Joining the ranks

What’s driving the new wave of unionization sweeping digital newsrooms?

Photographs by William Mebane

After he graduated from Yale in 2007, Russell Brandom, now 33 years old, got a job at the men’s lifestyle email newsletter UrbanDaddy. He worked there for five years, by which time, he tells me, he was “going a little crazy.” He had grown bored writing about standing desks, tailored jackets, and men’s grooming, and realized he was doing nothing to “burnish my credentials as a journalist.” But the journalism job market being what it was in 2012, he’d found it difficult getting hired to a position for which he was more enthusiastic. 

So, at age 27, Brandom took an internship at BuzzFeed. When it ended six months later, he was told there were no open positions at the company, but his clips helped him, later that year, secure a job offer from The Verge, Vox Media’s technology site, as a reporter making $45,000 a year. He mainly covered tech news, but had some freedom to write quirkier stories, such as one about a bot that bought things at random from Amazon, and another on rubber fingertips that could fool fingerprint readers on smartphones. There was no formal process for pay increases, so each year, he would go to his supervisor, show what he’d done, and ask for a raise.

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By June 2017, Brandom was earning $60,000 and on the cusp of a promotion to senior reporter (which would boost his pay to $70,000) when a coworker DM’ed about a secret meeting about Vox unionizing at the headquarters of the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE), on Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan. Brandom was skeptical. Like most of his colleagues, he’d never been a member of a union. He’d watched Gawker, which had just filed for bankruptcy after losing a $140 million privacy and defamation case against Hulk Hogan, and other digital media outlets unionize with the WGAE over recent years, and he thought, Well, they went through all this process and what did they really get? 

He went to the meeting anyway. Sitting around a table, WGAE staff introduced themselves, and then invited the Vox employees to do the same and explain why they wanted to unionize. Instead of vague or ideological reasons, Brandom heard “very concrete and specific and serious concerns they want to address.”

 

Esther Gim (left) and Kelsey Sutton, who has since left, work from Mic’s World Trade Center office. Photograph by William Mebane.

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Just a few years earlier, it might have been hard to imagine such a meeting taking place. In a January 2015 piece called “Why Internet Journalists Don’t Organize,” Washington Post business reporter Lydia DePillis wrote that a “generation of younger workers less familiar with unions who’ve built personal brands that they can transfer to other media companies” weren’t interested in making lasting relationships with employers—or the unions associated with them. “Web publications are seen as springboards to something better, so writers are willing to put in long hours for low pay until they’re poached by some other place, which is the only way to get a raise, anyway.”

The week after the Vox unionization meeting, HuffPost laid off 39 employees, which caught Brandom’s attention. The job cuts were part of a wave of layoffs that hit digital media companies during the short-lived “pivot to video.” By the end of 2017, Time Inc. had dismissed 300 people, 60 were laid off at Vice, 25 people were let go the next month at Mic, 50 jobs were cut at Mashable, and there were 100 layoffs each at BuzzFeed and Condé Nast. Few of those workplaces were unionized at the time, but HuffPost was represented by the WGAE, which put out a statement: “The unit members who have been laid off will receive a collectively-bargained severance package that includes two months’ salary plus a week of pay for each year of service and continued health benefits (medical, prescription, drug, dental and vision) for that entire period.” Brandom decided, Okay, we’re doing this.

 

The NewsGuild of New York, part of the Communication Workers of America, is the oldest and most established union for journalists in the country. Founded as the Newspaper Guild in 1933, it organized at places where it was common for journalists’ careers to span multiple decades: The New York Times, Thomson Reuters, Time Inc., The Washington Post. Though it adopted the new name of the NewsGuild in 2015 to reflect the increasingly paperless nature of its industry, the union at that point had made little progress toward organizing digital news outlets. The first Web publication to organize with the union was Truthout, a nonprofit progressive news site that had itself sought out the union in 2009. The Daily Beast, owned by internet conglomerate IAC, was inherited by the NewsGuild in 2011 when it merged with Newsweek, whose staff had been represented by the union since it was owned by the Washington Post Co. When Newsweek was sold to IBT Media in 2013, the Daily Beast staff got their own separate contract with the NewsGuild. Some attempts to unionize digital publications had been unsuccessful: Efforts at Vice and Salon were fruitless and Mike Elk, a labor reporter at Politico, set out to organize his newsroom in late 2014 but had trouble getting his colleagues to show up to meetings—before leaving the company by the summer of 2015.

