Blocked Out  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2006

Blocked Out   

The Block family shutters its newspapers’ Washington bureau.

By Jodi Enda
Senior contributing writer Jodi Enda (jaenda@gmail.com) has written about Politico, changes in campaign coverage in the age of Twitter and Bloomberg News in recent issues of AJR.      


This is not one you can blame on Wall Street.

The decision to close the Washington bureau of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Blade of Toledo, Ohio, and to lay off four of the five employees there came early this year during a private meeting among a quartet of kin: twin brothers, their first cousin and the cousin's daughter. There were no investors agitating for higher profits, no fund managers threatening a hostile takeover. This was just the Blocks, scions of a family that has owned the two newspapers since the 1920s, voting three to one to save money by shuttering the bureau that has occupied an office in the National Press Building for 79 years.

For the 232,584-circulation Post-Gazette, the vote means one reporter will stay in Washington and work from a carrel in the Capitol. For the 133,498-circulation Blade, the vote means local reporters will have to catch up with lawmakers in Ohio and southern Michigan – which the northwestern Ohio paper also covers – when they go home. For readers of the two newspapers, the vote means four fewer people to keep an eye on national policy and politics, to act as watchdogs over elected officials and to explain how what happens in the often remote halls of Washington really does touch readers' lives.

For journalists, of course, it's more bad news in an era full of it. But at a time when the most dramatic cutbacks have emanated from mega-chains like Knight Ridder, Tribune Co. and the New York Times Co., closing the Block bureau comes as perhaps an even greater blow because, in this case, the job-choppers are not facing down outside forces. To be sure, Block Communications Inc. confronts the same economic pressures as publicly traded companies. But often, family-owned papers, including the two owned by Block, have shown a greater willingness than their stock-selling counterparts to ride out financial storms. Not this time.

"If the single most important impulse was the quality of the news you're presenting, then you wouldn't do it that way. But it's not the most important thing. The most important thing is the maximization of profit," says Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. "I would imagine that the people who run that business are no different from the people who run the Chicago Tribune or, for that matter, the New York Times."

Some Block-family observers contend the decision to slash the Washington bureau never would have been made by earlier generations. Paul Block, a German immigrant, opened the bureau shortly after he acquired the Blade in 1926 and created the Post-Gazette in 1927. His sons, William and Paul Jr., took over from their father upon his death in 1941 and expanded the business to include cable companies and TV stations. (It now includes phone and home security companies as well.) William Block, the beloved, longtime publisher of the Post-Gazette who retired as chairman of Toledo-based Block Communications in 2001, died last June. Within two months, his nephew Allan Block announced the need for cost reductions at the two papers.

Allan Block, the company's chairman, voted to close the Washington bureau. So did his cousin William Block Jr., who is retired but sits on the executive committee, and William Jr.'s daughter Diana Block, vice president and general manager of the Post-Gazette. None of them returned phone calls for this article. In February, Allan Block was quoted in the Pittsburgh City Paper as saying that the Post-Gazette's staff was bloated. "Some of it is feather-bedding," he told the paper. "In these times, how do you justify that?"

John Robinson Block, publisher of the Post-Gazette, grew up thinking he and Allan were identical twins. He is no longer convinced of that, not only because, after 51 years, his brother's hair has thinned more than his own, but because they often disagree. "If we are identical, we're not identical in the way that we see business issues," he said in a lengthy telephone interview. "Sometimes I think my brother is more interested in the welfare of my dog than me. He likes my basset hound a lot – Clementine. I've been saying, 'Clementine didn't like the Washington bureau decision.'"

It was John Block who provided the sole dissenting voice – and the lone "no" vote – when his family decided to close the Washington bureau. He says he doesn't even know how much the company will save but estimated it to be less than $1 million a year – much less, he says, than the skyrocketing cost of newsprint and ink, less even than the cost of the three organ transplants his newspaper underwrote for former employees last year.

Sounding more like the Washington reporter he once was than a cost-conscious publisher, John Block argues passionately for putting journalistic merit over the bottom line. "My position is that Washington's an important source of news, and we need to cover stories" there, he says. "I used to work for the [Associated Press], and I can tell you wire-service coverage is not adequate... It's incredible what is left uncovered in Washington. I believe that our bureau contributed many important stories over the years where we started covering something that the herd had missed and, after a time or sometimes immediately, others began to follow us.

