Applause — and dinner — for striking Fort Worth newspaper journalists, standing up for what’s right

I’m not a newspaper journalist anymore, yet I’ll always be a newspaper journalist and support newspaper journalists. That’s the main reason I went to Tuesday night’s annual holiday dinner gathering of the Fort Worth Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Although I’m not a dues-paying member of SPJ, I’ve been to a couple of these holiday events in recent years. It’s always wonderful to see some of my dear friends and former colleagues from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the newspaper we all loved working for back in the day. Once again I saw a few of those friendly faces, exchanging hugs and handshakes, warm greetings and brief catch-ups as I told folks about my new job at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

In an overflowing room at Joe T. Garcia’s “La Puertita” venue across the street from the beloved landmark restaurant, we dined on cheese enchiladas, cheese tostadas, refried beans, chips and salsa, and the best guacamole you’ve ever tasted. And naturally, there were plenty of beers and margaritas to go with the delicious meal.

Four of my longtime friends (from left), Shirley Jinkins, Linda Stallard Johnson, Ruthanne Brockway and Marsha Ammons. All of them worked at the Star-Telegram, but I didn’t work with Linda until I was at The Dallas Morning News.

But I’m quite sure everyone in attendance, many of whom, like me, will always feel part of the S-T family, was there to support nearly two dozen current Star-Telegram journalists embroiled in the fight of their young careers. It’s a highly worthy one in which the opponent — their employer, McClatchy, now owned by hedge fund Chatham Asset Management — is fighting unfairly, with no compassion or concern for the well-being of the journalists who dedicate themselves 24/7/365 to the newspaper and the community with every interview they do and every story they write.

Two tables in our midst were filled with S-T newsroom union members who went on strike Nov. 28 in a show of solidarity after two years of fruitless bargaining with management over pocketbook issues like wages and severance pay as well as sick leave. Rightfully, they received a supportive ovation from us, a crowd of approving, impressed and appreciative mostly older folks, many of whom are retired but could see themselves walking the same talk if they were a few decades younger.  

Of the newsroom’s 23 union members, 21 are striking after the guild filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint in August. Reporter Kaley Johnson, the Fort Worth NewsGuild’s vice president who spoke Tuesday night, says the strike won’t end until a fair contract has been reached.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporters Kaley Johnson (left) and Emily Brindley, two of the 21 journalists on strike, spoke at Tuesday night’s dinner.

Regarding salaries, the union has proposed a $57,500 starting wage, while McClatchy has proposed a measly $45,000, about what I was making when I left the S-T for The Dallas Morning News in early 2000. On the first day of the strike, one journalist held a sign that read, “My last raise was in 2016.”

What’s worse, the company suspended participating Star-Telegram journalists’ health care and other benefits three days after the action began, and also posted their jobs to be filled during the strike.

My good friend Dave Lieber, who’s been my colleague at both the S-T and the DMN (where he’s the popular Watchdog consumer columnist), hosted Tuesday’s event as he has for several years. Wearing his blue 1986 Philadelphia Inquirer union windbreaker, he talked about the strike he took part in that year as a young journalist and praised the determination and fortitude of the S-T strikers. At The News, Dave’s been part of the newsroom union effort that began with our lopsided vote to form a guild in fall 2020. 

Editor & Publisher in their story yesterday said the Fort Worth Star-Telegram strike marks a major moment for Texas newsroom unions,” Dave told the group. “It IS a major moment. I look at you guys as courageous.

“It’s hard. What you did was show courage, man — it’s the kind of courage that most of us never really have to face in our life. Anne Frank said whoever is happy will make others happy too, and he who has courage and faith will never perish in misery, and that’s how I feel about you.”

Emcee Dave Lieber cracked everyone up with his jokes while giving out a lot of merch during the post-dinner raffle. I went home emptyhanded because I didn’t buy any tickets.

The deteriorating state of the S-T in recent years has been heartbreaking for me and so many others who’ve spent part of our journalism careers in Fort Worth. I worked in several editing positions there between April 1987 and February 2000, when I left for a 22-year DMN run that ended when I started at UT Southwestern three months ago. The S-T, once the largest newspaper in the South, for many years boasted a vast reach west and north and a loyal local subscriber base, and has a storied history dating to its decades with colorful owner/publisher Amon G. Carter. 

Of course, it’s not just the Star-Telegram. The whole newspaper industry is gasping for air and has been for the better part of more than 15 years. Over 2,500 papers have shut down since 2004. It’s hard to see much light at the end of this black hole-seeming tunnel.

At the DMN/Al Dia, I was proud to play a supporting role in our union. Journalists at the S-T and Austin American-Statesman followed in organizing after we did, and the strike in Fort Worth is the first such newsroom action in the state’s history. Two years into negotiations at the DMN, a number of issues have been hammered out, but a full contract has yet to be agreed upon — and a wage scale is the largest roadblock.

Legendary North Texas journalist Bob Ray Sanders, a longtime Star-Telegram columnist after his early days in local TV, visited with Marsha before dinner.

The Star-Telegram‘s guild will return to the bargaining table with management Thursday. I’ll be rooting for these principled, strong-willed journalists, even while the stark realities of the business and having a hedge-fund owner don’t give me a lot of hope for them. But if you’d like to throw your support behind them and help them pay their bills, you can do so at this GoFundMe page.

One thing’s for sure: I admire and respect the hell out of them. And I may no longer be a newspaper journalist in body, but I’ll always be one in heart.

And by the way: None of them had to pay for dinner.

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