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Mild-mannered reporter plays hero in fight to save local paper from fat-cat company bosses.

No one wants to be in this room. Mourners, roughly 40, file into a classroom on the campus of IUPUI. It’s a muggy Saturday morning, on a holiday weekend, when those in attendance should be off somewhere with friends and family, a grill, a cooler. Instead, they are here, searching for seats in a hushed room and listening to a dirge of humming fluorescent lights. It’s a wake, of sorts, for 26 recently laid-off journalists from The Indianapolis Star, joined here by about a dozen current employees, the working wounded. It is the goodbye the departed never got, or, in the case of those still lucky enough to have a job, one they mostly hope never to receive.

The mourners embrace and exchange heartfelt pats on the back. An unassuming man stands at the front of the room, short in stature, with a royal blue polo shirt stretched over his slight paunch. Gray flecks run through the stubble on his round, boyish face, and he looks out at the group through oval wire-rim glasses. Robert King, 41, is a staff reporter and president of the Indianapolis Newspaper Guild Local No. 34070. To friends and colleagues, he is simply “Bobby.” The name seems a better fit.

These are uncertain times over in the big brick building at 307 North Pennsylvania Street; in June, the venerable Central Indiana newspaper terminated 62 employees and eliminated 19 open positions—this after two years of pay cuts and work furloughs. Like a reverend working a line at a funeral home, King tries to offer some comfort to the bereaved, greeting each guest with a hug or a handshake, sustained eye contact, and a soft Kentucky drawl that trickles from his lips into a shady fishing pond of soothing words.

When all of the arrivals have settled in, King addresses the crowd. He apologizes in advance for having to leave early (he must attend the funeral of a stillborn infant later in the day, he explains), and his words fall reassuring and kind. But when the talk turns to Gannett Co. Inc., the Star’s parent company, King’s demeanor changes. He stands erect, and the paunch disappears. Now, he is an Appalachian snake-handler delivering a fire-and-brimstone sermon about the company that many in this congregation like to call “The Evil Empire.” A few days before the meeting, King blogged that Gannett executives were “rat bastards.” Today, they are “robber barons.” These words brighten the faces of the mourners. King then promises to seek retribution and avenge the layoffs. “We’re not going to let this stand,” he tells them.

Words are Bobby King’s strength. And therein lies the problem. The labor guild and Gannett were scheduled to begin contract negotiations just after Labor Day, and for all King’s fervor, words might be all he and his colleagues have. Newspapers, already struggling to find their footing in an increasingly paperless age, took a shot to the gut when recession hit at the end of 2008, and circulation and ad revenues continue to fall. Over the last decade, U.S. newspapers collectively have cut or lost close to a third of their editorial ranks. Talk is cheap.

For King and his diminished cohorts, policing corruption, watching government spending, and highlighting injustice—in other words, performing the civic functions that have long been the province of newspapers—means having to do more with less. The typical newsroom, according to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, is now “under greater pressure, has less institutional memory, less knowledge of the community, of how to gather news and the history of individual beats. There are fewer editors to catch mistakes.”

King contends that, more than just the slumping industry, Gannett’s tight-fisted stewardship of the Star is putting the future of journalism in Indianapolis, and even local democracy itself, at risk. As one of the voices speaking out against company management, he compares himself to “that guy going up against the tank” in Tiananmen Square. He admits that it’s a farfetched analogy, “but that’s how I feel,” he says. “It’s us against The Man.”

King thinks his “inner subversiveness” came from growing up in a blue-collar, middle-class family and watching his parents work hard for everything they got. He remembers standing in the unemployment line with his father in Louisa, Kentucky, a small town on the eastern edge of the state near the border with West Virginia. The elder King was a construction laborer who for 34 years built roads, dams, and a power plant in the family’s hometown. Above all, he was a union guy—for 55 years now, with his dues paid up for life. “Dad’s prouder of my work with the guild than anything I’ve ever written or done in journalism,” King says.

