WILKES-BARRE — Union leaders blew a whistle inside The Times Leader, Evening News/Record newspaper at 5:45 p.m. on Oct. 6, 1978, giving the signal to unionized workers to abandon their jobs and risk their livelihoods.
“I said, ‘Folks, we are going on strike against The Times Leader. Let’s go,’” Pat Rushton, who was union vice president, recalled. “So they followed us out the door.”
Nearly 200 men and women soon picketed outside 15 N. Main St. to revolt against The Times Leader’s new corporate owner, New York City-based Capital Cities Communications. They claimed the conglomerate was trying to bust the paper’s four unions and rallied the local labor movement to support their walk out.
The picket line got ugly at times. Strikers and union supporters clashed with strikebreakers and out-of-town guards bused in by Capital Cities.
Within three days, the strikers launched The Citizens’ Voice. The first issue was published on Oct. 9, 1978 under the headline, “New Arrival. Born Today.”
“Since then, The Citizens’ Voice has never missed an issue,” Paul Golias, a striker who later served as managing editor prior to his 2005 retirement, proudly said in a recent interview.
The strikers sold The Citizens’ Voice in May 2000 to the family-owned, Scranton-based Times-Shamrock Communications.
“Our most significant achievement has been winning the circulation and readership war in Luzerne County. We took the lead daily in September of 2014 and took the Sunday lead two years later and have never looked back,” CEO and Publisher George Lynett Jr. said. “The gap continues to grow in our favor. That’s why we say emphatically, ‘We are here to stay.’”
Voice wasn’t supposed to survive
The truth is, Golias said, The Citizens’ Voice wasn’t intended to last this long. In fact, it wasn’t intended to last at all. The paper was created solely to be published as a temporary strike paper until the labor dispute ended. It never did.
“The hope was to put financial pressure on them to change their ways,” Golias said.
Rushton called it merely “a bargaining tool.”
But the paper became an overnight success with Luzerne County residents, known for strong union roots dating back to the area’s coal-mining days.
Former Times Leader paper carriers were encouraged to deliver The Citizens’ Voice instead. The overwhelming majority did. Bundles of The Times Leader were abandoned on street corners, set on fire or tossed back over the barbed wire fence erected around The Times Leader building.
“Back in those days, a lot of your home delivery was kids. They started calling the kids. I forgot what the percentage was, but it was something like 90, 95 percent of the carriers switched over to The Citizens’ Voice,” Golias recalled. “Think about it. The Wyoming Valley, the mining history, union families. You could imagine the father telling the son, ‘Hey there’s no way you’re going to deliver a scab newspaper.’”
The first edition of The Citizens’ Voice sold 45,000 copies, as the area immediately embraced the new union paper. The competition’s circulation took a dramatic hit.
However, the deep pockets of Capital Cities Communications allowed The Times Leader to eventually stabilize and rebuild a replacement staff much larger than the Voice’s.
The result has been a 40-year see-saw battle that remains one of the most intriguing newspaper wars in the country — and one of the last.
While the paper’s staff is much smaller than in 1978, non-management newsroom workers and two maintenance staffers are still unionized.
The Citizens’ Voice took the daily circulation lead in September 2014 and the coveted Sunday circulation lead in the fourth quarter of 2016.
The Citizens’ Voice now has its largest lead in history. The latest numbers put The Citizens’ Voice print circulation on Sunday at 23,116 compared to 20,501 for The Times Leader. The Voice’s daily circulation is 20,968 while The Times Leader dipped to 16,641, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.
The Sunday lead is significant since The Times Leader purchased the formerly dominant Sunday Independent in 1993. The Citizens’ Voice was forced to start a Sunday edition from scratch days later.
The paper survived and thrived the past four decades despite the fact that The Times Leader remained owned by major national corporations for most of that time.
After Capital Cities Communications, The Times Leader was owned by the ABC network, the Walt Disney Company, Knight Ridder and even the investment bank Goldman Sachs. It’s now owned by North Carolina-based Civitas Media.
The Citizens’ Voice was a non-profit strike paper until 1989 when it incorporated and became a for-profit employee-owned operation. The paper remains locally owned by members of the Lynett and Haggerty families, who purchased the paper in 2000 as part of Times-Shamrock Communications.
