The Media Today

The Miami Herald, The Appeal, and media unions’ ongoing fight

May 11, 2021

On Saturday, the newspaper publisher McClatchy tweeted a happy early Mother’s Day to all the moms in the company. “We are proud to support you with our new paid parental leave,” the tweet read. “While still in the process of reaching agreements with some of our guilds, we look forward to the opportunity for all of our new parents to enjoy this great new benefit!” On Sunday, one such guild—representing staffers at the Miami Herald and its sister title, El Nuevo Heraldpushed back: McClatchy, the guild said, not only denied paid leave to a new mom in its newsroom, but also rejected colleagues’ offer to donate her nearly fifteen hundred hours of their own accumulated sick leave and paid time off. “The reason?” the guild wrote. “McClatchy said it sees our colleague as a bargaining chip in contract negotiations—an attempt to divide and pressure us into accepting the company’s harmful proposals as we negotiate our first contract.” Herald staffers tweeted separately that a McClatchy lawyer had outlined that reasoning on a call. “Not inferred,” David Neal, a reporter, stressed. “Actually said.”

Unions and journalists from other publications posted messages of solidarity with the Herald guild, which continued yesterday to put its point across. Tony Hunter, McClatchy’s chairman and CEO, and Kristin Roberts, its senior vice president of news, joined a video call with various Herald staffers who had won a company award for their reporting; some of the staffers held up signs with slogans including “WINNERS offer paid parental leave” and “Babies are not bargaining chips!” Mary Ellen Klas, the Herald’s Capitol bureau chief who is co-chair of the guild and was on the call, told me afterward that McClatchy’s conduct has saddened her colleagues. “We are all professionals here. We are intimately aware of the difficult financial situation our industry faces. We are also watching the choices McClatchy is making,” Klas said. “None of us enjoy making our bosses feel uncomfortable in company meetings. But it’s time they stop using real lives as bargaining chips at the negotiating table. If an elected official we cover were doing this, it’d be a story.” (McClatchy did not provide comment by press time; we’ll update the online version of this newsletter if that changes.)

From the Existential Issue: The aesthetics of conspiracy

The fight at the Herald wasn’t the only news involving a McClatchy guild yesterday: staffers at the Kansas City Star, another of the company’s papers, announced their intention to unionize with the NewsGuild-CWA. “Our union wants fair wages and benefits, a newsroom that fosters and encourages professional growth, and one whose make-up is diverse and reflects the makeup of the company we serve,” the new guild said in a statement; it also demanded a “voice in the future direction of the company,” noting that Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund that took over McClatchy last year, pledged not to make cuts in year one, but has since made cuts. The Star guild called on McClatchy to recognize it voluntarily. McClatchy has yet to comment, but has recently agreed to recognize guilds at other titles, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in Texas; the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette, in South Carolina; and the Bellingham Herald, The Olympian, the News Tribune and the Tri-City Herald, in Washington state. (As Poynter’s Angela Fu has reported, McClatchy opposed the latter papers unionizing as a single unit, until the National Labor Relations Board sided with the papers.)

Recognition is only a precursor to the tricky business of negotiating a contract—but unions at some news organizations have recently had to fight to make even their first steps. Last week, journalists at the New York Daily News, which is owned by Tribune Publishing (and thus possibly, soon, by the cost-slashing hedge fund Alden Global Capital), and three Gannett-owned papers in New Jersey—the Bergen Record, the Daily Record, and the New Jersey Herald—won union elections at the NLRB with crushing majorities, after management withheld voluntary recognition. Then, yesterday, staffers at The Appeal, a nonprofit news site that covers criminal justice through a progressive lens, announced their intention to unionize. They pointed out, in a statement, that the site has a very high rate of staff turnover—thirty-eight people left in the past year, the majority of them women and/or people of color—and that those who remain have been subjected to frequent reorganizations, shifting targets, and even “demeaning treatment” by managers. “To justify all of this, management’s refrain has been that The Appeal is a ‘low democracy’ workplace,” the new union wrote. “It is our goal to create a high democracy workplace—one where the staff has a seat at the table.”

