On the rise of media unions

And why they're necessary

The last few years have seen a spike of newsrooms organizing unions to address the inequities between management and staff, as the declining state of the media business has taken a much larger toll on workers than on executives.

It’s always been interesting watching from the sidelines (I’ve never been part of a media union) how media companies approach union efforts. 

(Image via NWLaborPress.org)

Journalism, the cliches tell us, gives voice to those that don’t have one; speak truth to power; comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable; but when newsrooms, often made up of low- and mid-level staffers, try to organize to make their workplaces better, management views it as an attack on the company. It’s one of those cases that highlights how convoluted our thinking is, but also how our industry is built on a foundation of lies. 

Directives of committing acts of journalism, often putting sources’ livelihoods in danger, are fine when it’s about another company or industry. We need to tell the world of the problems inside Amazon and Facebook and Google and Walmart; how these companies treat their employees. But stand up to create a healthy workplace for us? Absolutely not. 

Layoffs, diversity issues, pay disparity; there are so many inequities in media and if the best recourse is to form a union to make sure that those at the top, who benefit from those at the bottom, can’t wield their power against staff, I am not sure why a newsroom wouldn’t want to organize.

Talking to CNN last week, former Gawker staffer and current labor reporter at In These Times, Hamilton Nolan gave as good a response as I’ve heard:

"I think a lot of people perceive media as this white-collar profession, but the reality of working in a lot of media jobs was really low salaries, bad benefits, very little job stability. One thing that the unions have done across the industry in many, many places is just to put in place a basic safety net for workers."

One other component: having a newsroom union can be a great recruiting tool for talent. An outlet’s perception goes beyond ~the brand~ but in how staffers talk about the company. This is a small industry; and a gossipy one. We talk to each other. We know the good companies and the bad ones. Media companies need to recognize that their biggest boosters aren’t their PR departments, but their workers.

On Monday, two newsrooms’ unions, TIME and The New Yorker, took to Twitter to highlight their efforts in getting management to have good-faith discussions about establishing fairness. These threads are interesting documents of the moment, but also of how those with power view those without.

TIME’s union said that after a year-and-a-half of bargaining, management “is doubling down to keep us from achieving a fair contract. They’ve withdrawn proposals, tried to set arbitrary rules for bargaining, and returned to issues we settled months ago. They are wasting time.”

The New Yorker union, which, along with other Conde Nast titles, has been at odds with company management for quite some time. 

Yesterday, the magazine tweeted out that it wants a better wage proposal using union members testimonials to highlight the pay problems at the outlet.

Newsroom unions are having a moment. As CNN’s Kerry Flynn noted:

Unions have had a long history at newspapers, but the more recent efforts inspired by Gawker's success launched a new era. Workers have sought to address a lack of basic benefits as well concerns about what seemed like constant editorial pivots.

Nolan, who is also on the council for Writers Guild of America, East, which represents HuffPost, Vice, Slate and other news organizations, argued that unions "should be a basic feature of every workplace" — regardless of whether the company is in a state of crisis or not — but added that they have been crucial to the media industry given its instability from the economic cycles and evolving technology.

"What has driven the unionization in media is just the power of the idea itself," Nolan said. "People that work in this industry recognize that this is clearly a good idea: to unionize and to be able to bargain collectively against your employers."

In 2015, Nolan wrote why Gawker decided to organize, and makes an argument that seems, I don’t know, good?

Though our company is relatively well run, pays relatively competitive salaries, and treats its employees relatively well, there are still certain issues that many employees would like to see addressed. We would like to ensure everyone receives a salary that is fair for their time at the company and the work they do. We would like to ensure that things like pay and raises are set in a fair, transparent, and unbiased way. We would like to have some basic mechanism for giving employees a voice in the decisions that affect all of us here.

Again, I don’t know why management would not view fairness and transparency as a good thing. On Hearst’s Union page, one of the answers in its FAQ highlights why organizing makes sense, even if you’re not unhappy at your work. 

After Gawker stuck its foot in the wedge of the union door, others bull-rushed through: BuzzFeed, Vice, HuffPost, Salon, Bustle Digital Media, Vox, NBC News Digital, Hearst, Wired, Gimlet Media, among others. And almost to a T, they all got significant pushback from management. 