According to labor jurisdiction conventions at that time, the NewsGuild would have been the default union for a digital media company like Gawker Media, where Hamilton Nolan had been a writer since 2008 covering labor and the aftereffects of the recession. Occasionally, someone would ask in the comments on his stories, “Why isn’t Gawker unionized?” To the best of his knowledge, no union had ever reached out to Gawker Media employees, he says, “despite our having been a highly visible independent media company for a decade.” And besides, Nolan tells me, “I thought it was more for Walmart workers, people in worse situations than us. We weren’t really being exploited.”

Split into two branches, East and West, the Writers Guild of America has since 1951 represented writers primarily in entertainment fields: film, television, and radio. Prior to 2007, the WGA had no contract provisions for digitally distributed work, but sensing the increasing importance of online platforms, that year, during contract talks with the major film and TV studios, the WGA’s 12,000 member writers went out on a high-profile, 14-week strike over residuals and payment for the distribution of work online. The deal that emerged changed the stakes for labor in “new media,” by giving the Guild real jurisdiction over digital media for the first time. Ursula Lawrence, who is now a comedy writer in Los Angeles, was hired by the WGAE in 2009 as part of its effort to organize digital companies. “We were all sort of wrapping our minds around what digital content was even going to include,” she says. Vice Media, which had raised more than $500 million from investors that included entertainment companies like 20th Century Fox, Time Warner, Disney, and A&E Networks, looked like a promising target.

So when Lawrence contacted Nolan in early 2015, it wasn’t to talk about Gawker but Vice Media, whose working conditions Nolan had been writing about. Lawrence had not found much enthusiasm for unionizing among the Vice employees she had contacted so far because of fears, she says, of management retaliation. Trying a different tactic, the WGAE hired a corporate research firm to make a report on Vice’s finances and employment and then planned to leak the findings to Nolan, whose coverage they thought might help their cause. At one point during a meeting over drinks, Nolan asked Lawrence, “We’re a media company, why don’t you try to organize us?”

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The WGAE’s Gawker campaign was loud and bumpy from the beginning and broke with many union conventions. For one, there were concerns about treading into the NewsGuild’s turf. Publicly, both unions downplay any rivalry, but over the course of my reporting for this article, staff from both organizations asked me several times about my contacts with the other. Lawrence says there were some discussions among WGAE staff “about whether or not we should be organizing something that may have previously fallen under another guild’s jurisdiction.”

A typical campaign often begins with the union identifying a workplace ripe for organizing, and then approaching the “target,” sometimes through a neutral third party, such as a former colleague or friend, who brokers a meeting with a worker. An organizing committee is formed and the union begins gathering information about the workplace. All of this is usually done in secret, and during this period, the union rep relies heavily on the enthusiasm and skill of the pro-union worker with whom they made the first contact. 

Then the members of the drive who are in closest contact with the union begin having one-on-one conversations with their co-workers. The union’s organizer keeps track of staff sentiment on unionizing—who’s a “yes,” who’s wavering, who’s a “no”—generally with the goal of reaching a majority of employees, at which point the union might notify management and the campaign goes public.

There was no such stealth period for Gawker Media. Justin Molito, the WGAE’s director of organizing, says, “There weren’t a series of quiet meetings where trusted colleagues spoke about the union.” The day after an early meeting with the WGAE in April 2015, Nolan wrote about the campaign on Gawker. A union election was announced in another Gawker post, under which employees began discussing how they planned to vote in the comments—a situation that Lawrence remembers as “a nightmare” for the union organizers.

Kevin Draper, then a writer for Deadspin, posted, “I am an avid proponent of unions, a leftist, and am perpetually distrustful of those in power—especially those that hold sway over my own employment, yet on June 3rd, I am going to vote against Gawker Media editorial staffers unionizing. That is how fucked up this entire process, from start to apparent finish, has been.” Leslie Horn, then a writer for Gizmodo, commented, “Nothing about the road to organization has been organized in the least, so I’m not confident in the WGA’s abilities to help us unionize.” Some readers chimed in: “Sounds like what you really want is a competent HR department,” wrote one who went by Towelie.

