Business of News

An unlikely big player in digital media: unions

June 21, 2017
Image via Pexels.

The axe fell at HuffPost the other day. The news site laid off dozens of staffers, in what has became a painful, disruptive—and depressingly familiar—ritual of online journalism. In recent months, layoffs have hit digital media particularly hard, as the limits of online advertising have become clear.

But the HuffPost cuts came with a twist: 39 of the laid-off staffers were represented by the Writers Guild of America East, meaning they were covered by a union contract. As a result, the discharged workers—one-fifth of the 200 WGAE members at HuffPost—have been promised a package that includes severance pay and continued health benefits.

HuffPost isn’t an anomaly, an island of union solidarity in the go-it-alone world of New York journalism. Over the past two years, online newsrooms have organized at a pace that would have made the Newspaper Guild’s legendary co-founder, Heywood Broun, beam with pride. “Organizing is the hip new thing to do,” says Mike Elk, who was a labor writer at Politico, which he unsuccessfully sought to organize, and now edits a newsletter that tracks labor activism in the south.

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News unions are back. They never really went away, of course, but for the first time in memory they are proactive rather than on the defensive. They are strong on promoting diversity and editorial independence, and often provide impressive raises, but tend to skimp on traditional worker protections—overtime pay and even just-cause firing—because they aren’t seen as that important to the new generation of newspeople.

Organizing is the hip new thing to do.”

Seniority in layoffs tends to go by the wayside. It did at HuffPost. Its three-year contract, ratified in January 2017, did not require that layoffs take place in reverse order of seniority, a traditional union demand that protects employees from bosses targeting higher-paid workers during downsizings. Not surprisingly, the ranks of the discharged in the recent layoff included longtime, presumably better-paid staffers—including the reporter who won HuffPost’s only Pulitzer Prize.

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The staffs that have opted for union representation since mid-2015, mostly with the WGAE, are a long roster of largely new-media outfits: Gawker, Fusion, and The Root, Salon, Vice, MTV News, ThinkProgress, The Guardian US, Jacobin, The Intercept, Thrillist and, most recently, Slate and the newly merged DNAInfo/Gothamist. HuffPost recognized the WGAE in early 2016. At Law360, a union drive by the NewsGuild (the renamed Newspaper Guild) was spurred by outrage over noncompete agreements staffers were required to sign, which forced one staffer out of a new job at Reuters.  In just the past few days, the staff of the Washington-based online news site Raw Story petitioned the owners for voluntary recognition of the NewsGuild.



This sudden spurt of union activity is a surprise, given the beleaguered reputation of newspaper unions, which have seen their ranks plummet as employment has fallen. Staffers at the Village Voice, represented by a UAW local, are fighting hard against management demands for cutbacks and concessions, and have launched a crowdfunding campaign in the event the newspaper’s employers are forced to strike.

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“Young people realize how volatile the field of journalism is, and I think they have a desire to be more protected,” says Grant Glickson, who last year was elected president of the New York NewsGuild local. “A lot of these places try to work them to death, they’re not respecting the overtime laws. They recognize the value of organizing.”

In a sense, the new generation of union activists is giving their bosses an intense course in Management 101. “People have the same sort of issues,” says Hamilton Nolan, who played a pivotal role in Gawker’s organizing. They “want fair pay, they want transparency in pay, they want a system of raises and promotions that’s rational, they want diversity, workplace communication.” Those kinds of things are “the basic building blocks of normal companies that a lot of places in our industry lacked, because it was such a young industry.” Even after beginning to record serious revenues, that process of becoming “normal companies” never really materialized. “They hadn’t really made that transition to being real companies, still sort of run in a sort of wacky, slapdash way,” says Nolan.

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.”

The old paradigm of tired print-media unions and apathetic, even anti-union staffs was still holding fast in January 2015, when The Washington Post published an article that described the grim prospects for online newsroom organizing. Under the headline “Why Internet Journalists Don’t Organize,” the story listed all the familiar reasons why the non-union status quo was holding firm. Among them were the Guild’s weaknesses after years of newspaper closings and “a shift in identity, with a generation of younger workers less familiar with unions who’ve built personal brands that they can transfer to other media companies.”

It was as if The Post article had thrown down a gauntlet, because it swiftly became obsolete. Younger workers do work hard to build their personal brands. But there is a growing recognition that building a Twitter following won’t put bread on the table, or alleviate the 24/7 demands of workplaces in which journalists are expected to be “on call” even when off-duty.

The first online newsroom to go union was Gawker, then reeling under an ultimately lethal legal assault by wrestler Hulk Hogan. Nolan, a veteran of the Gawker staff now at Gizmodo, says he was chatting with a WGAE organizer about unionizing efforts at Vice, an online organ he had written about in the past. “During the course of our conversation, it was like ‘Why not try organizing us?’” Nolan recalls. The organizer set up a meeting at the WGAE headquarters on Hudson Street in Manhattan. Invitations were sent out on Facebook.