The New York Times, reporting on BuzzFeed’s union efforts in 2019:

During a meeting with staff in 2015, BuzzFeed’s chief executive, Jonah Peretti, expressed his opposition to a union at the company he co-founded.

“I don’t think a union is right for BuzzFeed,” Mr. Peretti said. He argued that it would put workers and managers at odds and lead to rigid job definitions that would make the company less flexible than Google or Facebook, neither of which has a union.

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2017, Gary Weiss cuts to the heart of the matter:

Or to put it more cynically, young news employees are bearing the brunt of their employers’ incompetence, and they’re wearying of it. 

“This is a whole generation of young people who were basically sold a lie,” says Nastaran Mohit, the NewsGuild organizer who worked with Law360 staffers. “They were going to good schools and get good jobs. Then they enter the job market and they see how grim the prospects are, especially for journalists.” 

Staff turnover is so high that “by the time they’re 25 they’ve worked for two or three different news sites. The precarity they face, the constant precarity…. you constantly see digital news sites sprout up and shed 50 jobs, a hundred jobs.”

And in 2019, Harvard Business Review lays out the blueprint on how to organize a newsroom:

Finally, it’s worth noting that unionized media workers posses the communication skills and followings necessary to constitute a mobile corps of labor ambassadors. As such, unionizing them may lead the way to the much wider unionization of creative professionals, millennials, lower-paid workers, and industrial workers threatened by technology, skill obsolescence, and shifting customer preferences.

Going deep in 2019, Nieman Reports puts some historical context into the rise of the digital media union shop:

Unionization of journalists caught fire soon after the Newspaper Guild was founded in 1933. Many reporters and copy editors had grown fed up with low pay, layoffs, and earning far less than typesetters and pressmen. One challenge the Newspaper Guild’s organizers faced was convincing journalists that unions weren’t just for the blue-collar proletariat. In city after city, the Newspaper Guild won raises, overtime pay, and a guarantee that layoffs could only be for just cause, and it ultimately won health coverage and pensions for most Guild members. At some papers, the journalists also won a guarantee that powerful publishers—they often tilted well to the right—could not tilt the newsroom’s journalism. To be sure, unions at some newspapers were weak and not terribly effective at winning raises or better conditions.

Last year, as the invisible hand of the pandemic was choking media revenue models, we saw the difference between a union shop and a non-union one, as it seemed every Friday was a bloodletting.

But in the carnage, there was a little daylight. Take Variety’s report on Vox Media’s decisions in mid-April:

The WGA East-affiliated Vox Media Union, which reached a collective bargaining agreement with the company last year for 350-plus staffers, said in a statement that it disagreed with management’s decision to furlough employees “especially after hundreds of us told the company we were willing to take wider pay cuts to save all jobs” but added that Vox Media agreed to reduce the number of furloughs. The union also said it won guarantees from Vox Media for no layoffs, no additional furloughs, and no additional pay cuts through July 31, along with “enhanced severance for any layoffs that occur in August-December.”

Talking to The American Prospect, associate professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, Nicole Cohen summed up why media unions are necessary:

“I think certainly there’s a shared consciousness, a shared solidarity among a whole range of workers loosely categorized as white-collar workers, in tech and art and media work. Having strong unions in media is really vital for having any kind of political change, let alone for democracy.”

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John Lennon, “Working Class Hero”

Some interesting links:

For yet another media man doing media man things:

  • Slate Suspends Podcast Host After Debate Over Racial Slur (NYT)

For media revolving door:

  • Sports Illustrated Publisher Maven Media Hires Rob Barrett as President (Variety)

For please for the love of God let’s get rid of the Sunday political talk shows:

  • The Sunday shows are hopelessly broken (TNR)

For a future of media:

  • Al Jazeera to launch rightwing media platform targeting US conservatives (The Guardian)

  • Facebook restores links to Australia (BBC)

For media criticism:

  • How Fox News hosts started attacking COVID-19 vaccines after Biden took over the rollout from Trump (Insider)

  • With Trump gone, CNN pulls the plug on White House press briefings (Press Run)