AJR logo     

    
 AJR  Drop Cap

From AJR,   March 2003  issue

The Protest That Knows No Name   

Though some mock them, Guilds increasingly turn to byline strikes


By Steve Ritea
Ritea is a reporter for New Orleans' Times-Picayune     

For more than three years, reporter Tony DePaul has waged an often-lonely battle against management at the Providence Journal.

His weapon? Anonymity.

DePaul has withheld his byline since 2000 to protest working without a contract. Other reporters have joined him here and there, but DePaul is the only one to so fully embrace the byline strike concept.

"I'm the invisible man, basically," says DePaul, a 16-year veteran of the ProJo. Even though he's "certainly written stories I'd be happy to have my name on," DePaul has been resolute (except once in 2001, when he put his byline on an obituary) so as to "be a reminder to the union that this is something to consider."

At first blush, byline strikes sound like bizarre, self-defeating acts: Reporters work hard on stories, then refuse to give themselves credit. But hundreds of reporters at top news organizations, including the Washington Post and the Associated Press, use the tactic as a prime contract negotiation tool. And they say it can make a difference.

"Some people in small communities could care less, but in Washington there's enough newspaper-reading wonks that do care who's writing what," says Rick Weiss, co-chairman of the Washington Post's unit of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild and a science reporter at the Post. "It tells the community there's trouble at the Washington Post.... Management doesn't want its dirty laundry hanging out in the place of empty bylines."

The byline strike ended up being a strong show of solidarity by Post scribes, with 99 percent of them participating. Among the few who didn't was reporter Walter Pincus. Although not a Guild member, Pincus says he wouldn't join the strike even if he was. Byline strikes are "silly," he says. "They don't accomplish anything because readers don't pay very much attention to bylines, only reporters do."

The AP's rank and file beg to differ.

News Media Guild President Tony Winton, an AP radio/TV reporter in Miami, says anyone who's ever scanned wire stories knows that a byline-less AP story has usually been picked up from another newspaper and slightly rewritten. So when more than 90 percent of AP reporters withheld bylines during two strikes in January, publications were no doubt left wondering what--if anything--on the wire was original reporting, Winton says.

An AP byline, he explains, "is in fact a statement to the newsrooms that, 'This is who's doing the work.' "

Management at the Post and the AP declined to comment on the impact of byline strikes, but Guild members say the higher-ups are none too happy about them.

"Management usually goes nuts," says Timothy Schick, administrator of the Providence Newspaper Guild. "Management no longer has control over the content of the paper." And, he adds, when there are no bylines, it "affects the look of the paper."

New York University professor William Serrin, a former New York Times labor reporter, says newspaper guilds stage more byline strikes these days for one reason: Actual strikes are no longer safe.

Back in the late 1960s, Serrin and other Detroit Free Press reporters walked off the job for 11 months during a contract dispute. Even after nearly a year, Serrin says he never worried that his job was in jeopardy--and it wasn't.

"That's not the case today," Serrin says, noting that many reporters were fired after they walked off their jobs in a 1995 strike at the Detroit News and the Free Press.

Management hired replacement workers and the papers kept publishing.

Because giants like Knight Ridder and Gannett own many of America's newspapers, Serrin says, these rich and powerful institutions can sustain a strike without feeling much pain. "Papers are run by corporate America," he says, "not by some lovely old guy who used to come down to the newsroom and pat reporters on the back, like we had in the good old days." These days, "reporters don't have any power," Serrin adds. "The Guild is a hollow shell of a union."

"A real strike is just too risky in this day and age," agrees Peter Perl, a writer for the Post's Sunday magazine and a former labor reporter. Which leaves the byline strike, some say, as the only weapon Guild members can brandish without risking their livelihoods.

But there are other tactics. Aside from byline strikes, the Providence Guild has tried leafletting, where reporters pass out handbills detailing their cause to the public. And last March, some members of the Providence Guild even showed up in Boston to protest the New England Newspaper Association's decision to name the ProJo the best newspaper in the region.

Plus, the union has a few more tricks up its sleeve, things officers say they might try if the situation between workers and management gets bad enough. They could stage protests outside the offices of major advertisers to pressure them into pulling lucrative ads from the paper, Schick says. Also, thousands of readers have signed cards agreeing to cancel their subscriptions should negotiations falter--and though the Guild is now sitting on those cancellation notices, it could send them in at any time.

Meanwhile, Post staffers have reached an agreement with management. Perl says the byline strikes helped make that happen. "We think they sent a pretty strong signal and softened the bargaining table," he says.

And Phil Fairbanks, a reporter at the Buffalo News and past president of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild, says a byline strike in early August eased the way to a new contract, which was signed a few weeks later. Still, he cautions that a byline-free newspaper can only raise eyebrows for so long. In other words, "the more you do them, the more immune management becomes to them," he says.

DePaul's personal strike attracted questions from readers and sources for much of the first year, but they dropped off. These days his reportorial signature has pretty much become his lack thereof.

If the ProJo gets a contract someday, readers will again see his name in print--sometimes. "I'll put my name back on my stories--but not the meaningless daily stories," he says. "Only the good stories."