Credit: Jason Wyatt Frederick

Wrapports LLC, the parent company of the Sun-Times and the Pioneer Press suburban weeklies (and the Reader), is surely proud of Aggrego, the hyperlocal-news-gathering operation that is “building the future of community media” by tapping into a huge market: 18,000 communities that represent 13,000 local media outlets and $135 billion local ad dollars.

These are the impressive figures flaunted on the Aggrego website. However, Aggrego is starting small: at the moment it operates in only 43 of those 18,000 nationwide communities—the Chicago suburbs served by the Pioneer Press papers. The relationship between Aggrego and those weeklies is not unlike the ill-fated one between Journatic and the Tribune Media Group—the former being an aggregator that provided content to the latter’s TribLocal suburban properties. Like the Journatic-Trib relationship, which ended after Journatic was discovered to be fabricating bylines and lifting quotes, the Aggrego-Pioneer one is also contentious—though for a different reason. Pioneer Press is a union shop, and the Chicago Newspaper Guild recently filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board accusing Wrapports of trying to “undermine” the guild by “unilaterally” turning guild duties over to Aggrego’s nonunion cub reporters.

Wrapports representatives have told the guild that these are duties its members should be glad to get rid of: producing routine police-blotter stories, community calendars—that sort of thing. Emancipated from the mindless grunt work that readers expect to find in community newspapers, the guild’s veteran reporters can focus on the enterprise journalism their years of experience have honed them for.

But the guild is not persuaded. It’s not in the nature of labor unions to be beguiled by management’s assurances—not when labor and management are on good terms, and certainly not in this case, when the guild and Sun-Times Media have been negotiating a new contract for more than a year and have almost nothing to show for it. “We’re at the point where we’ve lost all patience,” says David Roeder, a Sun-Times business writer and guild negotiator. He says that at different times the guild has thought “we were starting to make a little headway in all our main priorities— job security, wages, benefits—but always there was something that knocked us off course.” The disruptive closing of Sun-Times Media’s suburban offices was one of those things (suburban editors now work downtown, and reporters file from the field), and the layoff of all its photographers another. Then there was what happened to Roeder: last March he was told his guild-covered job no long existed, and if he wanted to continue working it would be for the nonunion Grid, a glossy weekly that Wrapports launched to provide the Sun-Times with business news. The idea was that Grid could attract new advertising and expand into other cities. But it lasted four months as a weekly (it’s now a monthly), and Roeder lasted three months as a Grid staffer. The guild filed a complaint with the NLRB, and Roeder went back to the Sun-Times. “It was a rather swift outcome,” he observes.

“They try stuff,” Chicago Newspaper Guild executive director Craig Rosenbaum says of Wrapports and Sun-Times Media, “and if it doesn’t work they try something else.” That sounds not only admirable but necessary if Sun-Times Media, which Wrapports rescued from bankruptcy, is to be put back on its feet. But it leaves the guild wondering if management is going through the motions of negotiating while making big decisions in which the guild isn’t a consideration.

“Disingenuous” is how Rosenbaum describes his adversaries. I’ve asked Wrapports’s management to comment on the negotiations—and on Aggrego—but they declined.

Earlier this year, when Aggrego reporters started introducing themselves to Pioneer Press news sources, the guild’s reaction was alarm. A series of July e-mails provided by the guild show a Pioneer Press reporter trying to get to the bottom of things:

The reporter (the guild blanked out his name) wrote his editor: “Somebody who claims to be from Pioneer Press has called several of my contacts in the last two weeks. At first I thought maybe it was a stringer. The village administrator told me someone called about a few things. . . . Just now the executive director of the chamber said she got a call from some other guy asking about random stuff. . . . Not sure what any of this means but I thought I’d let you know.”

The editor replied: “My understanding is the Wrapports folks . . . are moving into the Niles Township area. I believe they’ll be focusing on school features, profiles and such.”

