Federal agency files $1.34M lien over Charleston Newspapers' pension plan

By Chris Dickerson | Jul 23, 2015

CHARLESTON – A federal agency has filed $1.34 million in liens against Charleston Newspapers and other entities regarding the company’s pension plans.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation filed the liens June 29 in Kanawha Circuit Court against Charleston Newspapers Holding LP, Charleston Newspapers, Daily Gazette Publishing Co., Daily Gazette Holding Co., Ridgeview Express Delivery, Abry/Charleston Inc. and G-M Properties.

Those entities have the legal responsibility to fund the pension plans for employees, according to PBGC spokesman Marc Hopkins. The entities missed making pension contributions of more than a million dollars, and Hopkins said they have missed payments over the past few years. The last missed payment was in January.

"With the situation in the relation with Charleston Newspapers, it’s not unique what we did with them,” Hopkins said. “Any plan sponsor that misses contributions of a million dollars or more, we place liens against them so pension obligations can be fulfilled."

Hopkins said PBGC works similar to the FDIC with banks, insures almost all private pension plans across the country. Right now, PBGC insures about 22,000 plans. Hopkins said there are 200 of them with liens against them right now, including Charleston Newspapers.

Now, Hopkins said PBGC will work with the entities to help them get caught up on payments.

“We will bring people to the table to talk to us,” he said. “We’ll talk to them in the weeks and months ahead about getting caught up. That’s the ultimate goal. We want these plans to be funded so members of the plans don’t have to worry about their benefits.”

News of the missed pension plan payments comes days after the Charleston Gazette and Charleston Daily Mail announced a merger to become the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

The merger was announced on Sunday, five years to the day after a federal antitrust settlement was reached regarding Charleston’s two daily newspapers.

On July 19, 2010, U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver approved an antitrust settlement to regulate both newspapers.

"The Charleston Daily Mail shall continue to be published as a daily newspaper," he wrote then.

Copenhaver wanted proof that Charleston Newspapers, the operating partnership between the papers, didn’t discriminate against the Daily Mail, which then was an afternoon newspaper with a smaller circulation than the morning Gazette. He sought that proof of compliance for five years. That five years expired Sunday, and staffers were gathered that afternoon and told of the merger.

Then, according to reports, newsroom staffers at both papers were gathered and told of the newsroom merger. They papers had shared the same press and business operations since forming a joint operating agreement in 1958. The Sunday Gazette-Mail has been published for decades, and the Saturday Gazette-Mail has been around for nearly a decade. Last year, the papers began printing combined holiday editions.

After new Charleston Gazette publisher Susan Chilton Shumate told the staffers of the merger, they had just hours to put together Monday’s paper, according to wvfocus.com.

“The action itself is not something I am surprised about,” one employee told wvfocus.com. “I’m surprised with the way they went about it, but then, I don’t know all the circumstances.”

Employees who weren’t at the meeting received an email announcing the change around 5 p.m. Sunday.

“Beginning today, the two newspapers are combining newsroom functions with the exception of editorial page content,” the email said. “Welcome to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.”

Like the announcement in Monday morning’s newspaper, the email said the new Gazette-Mail would retain two independent editorial pages – one conservative and the other liberal.

“This is not one paper gobbling up the other,” the announcement said. “It is a combination of the two newsroom staffs working in cooperation to produce the most comprehensive news product in West Virginia.”

“The email they sent made it sound like the Charleston Gazette-Mail would be bigger and better than before … But I don’t know that the situation was handled well enough to make me feel totally confident about that,” the anonymous employee told wvfocus.com. “Just based on the way that they’ve handled it so far, I don’t think that they will tell us any of their plans before executing them at any point in this transition.”

At a July 20 meeting, newsroom staffers were told they’d have to reapply for their jobs, and that the new Gazette-Mail newsroom would employ about 65. At the time of the merger, the Gazette employed 45 workers and the Daily Mail 33.

Copenhaver’s 2010 final judgement was in an antitrust case brought by the U.S. Justice Department against the Daily Gazette Company and MediaNews Group.

Although the Daily Mail’s and Gazette’s joint business operations were known as “Charleston Newspapers,” the Daily Gazette Company owned the Gazette and MediaNews owned the Daily Mail. Both companies had 50 percent stakes in Charleston Newspapers until 2004 when MediaNews sold out to the Daily Gazette Company for a reported $55 million.

In 2007, the Justice Department filed a suit alleging the Daily Gazette Company “planned to deliberately transform a financially healthy and stable Daily Mail into a failing newspaper and close it.”

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