By Ralph Zahorik
An outsider might think Tronc, formerly known as Tribune Publishing, is waging a war on its own reporters at Pioneer Press, the Chicago suburban newspaper chain Tribune acquired last year.
In the latest incident, veteran Evanston reporter Bob Seidenberg was told that he is being removed from his beat. Seidenberg, an award-winning writer for the Evanston Review, has been covering the city for nearly 30 years.
Seidenberg was ordered to start covering Franklin Park and several other west suburbs starting Sept. 26.
About a week before he was informed of his new beat, Seidenberg riled his editors by withholding his name from a story. He considered a new lead written by one of the editors inaccurate. Pioneer reporters represented by the Chicago News Guild, A CWA (Communications Workers of America) local, have a contractual right to withhold their names from their own work.
Seidenberg said he got a call from top Pioneer editor John Puterbaugh, his local editor’s boss in Chicago. Puterbaugh, he said, asked why he withheld his name from the story and questioned the story’s value. The story dealt with an Evanston official declaring, for the first time in print, that the city was planning to build a new $30 million community center instead of renovating the existing center.
Seidenberg said Puterbaugh told him he was tired of dealing with such matters. The Pioneer editor told him to call his local editor and discuss the matter with her, he said. His local editor called the byline withdrawal “hostile,” he said.
A few days later, Puterbaugh informed Seidenberg he was being moved from Evanston to Franklin Park. Seidenberg said when he responded that his experience, his resources and his understanding of Evanston would benefit the Tribune if he stayed in Evanston, Puterbaugh said he was being removed “for business reasons.”
In a subsequent email, requested by Seidenberg, Puterbaugh wrote: “The change was based on general business needs and will be most beneficial to our overall coverage and business strategy.”
Calls for comments from Puterbaugh and other managers were not returned.
“We believe this was a retaliation for withholding his byline,” said Craig Rosenbaum, executive director of the Chicago News Guild. “Bob is being punished for exercising a contractual right. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he asked for his byline to be held just before this. Removing Bob from Evanston will be a loss to Evanston. They’re depriving the community of a reporter with years of experience who has a wealth of sources and contacts.”
“This will be a huge loss to Evanston, the Tribune and Pioneer Press,” said Hecky Powell, an Evanston community activist, owner of Hecky’s Barbeque, former Evanston District 65 School Board member and former president of the NAACP. “Bob knows Evanston like the back of his hand. A lot of people will talk to him and no one else. Pulling Bob from Evanston is stupid. I’ve known all the reporters here. No one can build the kind of trust Bob has … They are making a huge mistake.”
“The single biggest reason I subscribe to the Evanston Review is Bob Seidenberg,” said Kenan Heise, a retired Chicago Tribune reporter who lives in the city. “He uniquely has the pulse of the city. He’s not only a very good reporter. He’s a reporter who knows and respects the city.”
Dave Ellis, a retired Evanston firefighter, said losing Seidenberg would hurt Evanston.
“Bob has a depth of knowledge about Evanston that nobody else has,” he said. “He’s a good reporter. He listens to everyone, he’s honest, reports what he knows, and he knows the city. I hope he’s fighting this.”
Tension was already growing leading up to the disputed article. Seidenberg said a new editor instituted a rule requiring almost all stories to be submitted on Fridays – six days before the Evanston Review comes out. Only “meeting stories” could be filed before the Tuesday evening press run, he said. Important news occurs over the weekends and early weekdays, he noted.
Seidenberg’s pending removal is just the latest in a series of warnings, threats and accusations by Puterbaugh and other managers against Pioneer Press reporters on almost a weekly basis since Tribune (now Tronc) took over the 32-newspaper chain last year.
In the past year nearly half of Pioneer’s full-time news reporting staff has received warning letters from editors. They have had negative letters placed in their files, been threatened with “termination,” been required to sign letters acknowledging they were informed about their alleged failures and required to attend “coaching” sessions the Guild regards as punishment or disciplinary steps for their record.
In repeated instances, said the union’s Rosenbaum, reporters were called to the Tribune Freedom Center in Chicago by Puterbaugh believing they were going to problem-solve.
Some walked away thinking the matter had been resolved only to learn later that a note had been placed in their permanent files.
“When we were sold to the Tribune, we were excited about joining a legacy family,” said Rick Kambic, chairman of the Chicago News Guild’s Pioneer Press Unit. “The predicament we find ourselves in now is very disappointing. News needs to be our focus if the industry is to survive.”
The union sat down with Puterbaugh and his boss, Phil Jurik, editor of the Tribune’s Chicago Suburban News Group, in early June to try to work out these issues. Jurik backed Puterbaugh and the same pattern of behavior continued.
“We’re taken aback by the sheer number of allegations made against so many veteran reporters,” Kambic said.
Shortly after that meeting, a reporter in the suburbs was presented with unspecified performance issues and told to start reporting to work at Puterbaugh’s office in the Freedom Center daily. His phone calls were monitored and his trips to the suburbs were timed.
“They wanted to fix me but they couldn’t make up their mind about what the problem was,” the reporter said later.
The ordeal ended after nearly three weeks and constant union involvement.
Some of the reporters said they have been ordered to rewrite storied multiple times. One reporter said he had to rewrite a story 20 times. Some said they still receive harsh criticism, even though emails indicate they were following directions.
“A few of our members have developed serious health issues under these extreme situations,” Kambic said. “A new conflict seems to hit us every other week and no one benefits – not the employee, not the Tribune and certainly not the reader.”
The Chicago News Guild has filed about ten grievances against the company because of its actions. Formal arbitrations are expected to be held on most of them, Rosenbaum said. A federal investigation of the Seidenberg transfer is under way. An Unfair Labor Practice charge was filed by the Chicago News Guild with the National Labor Relations Board.
By any measure, it is a peculiar, anxiety-filled, stress-filled situation for a staff that is stretched thin by a relentless series of layoffs over the past decade and already stressed by management trying to squeeze out more production. Most of the reporters are experienced professionals but are being treated like a nuisance.
“Management doesn’t have our backs in anything,” said one reporter. “It’s an extremely toxic and vicious environment.”
Targeted reporters interviewed said that while they don’t like or understand what they see as harassment, they still enjoy the work they do every day. Many are invested in their communities and the issues they cover.
Others said they feel like an ax from the Freedom Center is hovering over their necks every day.