to readers why the veeps keep their jobs when that money could pay for reporters, editors, photographers. 
  • Do you still have the Omaha CHI Center corporate box that our co-publisher, Ms. Bechtel, refused to relinquish when she took over (though the previous publisher had made arrangements for another Omaha business to buy it)? Are we still paying out high five-figures annually for that?  
  • Most importantly: What’s the end game? Are we just squeezing the last bit out of a struggling industry to pay off Buffett? Or is there a plan and a path to sustainability? 

A humble, sincere thought on where you can start: By vowing to preserve news staff, to carve corporate waste (instead of private jet rentals, you all can fly commercial), to care more about our communities and our readers than your friends in the offices down the corporate hallway.  

We’re sorry to have to state these things publicly but let’s face it, you’re a public company that has no problem publicly ending the careers of people like Koterba, Morton, Sautter and so many others. So we’re sincerely asking you to explain yourself to us and to your customers.  

Before Buffett became your bank — and provided the $500 milllion+ loan to cover your debt and buy his newspapers — we pressed Buffett’s righthand man, Ted Weschler, on what Lee would bring to the table.

One of our Guild leaders at the time kept asking Weschler: “What’s Lee’s vision for the World-Herald?” Finally, he scrunched his eyes and said: “Lee has no vision.”  

Please try to prove him wrong. Tell us what your vision is. 

We appreciate your attention and we await your response. 

Sincerely, 

Todd Cooper, President; Hunter Paniagua, Vice President; Alia Conley, Vice President ~On behalf of the 50-plus members of the Omaha World-Herald Guild 

READERS: You can let Lee Enterprises know what you think of what they’re doing to your paper by DM’ing us on twitter @owhguild or by email: OmahaletterstoLee@gmail.com

Guild wins victories on parking, health care

Guild secures victories on parking, health care; Management comes to the table completely unprepared with nonsensical contract packages

Update on this week’s bargaining: 

We had important victories in the areas of health care and parking the past four sessions, blocking the company from taking more money from our Guild members. But on the overall contract, Berkshire Hathaway has come completely unprepared and has been obtrusive and illogical. 

Simple things like a bulletin board and vacation policy are being dangled as package deals in the futile hopes that we’ll give up our rights to: 

  • Ensure that Nebraskans, or, for that matter, humans, produce your newspaper. The company will not commit to refusing to use outsourced news contractors (like those who are based in the Philippines and write stories from city council minutes). And they won’t commit to not using Artificial Intelligence-written stories. 
  • Ensure that the Omaha World-Herald’s archives are preserved. 

The latter was this week’s most ridiculous road bump. 

Berkshire Labor relations director Ali Zoibi said the company, in the event that the newspaper is sold, did not want to commit to preserving our archives — the historical record of Omaha, Nebraska and western Iowa. “We don’t know what the future will hold,” he said, vaguely. 
We countered by adding language that essentially said: In the event that the newspaper is sold, the company and/or the Guild will ensure that our archives are preserved. 

In other words: If the company doesn’t want to pay to preserve it; the Guild will.

Zoibi, on behalf of Berkshire Hathaway, said he wasn’t  even interested in that. Seems pretty clear Berkshire Hathaway and Lee Enterprises don’t want to commit to preserving archives for our readers because a) it might cost money or b) they might be able to make money off of it by selling it to a third-party, someday. 

Just another example of the out-of-state, careless wrongheadedness that sits across from us. 

Mark our words: No contract will be passed without assurances that our hard work — and the hard work of our predecessors — is preserved for Nebraskans and Iowans forever. 

We’re back at it in January. Happy holidays to everyone. 

In solidarity, 

The OWH Guild bargaining team

union power

A little union power

Some decent news out of this week’s bargaining.

The company has agreed to resolve our dispute over this year’s obscene health care cost shifting by:

-Giving a raise to Guild-covered employees enrolled in health care that makes up for the corresponding premium increase between 2019 and 2020. 

-Allowing Guild-covered employees to go to HR by Monday if they would like to change their enrollment, knowing that they will be getting slight raises that will ensure that they will, in the end, be paying only 2019 rates. 

This resolves our dispute over 2020 health care rates. However, it still doesn’t resolve the fact that Berkshire Hathaway has been cost-shifting health care expenses for years. In the past decade, employees have paid 129 percent more for premiums, while the company’s share has gone up just 71 percent. It also doesn’t explain why the company isn’t shouldering the increases via its typical company/employee splits — which usually amount to the company paying 70 percent and employees paying 30 percent.

And finally, it doesn’t resolve the fact that many U.S. employers are going away from high-deductible, high-premium plans because they’re finding that their employees are putting off going to the doctor for fear that they’ll have to pay significant sums. That can create a public-health crisis — and should be the last thing that the Omaha World-Herald or Berkshire Hathaway wants. We’ll continue those battles at a later date.