The reporter started following one of the Aggrego callers on Twitter. “Turns out he JUST graduated college,” the reporter told Kathy Routliffe, a Pioneer Press reporter and guild negotiator. “He must be one of those $9 an hour guys who will eventually take the union jobs over. Can he be a non-Guild eligible Wrapports employee and still publicly call himself a Pioneer person?” A couple of hours later, the reporter wrote Routliffe again: “Some of his tweets even mention that he’s doing a STORY. That’s more than calendar items and collecting submitted photos. I’m definitely concerned about job security.”

A few days later the same Pioneer Press reporter sent his editor the LinkedIn page of another Aggrego reporter and commented, “This person is now getting copies of my police reports and is CCed on some of my police correspondences.”

The editor responded, “Blotter is one of the things Aggrego has been working on for a while. Again, lightening your load for more news-story type work.”

Still not reassured, the Pioneer Press reporter sent Routliffe a copy of a message that yet another Aggrego reporter had sent community leaders in Mundelein. “Hello all, I’m a Community News Producer for the Mundelein Review (as well as Libertyville and Vernon Hills) and I’m here to let you know that we want your content! Anything you have, pictures, news, events, recipes, vintage cars, crafts, exotic tigers, anything! We’re in the process of launching a new community inclusive, hyper-local, content-driven digital publication. The Mundelein site . . . is up and running and we’re working out the kinks as we speak.”

What might be most disconcerting to the guild—and impossible to explain away as mere load-lightening—is that Aggrego has been given responsibility for maintaining Pioneer‘s websites. A few weeks ago, Aggrego CEO Tim Landon told Poynter there would be one “community news manager” for every three publications, and “80 to 90 percent of their job is slotting content [into those papers] and making sure it plays well on mobile, social, whatever.”

Aggregro-written stories—offered as products of the “Wrapports News Service”—are now commonplace on Pioneer Press websites. I contacted the “community news producer” from the Mundelein Review and asked if he’d speak to me. He passed along my request to his superior, John Puterbaugh, in an e-mail slugged “Guy from Reader wants to do Aggrego piece. I’ve said nothing.” Puterbaugh wrote and thanked me for my interest but let me know all media inquiries should be sent to Landon.

But that door had already slammed shut, after I’d sent Aggrego questions via a Wrapports spokesperson. The first thing I’d asked for was comment on the guild’s NLRB charge that Wrapports was turning guild duties over to Aggrego. Then I’d asked about Aggrego’s jurisdictional boundaries—which stories it could cover and which must be left to the Pioneer Press staff. Were Aggrego’s “community news producers” allowed to say they were from Pioneer Press? (I’d been told they absolutely could not say they were from the Sun-Times.) And why did Aggrego control the Pioneer websites?

The spokesperson made inquiries and wrote back that nobody from Wrapports or Aggrego would talk to me.

Another thing I wanted to ask about was the Aggrego website itself. It’s odd. Click on “team” and you find yourself looking at a grid of faces, four to each row. The top row begins with Wrapports chairman Michael Ferro; to his right is Wrapports CEO Tim Knight, and to Knight’s right is Landon. The grid continues on for 11 rows—but there are no names. Is the idea that people are interchangeable—all that matters is their million-dollar smiles? Or is the site a work in progress?

Click on “contact” and you’ll find Wrapports’s location embedded in a Google map of central Chicago. Aggrego lets us know it’s “headquartered in the heart of Chicago’s tech startup scene in River North.”

This might get us to the nub of something. Guild complaints about the Aggrego rookies poaching on Pioneer Press turf focus on their youth and inexperience; but young journalists get into the business however they can and Aggrego is one of the few open doors. To judge from what I’ve learned online about a few of its staffers, Aggrego hasn’t been hiring nincompoops: Puterbaugh, for example, edited Northern Illinois University’s Northern Star at the time of the 2008 massacre on campus and was later named one of the country’s hundred most promising student journalists.

In other words, what separates the Aggrego kids from the Pioneer Press veterans is simply that they’re younger, nonunion, and—in the eyes of the veterans—stealthily threatening their jobs. And, furthermore, they’re doing their work on behalf of a company that would rather be known as a digital start-up than a chain of newspapers. What ultimately divides the guild from Wrapports management isn’t just contractual—it’s cultural.