PITTSBURGH — Last year, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette chose Martin Luther King’s Birthday as the publication date for an editorial headlined “Reason as Racism.” On Monday, a little more than a year after that piece drew national criticism, The Post-Gazette named its editorial page director, Keith C. Burris, as its newsroom leader.
The appointment of Mr. Burris as executive editor came at a stormy time at the Pittsburgh daily.
Relations between the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh and the paper’s owner, Block Communications, have been tense. Things came to a head on the night of Feb. 9, when John R. Block, the publisher, subjected staff members to a tirade in the newsroom. According to several journalists who were present, Mr. Block threatened employees’ jobs as his young daughter, whom he had brought with him, sobbed and begged him to stop. Block Communications has disputed the journalists’ version of events.
Mr. Burris, who wrote the “Reason as Racism” editorial, according to Mr. Block, was in charge of the editorial pages at The Post-Gazette and its sibling paper, The Toledo Blade, at the time of his appointment. He will continue to serve as editorial page editor of both publications even as he assumes the new role.
In an email to employees on Monday, Mr. Burris asked for the support of the staff. “I ask you to recognize my pledge and I beseech you to work with me — WORK WITH ME — to uphold the hallowed legacy of The Post-Gazette and to march forward into a future worthy of its past,” he wrote. “It will not be easy. These are perilous times for journalism, in so many ways, and we owe the Block family a tremendous debt for sustaining us and believing in our mission.”
The “Reason as Racism” editorial drew backlash from the local community, former and current newsroom employees and even members of the Block family.
“We do not condone the sentiments expressed in the piece,” members of the Block family wrote in a letter to The Post-Gazette editor published three days after the editorial ran. “We do not condone the whitewashing of racism, nor the normalization of it. We cannot remain silent and by implication approve of the use of The Post-Gazette to provide cover for racism.”
Mr. Burris also had a hand in the firing of a longtime editorial cartoonist, Rob Rogers, in June, after Mr. Rogers complained that his cartoons critical of President Trump had been censored.
The appointment of Mr. Burris was effective “immediately,” according to a notice posted in the newsroom on Monday. He replaced David Shribman, who retired as executive editor at the end of 2018 after a 15-year run. Mr. Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner, earned plaudits last year for The Post-Gazette’s coverage of the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. For the edition published the day after the attack, he wrote a front-page headline in Hebrew quoting the first words of the Jewish mourner’s prayer.
The new top editor faces the challenge of uniting a divided newsroom. After Mr. Block’s recent tirade, the guild has filed a formal grievance against the publisher and asked that he be barred from The Post-Gazette building.
Michael A. Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, said the union had no comment on the appointment of Mr. Burris. “However,” he said, “you have our previous reaction to his racist editorial and the firing of Rob Rogers.” In both instances, the guild voiced its strong opposition.
Nolan Rosenkrans, president of the Newspaper Guild of Toledo, said that Mr. Burris’s appointment was the latest move in an attempt by Block Communications to consolidate its executive positions.
According to the notice of Mr. Burris’s expanded role, he will work closely with Kurt Franck, who serves as the Blade’s executive vice president, executive editor, president and general manager.
Mr. Burris and a spokesman for Block Communications did not respond to several requests for comment.