Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Testimony of NewsGuild of New York President Peter Szekely Before the New York City Council Committee on Immigration.

The NewsGuild of N.Y., CWA Local 31003

January 27, 2016: Good morning, Chairman Menchaca and members of the committee.
NewsGuild of New York President Peter Szekely
NewsGuild of New York President Peter Szekely

My name is Peter Szekely and I’m president of The NewsGuild of New York, which is Local 31003 of the Communications Workers of America. The Guild represents some 2800 journalists and other employees, mostly at New York area news organizations, and we’ve been doing it for 82 years. 

Our members work at national and global news organizations, like The New York Times, Time Inc. and Reuters, where I spent most of my working life as a Washington correspondent until I became a full-time paid officer of our union eight and a half years ago. And our members also work at a host of smaller news organizations in the area, including some of the city’s ethnic newspapers, like The Jewish Forward, The Amsterdam News and El Diario.
NewsGuild members and concerned New Yorkers packed the New York City Council Committee on Immigration hearing today to address the life and death struggle facing local ethnic media. #SaveElDiario #SalveElDiario

As a union, the Guild’s chief mission is to try to improve the working conditions of our members, which in today’s world means we’re fighting to keep journalists in the middle class. But we also consider ourselves protectors of the craft of journalism. And for that reason, I want to thank the committee for holding these hearings.

We’re very concerned by what we’ve seen at El Diario over the past few years. In the past two years, the size of the paper’s newsroom has shrunk from 25 to 11. Where only a few years ago the paper was filled with local stories that the larger mainstream press wasn’t covering, today it’s just a shadow of its former self. The paper that calls itself the Champion of the Hispanics is today filled mostly with stories that have been aggregated from wire services and other people’s reporting. The same goes for the El Diario website. Last summer, one of our members who left El Diario told us, “I did not become a reporter to cut and paste from other websites.”

We understand that El Diario and other news organizations are privately owned enterprises that need to turn a profit. But, while it’s not written into their charters, they also assume the roles of public trusts. The foreign language press is a pipeline to the city’s immigrant communities. They bring to their readers news that often can’t be found elsewhere and that speaks to them in the language they are most comfortable with. Since an informed citizenry is essential to a free society, the press provides a public service. It is therefore morally incumbent on the owners of these vital enterprises to do all that they can to continue to inform their readers, and it is equally incumbent on government to do all it can to support these enterprises.

It must be said that the Guild’s relationship with El Diario has been among the most contentious of our 20 employers in the four years since its parent company, ImpreMedia, was bought by La Nacion of Argentina. The elimination of 13 of our members’ jobs that was announced two weeks ago and which cut newsroom staffing in half has spawned yet another dispute between us that the National Labor Relations Board is now investigating.

And yet, I tried to find some reason for hope in the El Diario statement earlier this week in which management insisted it wasn’t setting a death date for its print publication, said it intended to remain the voice of the Latino community in New York and pledged to try to find what it called a “value proposition” to keep the paper alive.

The sobering reality, however, is that the latest statement needs to be viewed in the context of La Nacion’s stewardship of its American properties since 2012. What we’ve seen is that the journalistic resources of its papers in other American cities have been depleted. And our members have told us that management has sharply reduced the number of distribution points for El Diario, making it harder and harder for readers to find the print publication.

In short, we see a business strategy that appears to be what we call “Clear Channeling,” in which all of ImpreMedia’s American outlets are supplied with similar generic content and left with few, if any, resources for original local reporting.
We’re not oblivious to the financial upheaval in the newspaper business. We know that the availability of free content on the Internet is cutting newspaper circulation and forcing owners to seek a still elusive business model to replace the advertising revenue that has supported the industry since the late 1800s.

Notwithstanding these challenges, there are successes. Some hyper-local and other niche publications are still thriving, mostly because they have invested in good journalism. Experience has shown that readers will pay for news that is valuable to them and that can’t be found anywhere else. Cutting back on journalistic resources, a mistake that so many newspapers have made, isn’t just bad public policy, it’s bad business.

In New York’s Chinese community, which is less than one-fourth the size of the city’s Spanish-speaking population of two million, there are four Chinese language newspapers in robust competition with one another. One of them, the Sing Tao Daily, recently became the first foreign language newspaper to win an award from the New York City chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for best reporting by a newspaper with circulation of less than 100,000.

So, even in today’s challenging business climate, it’s still possible for newspapers to succeed.

It starts with the will to do so. It requires an investment in good journalism. And it’s driven by a dedication to informing readers and providing them with the information they need to be good citizens. If the current owners of El Diario cannot summon the will, the dedication and the level of investment to devote to this 102-year-old institution of the city’s Hispanic communities, we hope they will step aside and make room for someone who can.

I thank the committee for inviting me and I’d be happy to answer your questions.


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