After some Pioneer Press reporters started getting warnings last winter that they had to write 2.5 stories a day, their union, the Chicago Newspaper Guild, met with the company to find out what was going on.
It seemed as if a quota system was being imposed but, at the meeting, the company said while there was a new system with new expectations, the system was flexible, the rules “weren’t hard and fast” and reporters were not going to be subject to discipline, said Craig Rosenbaum, Chicago Newspaper Guild Executive Director.
Most of this turned out to be false.
Pioneer reporters are now working under a confusing but strict quota. They’re being warned if they don’t produce the 2.5 minimum, they could lose their jobs.
Some who have failed to meet the quota have been called into disciplinary meetings in Chicago. Reports were placed in their personnel files. At least one reporter was given a “final warning” (rescinded after a complaint was made).
Last summer, at a brief meeting with reporters, Robert Elder, the new editor-in-chief of Sun-Times Media Local, which includes Pioneer and four suburban dailies, mentioned that he thought they all should be writing 2.5 stories a day. Elder oversaw a quota system when he was a regional editor at AOL’s Patch.com in 2010-12.
Elder didn’t elaborate on it and reporters heard nothing until late in the year when some editors started telling them they weren’t making the minimum and that a minimum rule would be enforced starting in January. Around that time, the Guild asked for the meeting with the company.
Definitions of “story” vary under the Pioneer quota system. At some of the 32 Pioneer newspapers, credit is given for videos (there’s a quota of one video a week) but there is no credit for photos or photo galleries reporters take. Some reporters say they get credit for tweeting. Others say they don’t. Some say they get credit for rewriting press releases. Others say press releases aren’t allowed in the count.
An email sent out last February by Richard Bird, Pioneer Press managing editor who reports to Elder, spells out some of the rules, some exceptions and how breaking news stories are figured into the quota count: A reporter will be credited with 2.5 stories if he “requires a majority of the day” to cover a breaking story. Bird wrote. The total is 3.5 if the reporter writes an additional story the same day.
The Bird memo does not mention time spent on investigative news stories or work on stories that don’t pan out. Reporters sometimes have to spend hours, even days, going over public records to get a good story. Special news series and some features can be complicated and time-consuming if they require research and multiple interviews, but they’re ignored, too.
In 2013, as Patch was closing hundreds of sites and laying off hundreds of employees, editors who were already working long hours were ordered to cultivate potential advertisers and “drum up leads” for ad sales, according to Business Insider website. “This is so far beyond the pale it makes my stomach hurt,” a Patch editor was quoted as saying.
Elder had left Patch the year before and there’s no evidence he was involved in the mingling of advertising and news staffs, but some Pioneer staffers wonder if the practice, widely regarded as unethical, is coming to Pioneer.
At the time Patch news editors were being told to help sell ads, AOL admitted Patch had lost $200 million. Some media analysts estimated Patch was losing $40 million a month before mass layoffs and site closings began.
“It is disconcerting that while the managers at all the other Guild-represented properties are at least trying new and innovative ways to develop content on the Internet and print, Pioneer Press is emulating a model that failed at Patch,” stated Rosenbaum.
Pioneer reporters maintain skimpy stories appearing in their newspapers reflect the quota system. “We have to scramble to meet our quotas so we go for the low-hanging fruit,” said one reporter. “It’s News lite,” said another.
There is evidence that some Pioneer reporters are working “off the clock” to make their quotas, Rosenbaum said. A number of reporters said they have been warned by editors not to ask for overtime pay. In addition to a grievance based on the contract, the union is considering going to the Department of Labor on this issue.
There also are indications that many reporters, perhaps half, are not making the quotas, Rosenbaum said. Some are being disciplined and others aren’t, he said.
“ Our reporters are professional, award-winning journalists,” said Rosenbaum. “They should be focusing on substantive, hard-hitting news, not fluff.”
The reporters at Pioneer Press are the only Guild-represented reporters who have been singled out to produce 2.5 stories per day.
Elder did not respond to a request for an interview.
“As a student reporter for the Northern Star (at NIU in DeKalb) there was a slogan on the wall of our newsroom,” said David Pollard, a Pioneer reporter and Guild local president. “It read ‘Print the news and raise hell!’ I see that slogan slowly fading away.”
The Newspaper Guild has filed a grievance over the quotas and disciplinary actions taken against Guild members with the Sun-Times Media Group, which owns Pioneer Press. The grievance will be heard by a federal arbitrator if the issues aren’t settled. The grievance states that the Company must remove the discipline as a result of employees not meeting the 2.5 story quota, and “immediately cease and desist from issuing further discipline based on a story quota that is not only unfair, but also erodes the journalistic integrity and professionalism of the journalists that the Guild represents.”
Rob Elder work history
Since he was laid off from the Chicago Tribune five years ago after a decade on the entertainment beat, Sun-Times Media Local editor in chief Rober K. Elder, 38, has worked for four different media companies, freelanced for several outlets, has written several books, lectured at the Medill School of Journalism and has started an on-line enterprise.
Elder’s recent work history (from his Linked In site):
April 2009: Left Chicago Tribune.
June 2009: Founded Odd hours Media LLC, on-line site that spawns other “user gerated” sites on popular themes.
August 2009-January 2011: Freelancer, Time Out Chicago.
December 2009-January 2010: Managing editor, SK Entertainment (“celebrity nudity network’)
Lecturer, Medill School of Journalism (2007-2011)April 2010-March 2012: Regional editor for Patch.com in the Chicago area.
April 2012-October 2012: Chicago managing editor for DNAinfo, a “hyper-local” on-line news service.
(The company said in a statement that Elder left because he had signed “a TV development deal.”)
January 2013: Joined Chicago Sun-Times as Lake County (IL) managing editor, which included The News-Sun and several Pioneer newspapers. He was promoted to his present position overseeing Pioneer and four daily suburban newspapers in June 2013.
Story written by Chicago Newspaper Guild member Ralph Zahorik