Of course, the irony here is that 30 years ago, the Post-Gazette found itself in the midst of a similar strike. And it’s the only reason the Post-Gazette is still around today.

By Vince Guerrieri 

Negotiations are expected to continue this week between the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh and the owners and managers of that city’s Post-Gazette. (The two sides met Monday, and are planning to meet again Thursday.)

Relations between Block Communications, the company that owns the Post-Gazette, and the unions have frayed over years. (The same can be said about Block’s relationship with the unions representing its other newspaper holding, the Blade in Toledo.) Unions representing production, distribution and delivery staff went on strike at the beginning of October, and were joined about two weeks later by the union representing nearly 100 newsroom employees.

Guild membership authorized a strike by a wide margin in 2020. This time, the strike vote was a squeaker, 38-36. It was a “solidarity strike,” since other unions went on strike as well, and it appears that some newsroom employees are willing to cross the picket line.

Of course, the irony here is that 30 years ago, the Post-Gazette found itself in the midst of a similar strike. And it’s the only reason the Post-Gazette is still around today.

Time was, any city of size or consequence in the United States had more than one daily newspaper, many with their own distinctive voice, depending on their audience. The conventional wisdom was that white-collar workers read the morning paper before work or when they sat down at the office; the afternoon paper was for workers after a day at the mill or factory – or straphangers on their evening commute home.

Gradually, the market started to concentrate, and in 1970, Congress passed the Newspaper Preservation Act, allowing for two newspapers in the same city to form a joint operating agreement, maintaining separate newsrooms while sharing advertising, printing and circulation operations.

The Newspaper Preservation Act codified what had been going in Pittsburgh already for nearly a decade. Paul Block, who set up a national advertising company and parlayed that into newspaper ownership (thanks in part to being a close associate to William Randolph Hearst – close enough that he introduced the magnate to Marion Davies, a relationship that provided a key storyline in Citizen Kane), owned the Post-Gazette, which had purchased the declining Hearst-owned Sun-Telegraph in 1960 and merged it into its own operations. But it was still the weaker paper in town, compared to Scripps Howard’s Pittsburgh Press. So Scripps and the Block family entered into a joint operating agreement in 1961, which would expire on Dec. 31, 1999.

In most JOAs, the morning newspaper was the stronger one. That was not the case in Pittsburgh, where even into the 1980s, the Press was one of the biggest papers in the country. But Scripps-Howard was starting to get out of the newspaper business, at least in competitive markets. It had sold the afternoon Cleveland Press in 1980 (the paper folded two years later) and shut down the Memphis Press-Scimitar in 1983 and the Columbus Citizen-Journal two years after that (both papers were in the throes of what had become known in the industry as a circulation spiral. The paper with more circulation attracts more advertising, and circulation gets smaller as advertisers abandon the smaller paper). Scripps-Howard had also sold off United Press International, the news service it had been subsidizing for decades, in 1982.

In 1988, Scripps-Howard made its initial public offering on NASDAQ, and plans were made to streamline the Press’ distribution network. In Pittsburgh, as in many other cities (including my hometown of Youngstown), newspapers were printed and then put on trucks, where they were dropped off at some point on each paper route. Scripps saw inefficiency in that method, and wanted to make centralized depots for paper pick-up. The change would then lead to paper carriers no longer being kids walking the neighborhood making extra money after school, but adults who would drive from stop to stop on larger routes. The delivery workforce – unionized truck drivers and youths who delivered the paper to homes – would be decimated.

In May 1991, the Teamsters went on strike. The Press – and by extension, the Post-Gazette – stopped publishing. And Scripps-Howard was spending an estimated $10,000 a day on lawyers. Finally, that October, Scripps announced its intention to sell the newspaper – to Block, which would then shut it down and become the dominant, if not the only paper in Pittsburgh. The mouse had eaten the elephant.

As the strike wore on, many nearby news organizations tried to fill the void left by the lack of newspapers for more than half a million residents. In addition to the strike newspaper put out by idled newsroom staff, the Post-Gazette also took advantage of cutting-edge technology with its Newsfax. TV news expanded an extra hour. And other newspapers around the region started encroaching on the Pittsburgh market.

