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(Michael Barera/CC)

Journalists at the Austin American-Statesman and its six community newspapers won the right Wednesday to negotiate for a union contract.

The National Labor Relations Board in Fort Worth tallied the results of a newsroom election, in which 36 employees voted in favor of union representation and 12 voted against. The NLRB still must formally certify the election.


"We're excited to move forward with a voice in our future and to continue to #KeepAustinInformed," the Austin NewsGuild tweeted in response to the election results, which were delayed due to the winter storm last week.

The Austin NewsGuild announced in early December that they were taking steps to unionize, including submitting the required paperwork to the NLRB to request a union certification election at the Statesman. A secret-ballot mail election is only necessary when newsroom management declines to recognize the union voluntarily, as was the case with Gannett, the Statesman's parent company.

"We respect the decision by our colleagues," Statesman Editor Manny Garcia said in a statement Wednesday. "We will continue to focus on our public service mission to serve our growing community."

The NewsGuild cited a need for stability in "an increasingly unstable industry, one plagued by budget cuts, layoffs, a lack of diversity and dwindling resources," according to a Jan. 9 news release. Its members pledged to advocate for increased staff positions, improved benefits, increased safety gear and anti-racist policies. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the NewsGuild's diversity committee sent a letter to management demanding a plan to revive the Spanish-langauge newspaper ¡Ahora Si!, diversify hiring and require implicit bias training, among other changes.

NewsGuild members join journalists others across the country that have unionized newsrooms in recent years, including at the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Arizona Republic.

The Dallas Morning News Staff voted to unionize in October, becoming the first newspaper in Texas to do so. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram staff announced it had unionized shortly after.

Like many of these papers, the Statesman has faced years of downsizing, hiring freezes and, most recently, furloughs during the pandemic. It has also endured a series of corporate handoffs—three in as many years.

Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises sold the Statesman to the New York-based publishing company GateHouse Media in 2018, after 41 years of ownership. In late 2019, GateHouse closed its $1.1 billion takeover of Gannett, becoming the country's largest newspaper company, and pledged to cut costs. (The company now goes by Gannett.)

Gannett laid off seven Statesman staffers, including veteran sportswriter Suzanne Halliburton and culture critic Joe Gross, in April. Three months later, the company signed a lease at MetCenter, a corporate business park that the Statesman will move into next year. Its recognizable riverfront headquarters will be redeveloped. Last October, the company reportedly offered employees voluntary buyouts. Then, in January, Executive Editor John Bridges announced his retirement after 32 years with the Statesman last month. He was succeeded by Garcia, who previously worked at ProPublica.

According to the NewsGuild, more than 50 journalists have left the Statesman voluntarily or because of buyouts and layoffs over the last two years, representing a 40% reduction in newsroom staff.

Dr. Victor Pickard, a professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania, told Austonia in December that this push toward organizing is "a rare glimmer of hope in this really dismal landscape."

Unions at legacy media companies, such as the Statesman, may help counterbalance publishers' singular focus on profit, which often comes at the expense of jobs. But unions alone won't insulate newspapers from a rapidly changing industry. Instead, Pickard said existing newsrooms need to transition to new business models—like the nonprofit Texas Tribune or low-profit Philadelphia Inquirer—that help lessen commercial pressures.

"If we don't do anything the market will just drive journalism into the ground," he said.

This story has been updated to include a response from Statesman Editor Manny Garcia.

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