American Pie 09.10.03

There is a lot of unrest at The Wall Street Journal – and quite a few unfinished assignments. Staff are upset over cutbacks and the failure of management to negotiate a new contract. Many have initiated a series of “work to rule” days – reporting for work at 11am, taking their one-hour (unpaid) lunch break, and packing in after seven hours, even if they are in the middle of a story. Management has warned such behaviour is not only unprofessional, but also illegal under US labour laws. Apart from the contract dispute, staff are also upset over proposed editorial layoffs. The paper plans to combine its three newsrooms in New York, Brussels and Hong Kong into a single operation called the Global News Desk.

At least things are happier (for the moment) at the NY Times. Still recovering from recent scandals, the paper has signed a new agreement with its biggest union, the Newspaper Guild, which represents 1,500 employees. If ratified, as expected, it should ensure labour peace for at least eight years. The contract will mean wage increases of around 23 per cent. That means the minimum salary for a reporter, which was just under $1,600 (£960) a week, will ultimately increase to just under $2,000 (£1,200).

The editor of El Diario La Prensa, America’s oldest Spanish-language daily, thought he had scored when he got Cuban leader Fidel Castro to write a column about education in Cuba. But some of Gerson Borrero’s staff considered the column to be pro-Castro propaganda and wrote to friends, who then flooded owner Knight Paton Media Corp with e-mails of protest. The company ordered the column to be killed. In protest, Borrero – who is Puerto Rican and, say other colleagues, not a Castro lover – handed in his resignation. One member of the staff pointed out that Borrero had invited the leaders of several Latin American countries to write articles for the paper. Castro just happened to be the first to accept.

One of the odder outposts of the Time Inc empire is an old warehouse overlooking the beach in Oceanside, California. It’s the offices of Transworld Skateboarding, one of several off-beat publications Time Inc has acquired in recent years. Skateboard’s staff were from the start somewhat unconventional, but soon after the takeover, they began to chafe at the way they were controlled by head office. The magazine was obliged to accept cosmetic and beauty care adverts and polybagged CDs which, according to the staff, infuriated some readers.

Now three top executives – a quarter of the entire staff – have quit and are launching a rival title. Why the concern? Because the magazine this year has run more ad pages than Fortune, Business Week and even Time (albeit at a lower page rate). Rival title The Skateboard Mag,is due out in the new year.

What happens when one of Felix Dennis’s magazines decides to run a feature called “1001 Greatest Songs to Download Now” – and includes a review of the boss’s recent album, Mustique Blues Festival 2003? The reviewer, Blender editor-in-chief Andy Pemberton, gave the album only three stars out of a possible five. Contacted at his Caribbean hideout, Dennis said: “I think the guys at Blender have forgotten that Christmas bonuses are discretionary – and I’m the one who decides.” He said it jokingly – or so the staff hopes.

By Jeffrey Blyth

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