“That was like the cavalry coming in,” said Advertising Director Mark Altavilla. “It allowed us to leverage their relationships and organization to grow into the multimedia company that we are today.”
Altavilla was ad director at The Sunday Independent when it abruptly closed. He was then recruited to be The Citizens’ Voice ad director, a position he’s held for 26 years.
Since then, Citizens’ Voice advertising market share has increased from 36 percent to 57 percent, a major swing.
“During that time, they (The Times Leader) brought in people with a lot more education than me from out of town, all these guys who had all these magic buttons that were going to put The Citizens’ Voice out of business. And that certainly has not been the case,” Altavilla said.
Lead up to the strike
When Capital Cities purchased The Times Leader in May 1978, employees sensed a strike could be possible due to the company’s history of clashing with unions. The company anticipated one, too.
Even before the union contract expired Sept. 30, 1978, Cap Cities erected barbed wire fences around the building, installed security cameras and hired security guards from the Wackenhut firm.
The guards intimidated workers, following them around the building, even into the restroom, the strikers say.
At the time, the paper had four unions, Newspaper Guild Local 120, Typographical Union Local 187, Pressmen’s Union Local 137 and Stereotypers’ Union Local 139. With contract negotiations going nowhere, they decided to unite as the Wilkes-Barre Council of Newspapers, also known as the Four Blocks of Anthracite, paying homage to the area’s coal-mining past.
National union leaders came to Wilkes-Barre to organize a strike set for Oct. 6, 1978.
For years while publishing The Citizens’ Voice, strikers would picket in front of The Times Leader building. They even once took their protest to Capital Cities’ corporate office in New York City.
“This was one of the last hurrahs in the Wyoming Valley for a major strike, even nationwide. This was historic,” Golias, who served as union spokesman, said. “This was something you could point to and say, ‘Hey, here’s labor taking on the big guys.’”
Strike gets ugly
Other area union workers picketed with The Citizens’ Voice strikers. Some in the crowd pelted The Times Leader building with paint.
“SCABS,” the insulting name given to people who crossed the picket line, was spray-painted on the building as well.
Windows and delivery truck windshields were smashed. Tires were slashed.
Both sides accused the other of assaults.
Privately, some strikers tell stories of their roles in the mayhem. They defend the tactics, saying they were at war.
The scene became so volatile Wilkes-Barre City’s Mayor Walter Lisman declared a state of emergency.
The front page of the second edition of The Citizens’ Voice showed Wackenhut security guards spraying the picketers with fire extinguishers. Another photo inside shows them spraying the strikers with fire hoses.
The Times Leader countered with a 16-page newspaper, with the headline “Violence in the Valley,” mailed to area residents. The mailer slammed the strikers as violent thugs who were not being punished for committing crimes.
“The story is about unions that have tried by the most violent means necessary to prevent a newspaper from being published,” the mailer said.
Rushton said he thinks the out-of-town security guards used by The Times Leader, even before the strike started, caused tensions to escalate.
“Their mere presence there I think — not I think, I know — really enraged many people. You have to remember this was a family-owned company prior to this,” Rushton said. “It was chaotic. The adrenaline was high.”
Early days of the paper
A New York Times story in November 1978 about the early days of The Citizens’ Voice called it a “slapdash operation.”
The paper obtained its national news and sports scores by having a staffer listen to the radio and watch television all day.
Golias let out a big laugh at the New York Times’ characterization, agreeing with it to a degree. He noted the Associated Press, the main news wire service, “would not even talk to us” at the behest of Capital Cities.
The paper started out in a “pretty grubby” office on North Main Street with antiquated equipment, Golias said.
“Slapdash? Yeah, why not. It was pretty much an old-fashioned newsroom,” Golias said.
Workers were paid a meager strike benefit from the international union, causing workers with families to struggle. All pay was equal.
“What was unique about it was everybody got the same benefit, whether you were the maintenance man or the general manager,” Golias said.
Initially, the Voice rented the press of the weekly Wyoming Valley Observer to print the paper.
