The Media Today

Condé Nast, BuzzFeed, and the ever-growing media labor movement

March 30, 2022
Photo by Anthony Behar/Sipa USA via AP Images

Yesterday, staffers at Condé Nast announced that they are forming a company-wide union with the NewsGuild of New York, covering more than five hundred staffers across a dozen titles. Staffers at The New Yorker, Wired, Pitchfork, and Ars Technica are not covered as they are unionized already; bosses recognized those units voluntarily, but would not initially commit to doing the same with the company-wide push, pledging only to “learn more” via “productive and thoughtful conversations.” The new union is demanding better pay, conditions, and job security, as well as greater commitments to diversity and equity, with organizers claiming that around 80 percent of eligible staffers already support the effort. Christina Chaey, a senior editor at Bon Appétit, told the Washington Post’s Elahe Izadi that “the era of ‘a million girls would kill for that job’ is quickly coming to a close,” a reference to The Devil Wears Prada, which was written by a former assistant to the Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Jaime Archer, a Web producer at Vanity Fair, said that the impetus behind the new union “comes down to prestige doesn’t pay the bills.”

Also yesterday, across town, unionized staffers at BuzzFeed News voted to authorize a strike. They formed their union three years ago following massive layoffs; bosses recognized it a few months later, but they have still not agreed on a new contract, a fact that already led staffers to walk off the job last year as BuzzFeed prepared to become a public company. Last week, Jonah Peretti, the CEO, announced that BuzzFeed would be slashing its news division via voluntary buyouts—targeted at the teams covering investigations, science, politics, and inequality—and pursuing profitability by prioritizing “the areas of coverage our audience connects with the most”; the union responded with outrage, accusing management of “illegal union-busting tactics,” pledging to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, and writing in a statement that bosses are “still learning a fundamental truth about their newsroom: now that we have our union, the era of them making unilateral decisions that affect our work and our lives is over.” Following yesterday’s vote—which will allow staffers to halt work, even if they do not intend to do so right away—Addy Baird, the chair of the union, told the Daily Beast that her colleagues are “fucking pissed” at the moment and called Peretti, who did not show up at the bargaining table yesterday, “a coward.” (BuzzFeed said that “the sooner the union agrees to a package that allows BuzzFeed News to be financially sustainable, the faster it can get to solid ground.”)

ICYMI: CNN’s ambitious, uncertain leap into streaming

The two developments illuminated different steps in the unionization process and broader fight for media workers’ rights—efforts that have become increasingly common across the media landscape in recent years, born of the poor financial conditions of the industry and accelerated by the pandemic and fight against racism in newsrooms, among other factors. “It’s pretty much ongoing nonstop,” Hamilton Nolan—a journalist for CJR and others who spearheaded the Gawker union drive, which set a precedent for other digital media shops, in 2015—told Steven Greenhouse for Nieman Reports recently. “There was a time when in every conversation about organizing, people felt they were taking a big leap and they were really going out on a limb, but that has been mitigated to a large degree.” Last year, a slate of candidates standing for the council of the Writers Guild of America, East, argued that so many digital-media properties had organized with it recently as to sap resources from the union’s initial focus on screenwriters. A rival slate that included Nolan insisted that organizing digital media should remain a key objective. Nolan’s entire slate was elected.

The media-unionization trend has not been limited to digital shops, of course; indeed, since I last wrote at length about it last year, outlets—big and small, old and relatively new, thriving and not so much—have moved along in the process. New unions at The Atlantic and Politico were voluntarily recognized; bosses at MSNBC and Washingtonian refused to do likewise with new unions in their newsrooms, though employees at both subsequently won votes supervised by the NLRB. US-based journalists with the Financial Times moved to unionize in a bid to secure the sort of input already enjoyed by their colleagues in the UK. Numerous Gannett newspapers moved to unionize amid reports of aggressive pushback from management. Unionized staffers at New York reached agreement on a new contract; following a byline strike, unionized staffers at the Buffalo News did likewise. The union for Wirecutter, a product-review site owned by the New York Times, staged a strike over the busy Thanksgiving shopping season before it, too, reached a deal. In a particularly contentious process, Times management also refused to recognize a union formed by tech workers at the company, forcing it to an eventual vote that saw the union ratified by a wide margin.

