The Post-Gazette’s controversial editorial director just took over the newsroom

Keith Burris was at the center of the firing of cartoonist Rob Rogers and penned the “Reason as Racism” editorial.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette office on the North Shore.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette office on the North Shore.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Updated: 7:29 p.m.

The editorial director of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — who penned a controversial Martin Luther King Jr. Day editorial and was at the center of the firing of cartoonist Rob Rogers — has been named the paper’s new executive editor.

Keith Burris replaces David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner who left the post late last year.

The announcement was posted in the PG newsroom and emailed to staff Monday afternoon, according the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents some 150 newsroom employees.

The notice says effective immediately, Burris, the longtime editorial director of the Post-Gazette‘s sister paper in Toledo, Ohio, would be executive editor of the paper here. Burris, who was brought on to direct the Post-Gazette’s opinion page in March of last year, will continue to direct the merged opinion pages of both papers, the notice reads.

Neither Burris nor Post-Gazette management immediately responded to requests for comment Monday.

In an email sent to employees Monday, Burris wrote, “We must de-escalate. We must heal. We must build again. I need your help. I ask for your help.”

Last week, newsroom employees said Publisher John Robinson “JR” Block “went berserk” in the newsroom and yelled — among other things — that he had fired Shribman because he wasn’t loyal to the Block family.

Shribman announced in December that he was “stepping down” after 16 years at the paper. In an article announcing the departure, Block said of Shribman, “I hired him in 2002 and worked with him for 16 years. We’ve had some wonderful times together.”

Video of last week’s tirade also showed Block screaming and striking a sign on an office bulletin board belonging to the newsroom union. The sign reads “Shame on the Blocks!” — a dig at the family-run ownership company’s refusal to cover a hike in health care costs amid ongoing contract negotiations with the Guild. According to an eyewitness, Block blamed Shribman for the sign and threatened to fire union leaders. Another witness described Block as visibly intoxicated.

It is against this backdrop, and with the fallout from the incident still reverberating, that Burris was named executive editor on Monday.

Burris’ tenure at the Post-Gazette, while short, has already been a rocky one defined as much by his steering of the paper’s opinion page to the right as the pushback that process has engendered.

An editorial penned by Burris and published in the Post-Gazette on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2018 prompted scathing criticism from readers and PG employees who dubbed it a defense or absolving of less virulent forms of racism. The editorial, titled “Reason as racism: An immigration debate gets derailed,” compared racism to McCarthyism and included the line, “We need to confine the word ‘racist’ to people like Bull Connor and Dylann Roof.”

Burris was named editorial director of the Post-Gazette by JR Block weeks later.

Burris has remained a divisive figure in the months since, with the high-profile firing of cartoonist Rob Rogers, who said he was fired because his work had been critical of President Donald Trump, and the subsequent hiring of a conservative cartoonist whose work has been called anti-woman by his critics.

Burris also takes over a newsroom marked by controversy of late, with a bitter and prolonged contract negotiation between the Guild and the paper’s ownership company continuing, and the aforementioned tirade by Block prompting national media coverage, a labor complaint and a request that Block be barred from the building.

Michael A. Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, said the Guild had no comment on Burris’ appointment. The Guild has previously been vocal in its criticism of Burris’ role in the firing of Rob Rogers and the publication of the “Reason as Racism” editorial.

Nolan Rosenkrans, president of the Toledo Newspaper Guild, which represents newsroom employees at the PG’s sister paper, The Toledo Blade, responded to a tweet about Burris’ appointment as executive editor in Pittsburgh by saying, “They really want to see how far they can push us, don’t they?”

He added:

An announcement article published in the Post-Gazette when Burris was brought on as editorial director last year says he’s been a journalist for more than 30 years and written for publications including Commonweal magazine and The New York Times. The article also cites his work for outlets including the Hartford CourantWinston-Salem Journal and Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn., where he served as editorial page editor for 21 years.

Burris holds a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, where his primary focus was political philosophy, his bio states. He has taught at a number of American colleges and universities, including Washington & Jefferson College and Penn State.

In Burris’ email sent to employees soon after his promotion was announced internally on Monday, he wrote:

… 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.

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.

But ‘the way we’ve always done it’ isn’t good enough any more. We will have to be creative, do more with less, and work both smarter and harder. Change is the law of life. It is certainly the new normal in newspapering. We must embrace change, adapt constantly, and overcome.