Ever-higher health costs show harvesting every dollar is (still) all that matters

By Thomas Peele
BANG-East Bay

Standing in a shaded backyard in Northern California on a recent Saturday afternoon as kids in Halloween costumes flittered all about, another father and I fell into a long conversation. I knew him only vaguely – one of his daughters is in the same class as one of my twins – and we bounced around a bunch of light topics, fantasy baseball, car seats, the school our children shared.

Then a local bond measure for a commuter rail district came up. I dropped a few things I knew about the agency – including how generous its employee benefits are. The man’s wife also worked for a local government and he casually mentioned that was how his family obtained its health coverage — with no employee contribution to the cost.

Try working for a newspaper, I thought. Or a newspaper owned by a cutthroat hedge fund.

I couldn’t begrudge the man his family’s good deal. Those of us strewn across what was once the American middle class have to do what we have do to take care of our kids. But some of us are trying to do it by working for a company owned by Alden Global Capital.

***

ThomasPeele
Thomas Peele

We all had to know this was coming. Was Alden really going to give us those paltry 3 percent raises without a plan to protect its bottom line? Of course not. Still, the shift to high-deductible medical insurance is a jackboot to the teeth. It’s simple. Give employees cheaper coverage. Throw in medical savings accounts — but make them 100 percent employee funded. No little bones here. Roll out the corporate flacks. Throw up a bunch of insulting notices about the changes. (“Alex!,” your virtual benefits advisor, is here).

That high-deductible plans are bad for families? That they penalize anyone who needs medical care? Not management’s problem.

“(T)hese plans can be a bad choice for children,” the American Academy of Pediatrics stated in a 2014 policy paper. “(H)igh-deductible health plans decrease health care expenditures, but at the cost of quality of care, continuity of care, and accessibility to care, especially for patients of modest means.” They deter “access to primary care … Families with small children tend to be high users of primary care services, and financially struggling parents with a high-deductible health plan may delay needed care for a sick child if faced with a high out-of-pocket expense. Because the ill pay more than the healthy under these plans, children with special health care needs will experience higher costs under a high-deductible plan than with conventional insurance.”

Newspapers and journalists have far different purposes.

I suppose it would be overly cynical to ask what kind of health coverage Alden employees receive. We all get it. Alden’s bone-picking minions have only one goal. Anyone who has suffered through their control of Digital First Media, America’s second-largest newspaper company, accepted this long ego.

It isn’t as if newspaper owners across American history haven’t been swaggering robber barons. For every Adolph Ochs who built a sustainable company there have been baskets of Dean Singletons. If we are too naive to understand who it is who employs us, we might be too naive to be effective journalists.

A college instructor once asked a journalism class I was in, “What is the purpose of a newspaper?” Hands shot up. Answers about altruism and community service poured forth. I was a year or two older than most of the students, and I recall, distinctly, rolling my eyes — unfairly, I must add. They were answering as if the question involved journalism. It didn’t. I raised my hand and provided the sought-after answer: “To make money for its owner.”

I had an experience in my nascent career that the others had yet to encounter. I worked for a man who owned a newspaper. Well, kind of a newspaper.

***

In the early 1980s I ended up on my parents’ eastern Long Island, New York, doorstep in the midst of a horrid winter, having dropped out of college for a second time after a girl and I decided running off to Toronto for a week was a far better idea than attending classes.

“Get a job, shithead,” my father snapped. I had fulfilled his expectations in my attempt at higher education. A few years on the up-state beer circuit with no degree and a pile of student loans. That he’d only called me “shithead” was his way of going easy. It was hard to object.

Winter employment prospects were scant. I hit up a few grocery stores. No luck. After a week, I pulled an old eel gig and an axe from our back shed. At a brackish, ocean-side pond surrounded by shuttered summer mansions of the über rich, I chopped a hole in the ice, lowered a chum pot filled with cat food and spent a freezing afternoon stabbing at the mud below. A fishmonger paid $5 for the half-bushel of eels I had speared.

I better keep looking, it seemed.

A day or so later, I heard that a tiny, free circulation newspaper was looking for a part-time editorial assistant. This intrigued me; my collegiate career included two reporting classes. Until the Canadian misadventure, journalism had seemed viable, even a life at first light.

“Can you sweep?” the man interviewing me asked. His title was publisher and I quickly learned that his interpretation of “editorial assistant” was rather broad. I said yes, I could sweep. He led me through sliding doors to a room where the floor was covered in newsprint and shreds of the thick brown paper that had wrapped the rolls when they came in. A rotary press stood along one wall. He printed his newspaper – it was called The Whale – himself. He handed me a broom. “Show me.”