 

Newsroom unionizing has become a way to ask what it means to be a journalist in the 21st century.

 

Still, 75 percent of staff voted “yes” in the election. It was, in some ways, a kind of coming of age of digital media, a sign that the freewheeling, improvisatory, quasi-amateur nature of young digital media companies had begun to wear thin. The upstart companies, run for the past decade on shoestring budgets that cut corners or found ways to reduce the costs of human labor by upending the established ways older news media organizations operate, had themselves grown into mature businesses.

The same day Gawker voted to join the WGAE, Lawrence says she got three phone calls from workers at other digital media outlets—one of them DNAinfo, which two years later was shut down by its billionaire founder, Joe Ricketts, one week after its staff voted to unionize with the WGAE. Within a few months, the WGAE had campaigns running at Vice as well as a number of other digital newsrooms: ThinkProgress, Salon, HuffPost, MTV News, Slate, The Intercept, and Vox Media. Meanwhile, in July 2015 the NewsGuild received a $500,000 grant from its parent union to organize digital media companies, and promptly announced the unionization of The Guardian US, followed by Al Jazeera America (though it was shut down soon after); Mic; two previously non-union newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune; and The New Republic. Jack Smith IV, a writer at Mic who recently led that drive, tells me that organizing a workplace “is like converting people to a religion.”

 

Perhaps one reason the Writers Guild catalyzed the recent surge of newsroom unionization is that employers of journalists in the 21st century look a lot less like the industrial behemoths of 20th century publishing and more like Hollywood’s evanescent web of production companies and studios, which routinely form and disband whenever movies are greenlit or TV shows are canceled. Who gets hired and fired in show business is often governed by personal relationships, and the largely transient entertainment workers represented by the WGA and other guilds in Hollywood look to their unions to ensure that amidst industry turbulence certain employment terms are uniform from workplace to workplace.

For staffers at young digital media companies, the thing that once was thought to be a barrier to unionizing—their tendency to hop from employer to employer—has turned into a prime motivation to organize. One recently unionized employee tells me her last job was at an organization that no longer exists and she doesn’t expect to stay at her current company for long, either. Still, she says, “I want a 9-to-5 job that I earn a decent salary from, [to] be able to save money, leave work when I’m not working, and not be working all the time.” Nastaran Mohit, an organizer at the NewsGuild, says, “There’s a perception that at legacy publications, The New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, AP”—all longtime NewsGuild members—“there’s an inherent stability there. Looking at previously non-union digital publications, I think younger journalists recognize the instability and precarity of the industry, and they see the value of coming together to secure a seat at the table.” As the WGAE’s Molito puts it, “There hasn’t been a campaign we’ve done in the last two years in digital media that didn’t include somebody who had recently organized at a previous workplace. They know very well they may be working at another company in two weeks.”

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When the WGAE’s union drive at Vox Media was announced on November 17, 2017, management initially had no stance, and did not know how to respond. That uncertainty motivated organizers to fill the void but, similar to what happened at Gawker, they knew it would be in public. Megan McRobert, who was hired by the WGAE in 2015 to work on the wave of new campaigns, says she had been trained to keep information about employees’ voting and conversion to the union completely confidential. But at the drives she’s worked on, including Vox and HuffPost, “they just didn’t accept that. They were like, Look, this is our workplace. We want to have access to the information.”

Soon after the Vox unionization was announced, a senior reporter at Vox.com, German Lopez, tweeted, “I am against #VoxUnion. I know writers who want a union as protection for laziness, which will make a lot of things worse (including for writers). I am generally fine with and even supportive of unions. Just not this one.” He received more than 2,000 replies, sparking a media-wide discussion about the motivations for unionization, what union protection entails, and a lot of GIFs.

On December 13, Melissa Bell, publisher of Vox Media, and the member of management who served as point of contact for the union, sent an email to employees raising the possibility of a federal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election over voluntary recognition by the company once a majority of employees had signed union membership cards. An often lengthy and legally cumbersome process, NLRB elections work by submitting the union petition to the federal agency, which then conducts a vote. Bell’s note outraged some pro-union employees, who interpreted it as management opposition to their campaign. (Bell tells me that at the time she sent her email, “We were considering all the options; it’s not that we were opposed to voluntary recognition.”)