For now, it’s a solid victory — and one that was achieved only because we unionized last year. And because of our desk tents. Stay tuned. We will be fighting against any further cost-shifting, any further attempts to take money out of your pockets, whatever the form. 

A sickening health-care cost shift:Berkshire is taking from our paychecks to line national contractor Lee Enterprises’ pockets

A sickening health-care cost shift: Berkshire Hathaway is looting our paychecks to line out-of-state contractor Lee Enterprises’ pockets

Published Nov. 18, 2019

Warren Buffett says newspapers are vital to democracy. He also proclaims to be
searching for a fairer, more cost-effective health-care solution for the thousands of employees of his Berkshire Hathaway companies.

Contrast those two pledges with what he’s doing to his hometown newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald.

Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway media company is pillaging — more precisely, paying an out-of-state national contractor to pillage — by hemorrhaging product and staff. And by the latest disturbing trend: cost shifting health-care expenses from Berkshire Hathaway to employees.

Cost shifting, in case you’re unaware, is the process where employees
shoulder all or the bulk of annual health-care increases. This is just the latest way Buffett’s hired gun — out-of-state contractor Lee Enterprises — is gouging Nebraskans in an effort to squeeze millions out of the newspaper industry.
Apparently, Buffett paying Lee an incredible $10 million last year wasn’t enough. Lee now is going to try to save Berkshire money by literally looting our employees’ paychecks.

This isn’t hyperbole, it’s fact. Here are the lowlights of what the company has been doing with health care. Numbers have been provided by the company, upon an information request, and compiled by our bargaining committee.

  1. The company flat-out admitted they are pushing employees to go to high-deductible, high-premium (HDHP) plans, while the trend in the United States is to go away from these plans. Study after study has found that employees under HDHP plants aren’t going to the doctor for health needs because they are afraid of how much it will cost. In fact, many companies — even other Berkshire Hathaway subsidiaries — are doing away with HDHP plans.

2. Over the past 11 years, from 2009 to the proposed rates for 2020, employees’ share of health care costs has increased 129 percent, while our employer’s share has increased just 71 percent.

3. Over the past FIVE years, from 2015 to the proposed rates for 2020, employees’ share of health care costs has increased 44 percent, while Berkshire Hathaway’s share has increased just 14.4 percent.

Ask yourself and your colleagues: Why is the company shifting those costs to employees who haven’t had raises in years? Further, ask yourself and your colleagues: If health care costs are going up, why isn’t the company, at a minimum, honoring the typical split of health care costs — in which the company typically pays 70 percent and the employees 30 percent?
The company will lie and tell you that it assumes all the risk. This isn’t true. By pushing employees to high deductible plans, those employees are taking on the first $2,000 to $6,000 of risk. In the event of a health care crisis — sudden illness, disease or troubling diagnosis — the company has insurance that limits its exposure in each event to $75,000.
Finally, consider this: The newspaper has been pillaged by Lee’s leeches for the past year and a half. The size of the paper is down dramatically. Our newsroom staff size alone is down 42 percent.
Consequently, with far fewer people, our overall health care costs have dropped significantly. But that isn’t enough for the Leeches. They have to further pick our pockets and our paychecks to pay down their $450 million debt and serve their out-of-state shareholders.

We’re attempting to address this at the bargaining table. Meanwhile, the company continues with its shallow, sham bargaining. With a straight face, the company claimed to send us a “counterproposal” that said it would limit future HDHP premium increases to 20 percent PER YEAR if we would agree to give up our right to bargain over health care in our first contract.
Calling this a “serious offer” — which labor director Ali Zoibi did — is “Mexico will pay for the wall” level nonsense.
This cost-shifting is just the latest way that Buffett and his debt-ridden contractor are treating the state’s best newspaper and the Nebraskans who work hard to bring news to our readers and our communities.

Unless the company comes to its senses, stay tuned for future collective actions. In the meantime, spread the message to our co-workers who aren’t represented by the Guild: Don’t rob me just to pay Lee.
And: Don’t rob my health care just to pay Lee’s welfare.

–Compiled by your OWH Guild Bargaining Team

Omaha World-Herald newsroom employees formally kick off unionizing drive, seek voice to preserve high-quality journalism

September 13, 2018

Omaha World-Herald newsroom employees formally kick off unionizing drive, seek voice to preserve high-quality journalism

OMAHA, Nebraska — The newsroom staff of The Omaha World-Herald on Thursday took a major step to form a union that ensures a formal voice in the workplace to preserve outstanding journalism amid financial pressures that threaten Nebraska’s largest and most vibrant newspaper. Read more