The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Gannett news chain retires a loser

Dec 20, 2004

From 1995 to 2000, newspaper workers in Detroit fought a bitter strike and fight against the Detroit Newspaper Association (DNA). The DNA was a joint operating agreement between Gannett, publisher of the Detroit News and Knight Ridder, publisher of the Free Press. The newspapers' CEO – from then to now – was Frank Vega.

This month, the DNA announced Frank Vega's sudden retirement and move to California, to be publisher of a Hearst paper, the San Francisco Chronicle.

Vega moves from leading two newspapers to heading only one. He leaves a circulation of over 700,000 for a circulation of just over 500,000, and he goes to a paper that serves a smaller metropolitan area. It at least raises the question of whether Gannett simply waited a decent interval before burying the body.

In 1995, Vega's assurances to Gannett and Knight Ridder about a quick victory over the workers ran into a buzz-saw. First forced into a strike, then locked out, newspaper workers reacted by tying up Detroit newspapers with picketing, imaginative tactics impeding printing and distribution, and a widespread boycott. While leaders of other unions often gave little more than speeches and a bit of money after the early months of the strike, rank and file workers in the region dropped their subscriptions and supported the strike in other ways.

Having adopted Frank Vega's strategy, the bosses lost far more than they expected.

The DNA even today continues to take losses from the cutthroat strategy it pursued. Today's paid newspaper circulation remains around 710,000, compared to the pre-strike 1.1 million. And with low circulation comes low advertising revenue.

Even though Gannett could never admit it publicly, they paid a high price in that strike – one they weren't ready to repeat elsewhere. Soon after the Detroit strike, Gannett faced expiring union contracts in Hawaii. Gannett settled quickly, with terms acceptable to the workers.

Battling as hard as they did for themselves, even though it was finally a losing effort, the Detroit strikers protected other workers. In the larger class struggle, the workers did not lose. And that may explain why Frank Vega is being semi-retired to California.