Casper Star-Tribune And Its Owner Abruptly Lays Off Award-Winning Journalist, Editor
The Casper Star-Tribune, through its corporate owner Lee Enterprises, laid off features editor and award-winning journalist Elise Schmelzer on Wednesday night, according to a news release from the Casper News Guild on Thursday.
The newsroom recently voted to organize a union and affiliate with the Communications Workers of America.
Schmelzer was not part of the organizing effort because she is management, according to the news release.
The News Guild disputes Publisher Dale Bohren's explanation that the reason for the dismissal was financial, and instead believes it might be an effort to discourage newsroom staff of the Missoula (Mont.) Independent from voting for a union. That vote is scheduled for Friday.
Bohren did not immediately return a request for comment.
K2 Radio will update this story if we hear anything more.
This is the entire new release from the Casper News Guild:
Thursday, April 5, 2018, Casper, Wyo. — The Casper News Guild was informed Thursday night that Elise Schmelzer, the Casper Star-Tribune’s features editor and the 2017 Wyoming Young Journalist of the Year, was laid off via a late-night phone call from an out-of-state human resources representation.
This is not the standard means of dismissing Star-Tribune employees for financial reasons and blindsided the entire newsroom. The News Guild condemns this appalling and short-sighted move in the strongest possible terms. Elise is one of the state and region’s best journalists whose dedicated work has touched every corner of this state.
Publisher Dale Bohren told members of the News Guild that the decision was “financial.” That statement does not appear to be credible. During a staff meeting several weeks ago, Bohren and other Lee Enterprises officials attempted to discourage us from forming a union in part by telling us that there were no layoffs planned despite recent cuts at other newspapers in the company. This followed earlier meetings in which the newsroom staff was given concrete assurances that there were no layoffs on the horizon. Indeed, Bohren said Lee was investing in the paper, and several hours before Elise was laid off, it was announced that the Star-Tribune would be hiring to replace a departing reporter.
If the reasons behind her dismissal are truly financial, those promises appear to be either calculated lies told to discourage unionization, or they suggest incompetence in the financial management of the newspaper. Unfortunately, it appears to the News Guild that Lee Enterprise’s dismissal of Elise, who was recently named “Young Journalist of the Year” by the Wyoming Press Association, was in fact punitive retaliation for exercising our federally protected right to form a union. Though she was not involved in the organizing effort – and indeed did not learn about our petition for an election until the rest of management was notified – Elise was initially hired as a reporter alongside several members of the union and she remains a good friend to us all.
It has been five weeks since we voted to unionize. As an editor, Elise does not have the protections afforded to members of the union. The implications of removing Elise from this newsroom cannot be overstated. Her dedicated work is unique, invaluable and serves the public. She not only edits our revamped Arts and Culture section, but she continues to provide longform, deeply resonant journalism. Less than a week ago, she published a tremendous story illuminating domestic violence in rural Wyoming.
Her firing is a loss for the Star-Tribune. It is a loss for our readers, for the state, for the region and for the industry. It is unconscionable. No dedicated employee, especially one who has worked as hard as Elise, should receive a call at 9:30 p.m. to let them know their position will be eliminated.
We begin bargaining with Lee Enterprises on April 19. If the removal of Elise was an attempt to intimidate or demoralize the union or the newsroom at large, it has failed.
We will redouble our efforts to ensure that the dedicated journalists of this newsroom are protected. Throughout this process we have made clear that our goal was to improve the Star-Tribune and journalism in Wyoming by creating more stable jobs at the statewide newspaper. By taking steps that appear to be retaliatory in nature – and make no mistake that Elise’s dismissal will diminish the quality of journalism in the Cowboy State – Lee has unfortunately demonstrated what we feared all along: that company officials care more about generating high returns for their Wall Street shareholders than about covering the communities they claim to serve.
While Lee Enterprises officials may believe that taking punitive action against non-union members at the Star-Tribune will discourage employees across the company’s many newspapers from organizing, their apparently capricious actions in Casper serve only to highlight the need for staff to stand up for their rights.
Tomorrow, our brothers and sisters at the Missoula Independent will vote on whether to form a union in face of a concerted effort to stifle the move. We stand firmly alongside them.