He had no idea of the kind of turnout he’d get. In his effort to organize Politico for the NewsGuild a few months earlier, Mike Elk rarely got more than four or five people to show up at meetings. For the Gawker meeting, about 40 people stopped by. And unlike Law360 this was not a restless, overworked staff. “Most people really liked working at Gawker,” Nolan says. “It was a pretty happy workplace, but there were still issues that people had.” In contrast to the secrecy that usually shrouds union organizing drives, Gawker staffers openly debated possible union affiliation, beginning with an article Nolan wrote on Gawker a day after the meeting, “Why We’ve Decided to Organize.”

It was a canny move consistent with Gawker’s philosophy of “radical transparency,” breathing oxygen into the organizing drive. A vote was held by secret ballot in early June, and in the days preceding it there was a lively debate among the staff—held in public, in the comment section of a brief article that was published on May 28. The vote went overwhelmingly for the union.

The Writers Guild’s success at Gawker opened the floodgates. The Gawker unionizing “made people realize it was not so impossible,” says Elk, who runs a Southern labor publication called Payday Report. Salon quickly followed. The Guardian US chose to affiliate with the News Media Guild, a NewsGuild local and successor to the old Wire Service Guild, but most of the other newsrooms went with the WGAE.

Though overall union membership has plummeted to just 10.7 percent of the work force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as compared with 20 percent when the BLS started its survey in 1983, people in their twenties tend to be more pro-union than their older peers. A Pew Research Center survey in 2015 found that 55 percent of people aged 18 to 29 have a favorable view of unions, as compared to 46 percent for people 30 and over. Labor unions’ reputation as stodgy defenders of the status quo—epitomized in the 1970s by union construction workers battling anti-war students—is fast fading into history, as are the devastating newspaper strikes of years past.

The union campaigns are also aided by heightened employee political awareness. “Millennials haven’t lived in a world in which income inequality hasn’t been a problem. They see unions as a way to deal with that,” says Megan McRobert, who organizes online newsrooms for the WGAE. The union’s president, Lowell Peterson, notes that “we have a workforce that is very thoughtful about environmentalism and feminism, about things like Black Lives Matter, and since the election the concept of resistance.”

Historically, news unions have received the least-hostile reception at liberal newspapers, such as the pre-Murdoch New York Post, which in 1935 was the first New York newspaper to sign a Newspaper Guild contract. Mohit says that while she’s gotten interest from across the political spectrum, conservative outlets “are the ones that usually don’t go anywhere. You can imagine that if you’re an employee working at a conservative news site, looking to improve your working conditions, you would assume that none of your colleagues want to join that effort.”  The ground is considerably more fertile at The Nation, which has had NewsGuild representation for years, and at Jacobin, a socialist publication that was recently organized by the NewsGuild. “They were very happy with working conditions but were doing it to codify and secure working conditions and make a statement,” she says.

The preponderance of more liberal news organs among the organized has hit the radar screen of the right. Breitbart News noted tartly in April that “liberal digital media companies are threatened by the policies they support.” Their very survival, Breitbart suggested, is in jeopardy as a result. That’s debatable, but there’s no question that the whiff of a union can bring out the capitalist in the most progressive website owner.

After a card check—a gauge of union sentiment under federal labor law—found that Law360 employees overwhelmingly favored Guild representation, management hired an anti-union consultant and a law firm, and called employees to hour-long meetings in which they were lectured on the perils of union membership. The union-bashing sessions were on company time, irritating reporters worried about hitting their daily story quotas—themselves part of a heavy workload that was one of their principal complaints. “They threw the book at us,” recalls Taylor Arluck, a Law360 union activist. There was fear of retaliation, “that they would break us.”

Nolan cites “anti-union campaigns” at other newsrooms  and said that contract talks at the liberal icon HuffPost “weren’t easy. They had to go through a lot of rigamarole to get there. It wasn’t like these super-liberal news outlets were rolling out the red carpet.” He notes that Salon, a shining beacon of liberal sentiment, has yet to negotiate a contract despite being one of the first outfits to recognize WGAE.

One of the most aggressive anti-union stances was taken by BuzzFeed. At a company meeting in August 2015, founder and CEO Jonah Peretti told the staff that he didn’t think unionization would be “the right idea” for his employees. Unions, he said, belong on the “assembly line” but not among the people who work for him. Unionized employees, he asserted, frequently have an “adversarial” relationship with management, and often delineate job functions in a manner that could inhibit a “flexible and dynamic company.” The BuzzFeed CEO’s comments were published on the website, but unlike Gawker there was no online debate among the staff, and BuzzFeed remains non-union, at least for the moment.