 

Program Director Ramona Luo and Senior Producer Bethany O’Grady of Mic’s Brand Newsroom. Photograph by William Mebane.

Less than a month after his first anti-union tweet, Lopez tweeted again, this time to say he’d signed a union card. “A supermajority of Vox’s eligible staff (70+ percent) is asking for this, and management is stonewalling it. That led me to reconsider just how worker-friendly the company is.” It was a shift many Vox staff went through: They were beginning to see their interests as employees as separate from those of management. As generally satisfied with workplace conditions as Vox workers are, one staffer tells me, “everything we have could change. We’ve seen it happen.” The NewsGuild’s Mohit explains it more prosaically: “You tend to realize your boss is not your friend.”

A union, many hope, will be a bulwark against an ineffective HR department, or at least a reason for management to show a commitment to resolution. The drive at Vice discovered large salary disparities between workers doing similar jobs, particularly between men and women, and the company is now being sued for salary discrimination by a former female employee. Recent reporting on sexual harassment, especially in the media industry, has shown the fecklessness of the standard HR department, and in many cases its tendency to serve management rather than workers or complainants. Last November, soon after the drive at Vox was announced publicly, Editorial Director Lockhart Steele was fired following a Medium post by a former employee that referred to sexual harassment. Vox brought in an outside law firm to investigate. Brandom says the incident made him realize “that was the time you’d really need someone there whose job it is to represent employee needs. This is the time you need a union.”

In January, Vox Media recognized the WGAE to represent about 400 of its employees. In our conversations, Bell appears to be moved by the experience. At times she is very careful in her choice of words, clearly worried something she might say could cause a rift between management and staff. “It meant a lot to me that, publicly, the unions talked about how much they love this company, and how much they want it to continue to be a place they love to work,” Bell says. “I think they want to help make journalism work and,” she pauses, “we need to figure that out.”

 

Newsroom unionizing has become a way to ask what it means to be a journalist in the 21st century. Ought journalists hold the institutions that employ them to the same standards of behavior as the organizations they cover? Does failing to do so compromise the work of an individual journalist? Can a reporter cover sexual harassment if one’s manager has also been accused? What, if anything, separates a journalist from the public actions of their employer?

When Nolan started at Gawker in 2008, it was a scrappy, work-from-home-or-bring-your-own-laptop operation, as well as the sort of glamorous digital startup that inspired magazine features on how it represented “the current ethos of young New York,” as New York magazine once put it. The company’s growth into a profitable business competing with established media outlets was as haphazard as it was rapid. As the recession bore down, a New York Department of Labor inquiry into the company’s employment practices triggered an overhaul of pay and benefits. Gawker’s radical openness had, by that point, come into very public questioning. When Gawker.com finally closed in 2016, after Univision declined to acquire the site in its purchase of Gawker Media, Nolan had published more posts—14,286—than any other Gawker author. But in his nine years with the site, he’d seen his job change. Nolan says part of his motivation to bring in a union was to “lock in” the things he liked about his work, including the less tangible asset of editorial freedom. Eventually, he says, he began to see collective bargaining as “a basic feature of the workplace, something everybody should have.”

The speed at which unionization has proliferated might look precipitate, but the nature of workplaces tends to change faster than both the laws that govern them and the business models that shape them. As they live through the ever-shifting existential crisis within the business, young journalists are evaluating the conditions in which they work, and doing it in public so as to show their relationship to that work. It’s clear, at least, that they see themselves as workers.

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Correction: A previous version of this piece stated that Mike Elk left Politico to become a freelance reporter. It also previously described Ursula Lawrence as a sitcom writer rather than a comedy writer. It has also been updated to change the characterization of Melissa Bell’s communication to Vox staff regarding the possibility of an NLRB election.

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Anna Heyward has been published by The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vogue, and Bookforum. She was a 2017 Fellow of the CUNY School of Journalism’s Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program and works on The New Yorker’s editorial staff.