King’s mother grew up on a farm—poor, and with no formal education beyond high school. His older sister, now an attorney in Louisville, was the first person from either side of the family to attend college. King was the first male to do so. He studied journalism at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and after graduating in 1992, he spent a summer at the Star as a Pulliam Fellow. He went on to work for two papers in South Carolina, the Anderson Independent-Mail and the Greenville News. In 1998, King landed a job as an education reporter at Florida’s St. Petersburg Times, a paper known for its strong narrative journalism.

“‘Rat bastards!’” exclaims Bill Stevens, the St. Petersburg Times editor who hired King. “When Bobby came here, he was such a shy guy.” Stevens is amused that the straight-laced reporter has turned into a verbal hit man. But he admits that he probably should have seen it coming. “I offered him the job, and the next thing I knew, he was asking for more money,” says the editor. “Whatever we ended up paying him, it wasn’t enough.”

Stevens says King picked up the nuances of his new beat right away, and remembers him as prolific, accurate, and, above all, likable. “Just a Southern gentleman,” says Stevens. “Never uttered a curse word in his five years here. I often found myself watching what I’d say when I was around him. Solid as an oak. Exuded decency. If your daughter brought a boy home and said, ‘Dad, this is Bobby King,’ you’d say, ‘Oh, what a good choice.’”

Covering schools was important in the burgeoning Hernando bureau, but King found time to tackle other subjects as well. After 9/11, he wrote a series on the hardships of the area’s Muslims. Around the same time, he covered the plight of a group of “mermaids” fighting to preserve their tourist attraction at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. (“Save Our Tails” was their rallying cry.)

Through it all, from the serious stories to the silly, Stevens says what separated King from other reporters was that he became a part of the community he covered. “We get a lot of good reporters who come to work in the bureaus, and they do a great job, but their hearts are never really in the community,” says Stevens. “They want to work downtown in the city. Bobby wasn’t interested in any of that.” King and his wife, Tammy, bought a house, became active in their church—King even preached on occasion—and started a family. “Bobby wasn’t given to the glitz of working downtown, but because he was so good, he would have ended up there eventually,” says Stevens. “He was very well-respected—a leader in the newsroom.”

In 2004, King returned to Indianapolis. He and his wife had decided they wanted to be closer to family, and Indianapolis seemed like an ideal place to raise children. King also thought the city had a strong daily in the Star, and he signed on as a religion writer. But the second half of the decade turned out to be tough for newspapers. Since 2007, more than 39,000 employees at U.S. newspapers have either been laid off or taken buyouts, according to Paper Cuts, a website that tracks the figures; the high-water mark came in 2008, when more than 15,900 jobs disappeared—more than 3,200 have vanished so far this year.

The Star, under the management of Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper company, felt the pain. In 2007, 230 staffers worked in the Star’s newsroom, according to a report in the Indianapolis Business Journal; after the latest round of layoffs, in June, the total number stood at 136, a 40 percent reduction. Hit hardest were the paper’s suburban bureaus and copy desk (the fastidious bunch King says separates professional reporters from the “animals in the blogosphere”). After the most recent wave of cuts, Star management added insult to injury by inadvertently giving incorrect insurance information to laid-off staffers. According to guild members, workers were told benefits would end on June 30, and that they’d have to find new coverage. The former employees later found out that benefits would in fact last as long as severance payments, but not before some displaced employees had already purchased new plans.

“Our leverage is a moral argument,” says King. “It’s about money being siphoned from an important local institution.”

Though earnings were down in the first part of this year, Gannett netted $588 million in 2010, according to the company’s annual report—and it is this apparent imbalance that is at the heart of King’s furor. Gannett’s chairman and CEO, 56-year-old Craig Dubow, pocketed a total compensation package worth $9.4 million in 2010, including a $1.75 million bonus. Executive compensation packages in 2010 (deferred, 70 percent non-cash, and tied to performances) totaled $28 million. “The savings from two years of mandatory furloughs for the rest of Gannett employees: $33 million,” read a story in The New York Times. “That didn’t go very far, did it?” (Gannett officials declined comment for this story, through communications manager Katie Connell.)

