Feel the Pinch! Sans CEO, New York Times Stock Slumps, Labor Battle Grinds On

While newsroom angst and stockholder discontent fester, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., takes a hike.

Indeed, one side effect of the increasingly lopsided company is that for the first time in institutional memory, the Guild is not dominated by advertising staffers, and the typically single-minded newsroom is heavily engaged in the contract negotiations. Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse drew up a flyer explaining that management’s “draconian” proposal amounted to a fifteen percent cut in compensation after inflation. It was distributed by Guild members protesting the annual shareholder’s meeting on April 25.

“I’ve heard numerous colleagues say that as a result of management’s hardline negotiating stance, the newsroom seems angrier, the gap between the newsroom and upper management greater, than at any time in decades,” Mr. Greenhouse’s flyer said.

For those keeping score, that would mean things are worse than during the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller scandals (2003 and 2005, respectively). This at a time when the paper of record has many reasons to feel encouraged.

The paywall erected last year brought the paper 500,000 paid digital subscribers. It didn’t make up for declining ad revenue but it proved consumers will pay for quality online journalism. And, against financial odds and institutional inertia, the Times had become a 21st century news organization.

In her address last week, Ms. Abramson said the newsroom’s coverage of President Obama’s support of gay marriage stood out to her as an example of “how deeply we have grown as a newsroom and how much more all of you are doing, as we create new and richer layers of journalism.”

At least five reporters contributed across various desks, updating earlier and faster than anyone outside ABC, the network where the president made the announcement. They pulled reader comments and tweets to provide interactive elements and Jim Roberts created one of the Times’ first ever live video broadcasts, hosted by Megan Liberman. The site broke a commenting record.

That kind of 24-7 commitment helps set the Times apart, but it also fuels a sense of betrayal over demands by labor and operations vice president Terry Hayes and Times counsel Bernard Plum.

In their March proposal, for example, they offered to concede to an earlier demand to move from a 35- to 40-hour work week. To the reporters who were already working 50- and 60-hour weeks without filing for overtime, the move smacked of disingenuousness.

A pension subcommittee has been meeting with outside actuaries to explore plans that would spread the risk of their proposed 401(k)-only plan between the Times and employers. Some Times reporters involved in negotiations favor a profit-sharing formula that would keep costs down while giving employees a chance to reap what they’ve sown.

“In our view it’s kind of amazing that our members are willing to explore that,” Guild president Bill O’Meara told The Observer.

But really, the lion’s share of the angst surrounding the contract negotiations seems to stem from their tone, which doesn’t jibe with some reporters’ sense that they belong to a family committed to defending journalism, united by a greater cause than turning a profit.

Mr. Greenhouse wrote that he, for one, was sorry to see so much of the anger and resentment directed at Mr. Sulzberger and his family, but that Mr. Sulzberger was “ill-served” by Mr. Hayes and other negotiators.

“The message to The New York Times is let’s end the familial strife,” Mr. Barry said in his Guild video. “Remember who we are, as this kind of extended family doing the best journalism in the world, and let’s settle this and move on.”

Guild members have called for Mr. Sulzberger to step in, but with the family’s patriarch keeping quiet, they are left to assume Mr. Hayes does his bidding and, on Friday, Ms. Abramson did his talking.

She provided some relief by frankly addressing the tension, saying she was “disturbed” by the reports from the labor talks.

“Whatever the tone has been,” her remarks said, “please know that at every level of this company, there is admiration of and recognition for all that you do.”