Even against this busy backdrop, yesterday’s news stands out. Even though several of its individual publications were already unionized, the company-wide push at Condé Nast is a significant development—due to the sheer number of employees involved, Condé’s iconic status, and, in particular, the recent trajectory of the company. The union’s diversity and equity demands follow a longer-term reckoning over “a culture that many employees described as a difficult place for people of color to succeed and content that has in the past elevated a Eurocentric standard of beauty,” as the Times has put it, while its complaints about unsustainable and inequitable pay and conditions come as the company attempts to pivot toward a digital—and profitable—future. Industry pivots, of course, often leave workers behind—even though, as the new union noted yesterday, “being on the cutting edge of media” should mean prioritizing workers. Condé, the union said, “describes itself as ‘a media company for the future.’ And the future of media is unions.”

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Staffers at BuzzFeed News have endured numerous pivots—and cuts—over the years. The present moment feels borderline existential, even if it’s important, as staffers have noted, not to talk about how great BuzzFeed’s news output was when the company’s remaining journalists are still fighting every day to sustain it. (Full disclosure: I interned at BuzzFeed in 2017.) The union is at the vanguard of that fight, with its particularly high stakes. Having a union is not a guarantee of fair treatment, as we’ve so often seen. But it’s certainly a key bulwark. BuzzFeed News now cannot legally implement its latest planned cuts without reaching an agreement with workers first. With their talk of voluntary buyouts, bosses are “framing this as benevolent that they’re not laying everyone off,” Baird said, “when in fact they’re literally just not breaking the law.”

Last summer, unionized staffers at The New Yorker, who had long been bargaining for a contract without reaching an agreement, threatened to go on strike. One evening, many of them demonstrated outside Wintour’s home in Manhattan; Wintour does not oversee The New Yorker, but Natalie Meade, a union leader, said that she serves as a “proxy” for Condé Nast, noting to the Times that “what’s happening at The New Yorker is not necessarily happening in a vacuum.” Protesters chanted “Bosses wear Prada, workers get nada” and held up signs in The New Yorker’s iconic font, one of which read, “You can’t eat prestige.” The following week, the union, along with those at Pitchfork and Ars Technica, reached a deal with management.

Below, more media labor and business news:

  • “They don’t deserve us”: For The Nation, Rachel Sanders, a former BuzzFeed News staffer and union representative, makes the case that the company’s treatment of its journalists makes it undeserving of their excellent work. “Management has always seemed outraged and mystified by the very existence of the News union, unable to accept that some of their employees are no longer cooperative board game pieces they can shuffle around at will. And as far as I’m aware, they’ve been equally disdainful toward the union at HuffPost, which BuzzFeed acquired in November 2020 before promptly laying off a third of its staff,” Sanders writes. “But whether they understand this new reality or not, they’re going to have to negotiate this time.”
  • Lee way: In recent months, Lee Enterprises, a newspaper chain, has been fending off a hostile takeover bid by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund. Alden is notorious for making deep cuts at its media properties, leading many media observers to cheer for Lee’s cause, but Sara Fischer and Kerry Flynn report, for Axios, that Lee itself has recently laid off at least eight staffers across at least five of its newsrooms. “Journalists at Lee-owned papers across the US say that at this point, they don’t know whether staying independent or a hedge fund takeover is worse,” Fischer and Flynn write. One former editor said that “if Alden is a cancer on journalism, Lee is covid, mrsa, and sars.”
  • On the subject of Axios: The site has acquired the SF Minute, a newsletter based in San Francisco, as it continues to expand its local-news coverage nationally. The SF Minute will rebrand as Axios San Francisco, but Nick Bastone, its founder and editor, is staying on as a coauthor. “Running a newsletter is like running a small business. It’s exciting, but there’s tons of behind the scenes stuff (from marketing to bookkeeping) that takes up valuable time,” Bastone writes. “Why it matters: Joining Axios will let me focus on writing and reporting and making the newsletter the best it can be.”

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: BuzzFeed and the demands of being public

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.