"It's not just a loss to our organization," he continues. "I would argue that temporarily, as long as we are gone, it's a loss for the entire news business in Washington. We need more reporting of what the federal government's doing, not less. Collectively, there's less reporting when any organization cuts back in Washington. It doesn't just affect two newspapers; it affects the entire news business."

John Block says he didn't mind closing the physical office, but he was distressed about losing one part-time and three full-time reporters: Michael Woods, who has been with the Blade since 1969; Michael McGough, who has been with the Post-Gazette since 1973; and two Washington veterans, Bureau Chief Ann McFeatters and part-timer Karen MacPherson. The only person who will stay on the payroll is Maeve Reston, who was dispatched to Washington by Post-Gazette Executive Editor David Shribman shortly after the 2004 election and will only serve that paper. By all accounts, Reston, granddaughter of legendary New York Timesman James B. "Scotty" Reston, is a solid reporter, but even John Block says that's not enough. "We'll cover our delegation, but I don't think we'll be breaking big national stories," he says.

Adds Luann Sharp, assistant managing editor at the Blade, "We can't duplicate what they did for us."

John Block concedes that his family was right about one thing: The papers need to save money. He says both newspapers are in the red, though he provided no figures to back that up and would not discuss specifics because Guild contracts are being negotiated in both cities this year. "If we don't get relief, we won't be able to survive," he says.

In fact, John Block says one of the reasons posited by his relatives for closing the bureau was to drive home a point to the unions. "The argument in favor of doing it was that it would save some money, and, even if it's not a lot of money, it certainly communicates with our employees that the situation is truly serious. They know that the Washington bureau's symbolism was far larger than the number of people there."

Reporter Karen MacPherson learned she was losing her job when a mid-level editor called her cell phone in early February to see how she was handling "the news." She hadn't a clue what he was talking about.

After the Block family decided to close the Washington bureau, the company did not notify the people who worked there, in part, managers and employees say, because of a clause in the Toledo Newspaper Guild contract that gives the union two weeks to propose alternative cost-cutting measures. MacPherson and Woods were covered by the Toledo Guild. (Reston is covered by the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh; McFeatters and McGough were not covered by either one.) "It was clear there was not much we could do," MacPherson recalls. "There was some question about us working out of our homes, but that didn't fly."

Initially, MacPherson says, she was shaken not only by the loss of her job but also by the cold-hearted way in which it occurred. In March, she told AJR she planned to collect her severance payment and move on. "A friend of mine put my name on the prayer list for our church after I got the news of my layoff," she says. "The prayer list just has names and doesn't say why people need the prayers. So this Sunday, another friend approached me and asked why I was on the prayer list. I told her that I had been laid off. 'Oh,' she said dismissively. 'At least you're not sick!' That put things in perspective for me, all right," MacPherson says.

But clearly the bureau closing has caused some bitterness and tension within the papers. Neither of the papers' top editors, Shribman in Pittsburgh and Ron Royhab in Toledo, would comment for this story. Shribman, a former longtime Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe, was particularly unlikely to favor the cutbacks. The Blade's Sharp says they were presented to editors as a "fait accompli." With the exception of MacPherson, none of the laid-off reporters would consent to an interview. "I don't think there's anything I can tell you," McFeatters said in a voice-mail message. "There are still unresolved issues." Lillian Covarrubias, president of the Toledo Guild, did not return phone calls, and Mike Bucsko, president of the Pittsburgh Guild, said the only reporter covered by that union's contract, Reston, was spared.

As for the fallout, well, that remains to be seen. Maxwell King, a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, is president of the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments and a daily reader of the Post-Gazette. Because both Shribman and John Block "are really committed to thoughtful journalism," King says he is not overly concerned about the cuts in Washington. "As a reader of the Post-Gazette, I can tell you there is no lack of commitment to national news and foreign news."

Others see a dangerous move in the direction of all those stock-obsessed chains. "You've just told people that you don't think news made in Washington by people from Ohio and, to a large degree, Pennsylvania, is of any value to your readers," says Jack Torry, a Washington reporter who moved from the Block papers to the Columbus Dispatch in 2000. The Blocks "can hold their breath until they turn blue; the fact is that's what they're telling their readers."

Or, as Pennsylvania political scientist G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College puts it: "The more you reduce the number of correspondents, the less we know."

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