Although Gannett shareholders might applaud Dubow’s bottom-line management, it galls King. The Star remains in the black, and Gannett’s papers have made executives like Dubow rich, he says, but the company has abandoned its investment in journalists and covering local news. “I guess you could say our leverage is a moral argument,” he says. “It’s about money being siphoned from an important local institution and pocketed by a handful of executives.”

In some ways, King’s commitment to pointing out the perceived mistreatment of Star employees resembles his byline work. While he still writes about religion, that type of reporting has recently taken a back seat to covering social issues, in stories that call attention to hardship and marginalized people. In December 2010, he wrote a piece on a schoolgirl and her struggling family for the paper’s “Our Children, Our City” series. “Jessika Miller and her family are not living on the streets,” King wrote. “Nor do they spend nights in their minivan—at least not yet. But Jessika, her father, her mother, her 7-year-old brother and her two preschool sisters are living in a tiny $150-a-week motel room.” The story, says King, produced an outpouring of emotional and financial support for the family—enough that they eventually found a home. And when disaster struck the Indiana State Fair in August, the empathetic King got the first crack at covering the tragedy in print the following day. He subscribes to the timeworn credo that a journalist’s job, in part, is to comfort the afflicted.

It is also, as the saying goes, to afflict the comfortable.

The first edition of the Star was printed in 1903, and the Indianapolis Newspaper Guild, a member of the national union heavyweight AFL-CIO, was chartered in 1936 and negotiated its first contract the following year. Eugene C. Pulliam purchased the paper in 1944, and it remained a family-owned concern until 2000, when Gannett, the Virginia-based publisher of USA Today and 81 other daily papers, added the Indianapolis broadsheet to its portfolio. In 2009, the guild, then headed by reporter Tom Spalding, took a conciliatory approach in negotiating a new two-year contract, hoping savings from an across-the-board 10 percent pay decrease might preserve jobs. King, then just a rank-and-file hardliner, briefly quit the guild to protest the group’s vote to accept the pay cut.

The concessions took their toll on everyone. King himself decided to put a cap on Christmas spending and forgo family vacations. Other staffers, he noticed, were having a hard time just paying bills. Then details emerged of Dubow’s lucrative compensation package. Guild members who had supported the management-friendly contract felt betrayed. “I vastly underestimated the bottom-line mentality and greed of Gannett,” says Spalding, one of the advocates of extending an olive branch, who left the paper in February for a PR job. “I was wrong,”

King was just plain angry. In July 2010, Dubow and his No. 2, Gracia Martore, arrived in Indianapolis for a visit with the entire Star workforce. Since the group was so large—then about 300—the meeting was held in the auditorium of the Indiana War Memorial. King had requested the day off, with plans to take his wife and three daughters (14, 12, and 5) to visit family. However, the morning of the gathering, a thought gnawed at him: Why shouldn’t Dubow have to face him and his family—people who, among many others, had been affected by the CEO’s decisions?

When he and his family arrived at the meeting, says King, someone from human resources greeted them at the door and asked King’s wife and children to wait outside. On King’s insistence, the HR rep relented, and the Kings took their seats in the auditorium, just moments before Dubow was scheduled to speak. Then another HR rep asked that King’s family leave. King gave in and hugged his wife and girls before sending them out of the room.

As King looked over some notes he had written on a scrap of paper, Dubow took the floor, spoke for 15 minutes about the Star’s good work, and explained that he wanted the staff to understand the thinking behind some of his decisions. He opened the floor to questions, and King shot up. He put the notes away, grabbed the mic, and gestured toward the empty seats his wife and girls had just vacated. He launched into a little preamble, touching on the sacrifices made by Star employees and their families and his fears that the cuts were hurting the paper’s product. Then he asked the question that is now something of a legend among Star survivors: “Can you explain the thinking that went into your decision to accept a $1.75 million bonus and a 50 percent pay raise?”