I started sweeping around the press. I got the job. I became a printer, bundler, delivery driver, reporter, layout person, photographer, circulation auditor. The press was powered by a Ford Pinto engine mounted on blocks. One of my tasks involved buying gas for press runs, periodically changing the engine’s oil, and checking its plugs and points.

The publisher was an unlettered retired stockcar driver named Richie Sellentin, a recovering alcoholic and born-again Christian. Nearly every sentence he spoke came laced with profanity and threats of physical violence, usually ending with the words, “Forgive me, Lord.” (As in: “Clean up this fucking pressroom before I put a foot in your ass. Forgive me, lord.”)

In other words, he was a newspaper owner for the ages.

He started the paper to draw attention to groundwater pollution in his neighborhood, which the local weekly had ignored. The early 1980s on eastern Long Island was a boom time, especially in summer. Even a free, ugly weekly left in grocery stores penetrated deeply and brought fat advertising checks. Sellentin made money. Lots of it.

Soon the paper’s editor told me The Whale could use some sports stories. High school stuff. Could I do that? It seems silly now to say my heart soared. But it did. “Give us something on the Bridgies,” she said. She meant the boy’s basketball team at Bridgehampton High School, a small-school power that often won state championships.

The floor of my parent’s kitchen had a noticeable slant to it, much of the house having been built not on a foundation but on locust posts that had long rotted away. I sat at a rickety table that had come from a Coast Guard station my grandfather once commanded. The window behind me rattled in the winter wind. I struggled for hours over a portable typewriter to write 300 words.

The next day, the editor read my piece. Sellentin walked over. He nodded. The story, a block of copy with my name in a tagline, was a quick overview of the season so far. I realized only then that I had no idea what the payment might be for a story in The Whale. In my euphoria over getting to write something, I hadn’t thought to ask.

“How much am I getting for that?” I asked Sellentin.

“Five cents a word, so $15,” he said. Three times what an afternoon of eeling paid, but far harder work.

“It’s too long. Write shorter.”

And so it went with him. He scrimped and cut corners and bled every dollar that crossed his path. There were no benefits, no vacations, little that could be associated with a professional workplace. He paid me by the hour to work in the pasteup and press rooms, and as a contractor to deliver papers. As a reporter, I was basically a stringer. Five cents a word for what were little more than briefs on ballgames, fires, government meetings. When the sister of a high school friend of mine was murdered, I put so much struggling effort into the story, Sellentin gave me an extra $10.

It was a place to start, albeit at a place from which to gaze up at what anyone else might consider the bottom of journalism. But the bug bit me hard. It didn’t take long for me to end up in that college classroom with the professor asking about the purpose of a newspaper.

Richie Sellentin couldn’t have run a hedge fund. He was a working man, really, a savant when it came to anything mechanical, like his printing press powered by a car engine. Like the rest of us in eastern Long Island, he trudged around at the bottom of the service economy looking for dollars. It’s still amazing to me he was able to run a newspaper. He was an anti-intellectual reactionary who put profit far ahead of the people who worked for him. I imagine he’s out there somewhere in a Make America Great Again hat.

But he did know how to bleed a newspaper to death.

In the end, The Whale died. There was nothing left of it. That was his plan all along. That press in the back room had basically printed him a lot of money. He put none of it back into his business, paid people dirt, offered no benefits, stripped the bones.

Sound familiar?

***

Well, DFM, under Alden’s control, does offer benefits. We have a retirement plan. The employer contributes nothing to it. We have health insurance. For those of us with families, the new plan appears to be slashing more than $500 a month from net pay.

This health insurance feels like a belt around the neck. You need game theory to figure it out. Which option shall we gamble on? What happens if one of the kids falls out of a tree and has to go to the ER? Where’s money for that going to come from? How can we afford the payroll deduction and put cash into the health savings account, which supposedly is how we buffer for deductibles?

During a presentation, I asked if it was possible to cover my spouse and kids but not myself. I was willing to go without health coverage to have enough cash to put food on the table. Of course there’s no such option. I did, though, see an ad on Craigslist for someone to deliver laundry at night, just four or five hours. The mileage rate’s better than the newspaper pays.

Clearly, Alden doesn’t care about the financial stability — or health — of the families of DFM employees. Since it has no long-term plan other than to harvest every dollar it can for wealthy investors, why should we expect anything other than pure greed?

Journalists have cried poverty far longer than the 33 years since I walked into Richie Sellentin’s pressroom. There’s a reason. Newspapers and journalists have far different purposes. I’d just like to know a day when the newspaper’s purpose wasn’t slowly choking me to death. It’s not like I can afford to go to the doctor about it.

 

Editor’s note: Increased health insurance costs is one of many concerns of NewsGuild members. Representatives of a united group of 12 Guild-represented newspapers will bargain a wage re-opener with DFM in February 2017.