The Butler Eagle crept south. The McKeesport Daily News’ coverage area expanded along Route 51 toward Pittsburgh. Same with the Observer-Reporter in Washington, which started to put out a South Hills edition. The Beaver County Times put out an Allegheny edition. And not long after the strike started, the Greensburg Tribune-Review started putting out a Pittsburgh edition. It started as a small outpost, but by 1999, it was a full-fledged newspaper with a main newsroom on the North Shore and a state-of-the-art printing facility in the North Hills, as well as three satellite bureaus in Allegheny County – one of which had just hired me. (They were looking for warm bodies.)

When I got to Pittsburgh – just before the JOA between the Press and P-G would have run out in 1999 – the media landscape resembled Berlin after World War II, with various factions eyeing each other suspiciously while carving up a defeated enemy. Some old Press employees stayed on the Boulevard of the Allies – and then the newspaper’s flag changed, saying it was not just the Post-Gazette, but included “the best of the Pittsburgh Press.” That led to a LOT of bad blood.

The Trib was owned by Richard Mellon Scaife, a descendant of two of Pittsburgh’s most prominent – and wealthiest – families. He was a fan of newspapers for a variety of reasons, not the least of which they provided a venue for his pet political causes. (When Hillary Clinton talked about the “vast right-wing conspiracy” trying to take down her husband as president, she was talking at least in part about Dick Scaife.)

When Scripps put the Press up for sale, Scaife offered to buy it. He was rebuffed, and sued, alleging the fix was in. (The suit was settled out of court.) Undaunted, he bought up other nearby newspapers. The North Hills News Record, a twice-weekly paper, and the daily Valley News Dispatch in Tarentum, a town along the Allegheny Valley northeast of Pittsburgh, were sold by Gannett to Scaife in 1997. He bought the Gateway chain of weeklies in 2003 and the McKeesport Daily News in 2007.

Rumors abounded during my time in Pittsburgh that he wanted to buy the Beaver County Times and Uniontown Herald-Standard, but Calkins would sell only if he took two of their papers in the Philadelphia area as well. Rumors also abounded that even then, the paper was losing as much as $1 million a month, propped up by Scaife’s deep pockets – or, as it turned out, the deep pockets of a family trust fund.

Dick Scaife died in 2014. Within two years, as lawsuits mounted over the money spent to prop up the Trib, the paper went online-only, leaving its newsroom on the North Shore. (The bureaus had closed years earlier, and the printing plant eventually became a marijuana growing operation.)

I used to joke that as an employee of the Trib, I worked for the small, poorly-run right-wing newspaper in Pittsburgh. At the time, the Post-Gazette was the large, poorly-run left-wing newspaper in Pittsburgh. (Although the circulation of both the Trib and Post-Gazette COMBINED was less than the Press alone in the days before the 1992 strike.)

Ironically, in the absence of the Trib (now online-only), the Post-Gazette has become the small, right-wing newspaper in Pittsburgh. The paper came close to endorsing Donald Trump in 2016, and actually did so four years later, the first Republican it endorsed for President since Richard Nixon in 1972.

And that’s likely due to the influence of John Robinson and Allan Block, the twin brothers who own and operate the Post-Gazette. (JRB’s official title is editor and publisher; Allan is the president and CEO of Block Communications.)

Allan Block demonstrated some retrograde attitudes in a hilarious New York Observer piece – shared widely in the Trib newsroom – detailing his efforts to find a suitable woman. Eventually, he did find a wife, and oh, boy, is she something. In 2019, John made an angry appearance in the Post-Gazette newsroom. In the meantime, labor negotiations, always adversarial to begin with, have become downright hostile – to the point where a strike was overwhelmingly approved in August 2020. (No strike materialized; I’m sure it’s just coincidence that a month later, the head of the Guild was ousted after allegations of widespread sexual misconduct that led to him being referred to as “Pittsburgh’s Harvey Weinstein.”)

But now, there is a strike. It’s estimated that a third of the unionized newsroom staff has crossed the picket line. And the news landscape is far less limited than it was in the 1990s, with a variety of alternative sources – if people even decide to find another news source. There are a lot of people who didn’t miss the Post-Gazette before the strike. How many more would miss it if it goes away entirely?

Vince Guerrieri was born in Youngstown three weeks before Black Monday, and left there without ever really escaping it. He’s an award-winning journalist and author now living in the Cleveland area.