King could barely get the words out before the auditorium erupted in applause.

As the latest round of labor negotiations with Gannett approached, King was at the Central Library, just a few blocks from the Star offices. He sat in an armchair on the sixth floor, by a big window overlooking the American Legion Mall and, across the grass, the War Memorial, site of last year’s showdown with Dubow. Volume 2 of The Churchill War Papers: Never Surrender rested on a table nearby. King thumped the book with a finger; it echoed like a ripe melon. “Someone told me I should read up on leadership,” he said. “I’m no Churchill, this isn’t World War II, and we don’t face the threat of destruction. But there are parallels. Journalism here is under constant attack. It’s time to see if we have the backbone to fight back. I think we do.”

When former president Spalding’s term was up earlier this year, he nominated King to succeed him, because, Spalding says, he “knew he would channel the venom and anger and outrage and take it to the next level.” King ran unopposed for the post. Only about 70 percent of the Star’s employees belong to the guild, though the group negotiates on behalf of all editorial and building-service workers, except management. King keeps a list of non-members in his wallet. Some of the names are circled, others are crossed out. King is trying to win converts, but it isn’t easy when some colleagues have to choose between paying dues and paying rent.

Going into negotiations, King’s goal, he said, was to win back the 10 percent in pay that the guild gave up two years ago. He also wants to protect jobs: Gannett is experimenting with centralizing duties like copyediting and design at five regional centers around the country, and though no official announcement has been made, King says Gannett’s intention to outsource jobs to one of its facilities in Louisville is the worst-kept secret in the building. In its 1994 contract, the guild agreed to a no-strike/no-lockout clause, which holds for as long as a contract is in place or one is being negotiated. But although the guild has never gone on strike, King planned to go into negotiations with every available option—even the nuclear one—in his briefcase.

Although the Guild has never gone on strike, King planned to go into negotiations with every available option in his briefcase.

The guild also started to wage a public-information campaign against Gannett, which King hoped would reach the city’s “movers and shakers,” leaders of companies and charitable organizations that benefit from the Star’s ability to generate awareness and donations. The group launched a website (savethestar.com), has a presence on Facebook and Twitter, made ad buys on local radio, and has planned to dot the city with outdoor advertising (including a billboard in chief editor Dennis Ryerson’s neighborhood). In a recent e-mail statement to IM, the Star’s publisher, Karen Crotchfelt, wrote that the paper’s management was “looking forward to reaching a new contract with the Union as soon as possible,” and “because we are beginning negotiations soon it would not be appropriate or proper to discuss the Union or its president.”

The consensus seems to be that the guild took a bath in the concession-heavy negotiations of two years ago, and some of its maneuvers since have been less than rousing, such as last year’s stern letter-writing campaign to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Gannett board that complained about Dubow’s bloated compensation package. But the guild has scored at least one modest victory: It sued Gannett in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis over the legality of some of the 2009 layoffs, and a deal resulted in a pre-trial cash settlement to the affected employees.

Staring out at the War Memorial from his seat in the Central Library, King looked ashen, wearied by a kind of survivor’s guilt. (“I want to confess that I think I failed you,” he wrote on the guild’s blog after the layoffs.) He thumped the Churchill book again, trying to gird himself for the battle that lay ahead. “These days I find myself asking my wife why we don’t have more alcohol in the house,” he said.

As he stood to leave, he stretched, and it seemed to revive him. “This city deserves a great newspaper,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why this is such a worthy cause. Speaking truth to power, that’s exhilarating. Thing is, we have the moral high ground here. We are right, and that’s an amazing motivator.”

Photo by Stephen Simonetto.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.