The Voice later moved offices on the second floor of the Hotel Sterling and printed in Plymouth.
In 1984, the paper moved its offices to its current location at 75 Washington St., the former Boston Store warehouse, and unveiled a new printing press.
Sunday paper in several days
In 1989, The Citizens’ Voice incorporated as a for-profit business owned by the employees.
The paper remained a six-day-a-week operation because the mighty Sunday Independent had a firm grip on the Sunday market.
Then, in May 1993, the Sunday Independent suddenly closed on a Tuesday. Later, it was announced The Times Leader, which had launched a Sunday paper in 1987, purchased the Independent’s assets.
“The Voice saw what was happening and basically had no other option except to start a Sunday paper to stay in competition with The Times Leader, seven days a week instead of six,” Golias said.
The Voice had a Sunday edition out that week.
“It’s pretty unique in itself. When a newspaper starts a Sunday edition, the planning could take six months or longer. We did it in four days,” Golias said.
Altavilla said it’s incredible The Citizens’ Voice was able to start from scratch and eventually overtake The Times Leader in the coveted Sunday circulation.
“It’s just remarkable. All these years later, 40 years later, for the Voice to be the dominant Sunday paper. It just says so much,” Altavilla said.
Sale to Times-Shamrock
The employee owners of The Citizens Voice voted to sell the newspaper to Times-Shamrock Communications in 2000.
Neil Corbett, the last striker to retire from the paper, said the sale was the best way to ensure The Citizens’ Voice survived.
Not only that, it has thrived under the Times-Shamrock umbrella, he said.
“I thought it was the only way,” Corbett said.
Corbett said he admired how Times-Shamrock fought off competition to win the newspaper war in Scranton.
“I knew those guys wouldn’t give up,” Corbett said. “You knew they were in it for the long haul.”
Lynett admitted it was a gamble.
“When we purchased the Citizens’ Voice in 2000, we were concerned about the difficulty of competing with a huge public company like Knight Ridder, who had much deeper pockets than we had,” Lynett said. “But we knew that the Voice’s franchise was strong thanks to dedicated employee-owners and extremely loyal readers, so we forged ahead.”
Lynett and his two cousins, Matt Haggerty and Bobby Lynett, are part of the fourth generation of their family to lead the company, sharing the roles of CEO and publisher.
“We knew local, family ownership would make a difference — and it did. Knight Ridder didn’t focus much on the competition, so we took advantage of that,” Lynett said. “Over the next four ownership changes at The Times Leader — from McClatchy to Rich Connor to Goldman Sachs to current owner Civitas/Versa Capital — we focused on strong local reporting and building relationships with the advertisers. It worked, and we grew as the Times Leader shrank.”
The goal is to be the last paper standing.
If that ends up being The Citizens’ Voice, the strikers — and those who have followed them — will have pulled off one of the biggest upsets in media history.
“I don’t think the day we started the Voice that we thought 40 years down the road we’d still be here,” Corbett said. “Every morning when I get up and get the paper I am proud of it. It was something we accomplished and nobody gave us a chance. Nobody.”
A new Voice
Larry Holeva, executive editor of The Citizens’ Voice, said there’s one main reason paper has managed to pull ahead of The Times Leader.
“We got something that they don’t have. That’s stability,” Holeva said.
The repeated change in ownership and leadership at The Times Leader gave The Citizens’ Voice an opportunity, said Holeva, who has headed The Citizens’ Voice since December 2004.
“At the same time, we were doing something here. I like to think we were shifting gears,” Holeva said. “We were really looking not to just survive, but to win. For a long period of time. The Voice had to be survivors and they were really good at surviving.”
During Holeva’s tenure, The Citizens’ Voice has adopted an emphasis on breaking news online, striving to be first, but accurate.
Holeva thinks the current staff maintains the work ethic of the founders of the paper. Each day, they try to pay homage to the strikers by putting out the best product possible, he said.
“It’s monumental success story. If you just think back to the courage the people had to do that in the beginning and what they went up against all those years, to really keep the Voice for the people of the Wyoming Valley,” Holeva said. “That’s what this paper was, and still is, the voice of the people here.”