The reaction was similarly cool when the WGAE won overwhelming support in a card check at the New York-focused websites Gothamist and DNAInfo in April 2017.  DNAInfo, whose staff has been depleted by layoffs, acquired Gothamist in March, and both are now owned by Joe Ricketts, founder and former CEO of TD Ameritrade.

After the card check succeeded, chief operating officer Dan Swarz emailed the staff, reminding them that the site had lost money since DNA launched in 2009: DNAInfo “has been supported by a single investor, Joe Ricketts,” investing “literally tens of millions of dollars of his own money,” mostly for pay and benefits, and “has never taken a dime out of the business.”

It went on like that, casting Ricketts in the role of selfless benefactor, and if staffers didn’t quite get the message, they were bopped over the head with the following: “Would a union be the final straw that caused the business to be closed? I don’t know.”

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In fact, the nightmare scenario conjured up by Swarz’s email seems unrealistic when compared with the actual contracts obtained by the WGAE for online news outfits. Most, in keeping with their members’ wishes in bargaining surveys, don’t have clauses requiring that firings be for just cause, a standard feature of NewsGuild contracts since the fedora-hat era. They don’t require time-and-a-half pay for overtime by reporters and editors, allowing comp time instead. Overtime pay is sought by the NewsGuild, and just-cause firings are a must, given the union’s long experience with supervisors overworking employees and firing reporters and editors without just cause—indeed, sometimes in the past for political reasons, such as with the journos who were let go for invoking the Fifth Amendment during the McCarthy era. As exemplified by HuffPost’s contract, WGAE online journalism bargaining agreements also don’t require that layoffs proceed in last-in, first-out order of seniority—which Peterson notes is viewed by members as not a high priority in newsrooms where most staffers tend to have about the same amount of time on the job. In our interview, which was before the HuffPost layoffs, he told me that the WGAE has fought hard against efforts to gut seniority in the past, and that the issue is being monitored. “Stay tuned,” he said.

The WGAE’s brand of flexibility is winning with the rank and file, at least so far. One factor in the competition between the two unions is that the 84-year-old NewsGuild has been on the ropes for decades. In New York, the Guild was forced out of the Daily News and New York Post in the 1990s—though it was never formally decertified from the Daily News, Glickson points out.  He’s not sure about the Post. Employees at The New York Times, who are said to comprise about 40 percent of the New York NewsGuild membership, have been working without a contract for over a year and are in the midst of tough bargaining. Glickson and his people also have their hands full at Reuters, where it has been two and a half years without a contract, and management initially insisting on zero raises, since raised to 1% a year set aside from a collective “merit pool.”

The mood, Mohit says, is shifting away from the bad old days of defensiveness and toward a more aggressive stance.  Snagging Law360 was a major coup for the NewsGuild, though contract negotiations have not yet yielded a contract. (Law360 declined a request for an interview. A spokesman said in an email that “Law360 and the representatives of the editorial union have had several productive and collaborative discussions over the past few months, and we are optimistic about the process. Beyond that, we can’t comment on ongoing collective bargaining negotiations.”)

Organizers for both unions are continuing to scope out potential “hot shops” ripe for organizing.

Organizers for both unions are continuing to scope out potential “hot shops” ripe for organizing. They are mum on specifics, of course, but the talk among union activists is that BuzzFeed, Politico, and Bloomberg are the outlets unions are most anxious to organize. The latter, noted for its dawn-to-dusk work ethic, is the great white whale of non-union news operations, with a massive staff that has been kept in place by generous pay and discretionary bonuses. Bloomberg’s BNA subsidiary has NewsGuild representation, but the mother ship has been resistant for decades. Mohit keeps a copy of the “Bloomberg Way” corporate bible in her office, much like an Allied general with a photo of Erwin Rommel on the wall.

In an effort to win over the new generation of news employees, NewsGuild is offering periodic networking events and digital video training classes. The WGAE has show-biz glam on its side, representing screenwriters as well as broadcasters and TV writers, such as the staff of PBS’s Frontline. Writers from The Daily Show have been brought in to talk to newsroom staffers about the advantages of union membership and were “happy to do it,” says Peterson. The NewsGuild has the old-media prestige factor. Arluck says that the NewsGuild’s representation of the “gold standard” of journalism like the Times nudged him in that direction.

The layoffs at HuffPost, by not protecting staff seniority, show there is a lot to be said for the NewsGuild’s more orthodox approach. By shedding traditional protections, WGAE members are working against their own interests—if indeed they plan to remain in some of these jobs for the long-term. Just as they’re educating their inexperienced managers, these new union activists are also educating themselves about the hard facts of labor relations. And with more layoffs and cutbacks to come, they had better learn fast.

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Gary Weiss is a New York-based investigative journalist and author, reachable via Twitter @gary_weiss.