Management at The Appeal said yesterday that the site “supports unions” and is working toward recognizing its own—but the union countered that the actions of management “say otherwise.” Five minutes after staff submitted their recognition request, Rob Smith, the site’s executive director, sent round an email announcing that, as part of a forthcoming restructuring, management would be implementing “significant” layoffs, with editors, fact-checkers, and the entire audience team among those affected. (Smith said that he, too, would step back into a part-time role, and that other senior leaders will leave their full-time jobs and move into consultancy roles; The Appeal has been fiscally sponsored by Tides Advocacy, but is now seeking to become an independent nonprofit.) The announcement infuriated members of the new union, which alleged that managers knew that it was about to launch. The layoffs, it said, are thus “retaliatory, and illegal under the National Labor Relations Act.” Watch this space.

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Some newsrooms, meanwhile, are standing up to management without first having formed a union. Last Thursday, Cathy Merrill, the CEO of Washingtonian magazine, wrote, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, that she is “concerned about the unfortunately common office worker who wants to continue working at home and just go into the office on occasion” as the pandemic subsides in the US, and that managers will increasingly have “a strong incentive” to reclassify such staffers as contractors, or even to lay them off. Merill wrote in general terms, but her warnings—not to mention the op-ed’s initial title, “As a CEO, I want my employees to understand the risks of not returning to work in the office”—were interpreted as a direct threat by staffers at Washingtonian. On Friday, many of them tweeted identical messages communicating their “dismay” at Merrill’s “public threat to our livelihoods,” and urging her to understand “the risks of not valuing our labor”; the magazine’s editorial staff then called a publishing strike, and its website fell silent for the day. (Washingtonian plans to fully reopen its office by fall.) Merrill quickly wrote staffers a note insisting that their job statuses and benefits are secure, and said publicly that she was “sorry if the op-ed made it appear like anything else.” Still, as the Post’s Elahe Izadi has pointed out, in the absence of union protections, the publication strike was risky.

Given the dire financial state of the news industry, collective action in newsrooms has long been a growing trend. The pandemic—with its added economic, health, and mental-health pressures—has added fresh urgency, and, as the Washingtonian situation shows, the first, uncertain phase of post-pandemic life will confront workers with new challenges and questions about their rights and treatment. In many of those newsrooms that have them, unions will have to navigate the new normal while continuing to push management for recognition or a fair contract. Some provisions—paid family leave among them—should always have been normal.

Below, more on unions and newsrooms:

  • “Cruel and inappropriate”: Yesterday, the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani published a deep, behind-the-scenes look at what went wrong at The Appeal in the run-up to yesterday’s union announcement and layoffs. “Belittling women. Unfairly targeting nonwhite staffers. Blurring the lines between journalism and advocacy,” Tani wrote. “Those are just a few of the many accusations that have been percolating at nonprofit newsroom The Appeal, where internal infighting and employee discontent has been simmering under the surface for years.” Jessica Pishko, a former staffer, accused Smith, the executive director, of fostering “an environment in which it was not just acceptable but rewarded for people to be cruel and inappropriate.”
  • “Arbitrary and sexist”: Last week, Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen deconstructed Merrill’s Post op-ed, in particular its claim that “about twenty percent of every office job is outside one’s core responsibilities,” including “helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday—things that drive office culture.” Owen writes that “these nice office ‘extras’—the things you’ll rarely see listed in a journalism job description because historically nobody has considered them worth paying for—disproportionately fall to women and people of color,” and that that is “no coincidence.”
  • “Worth it”: Writing for Source, Michelle Baruchman, a writer and engagement editor at the Seattle Times, lays out how she worked with colleagues to unionize the digital side of the newsroom, ending “a decades-long, arbitrary divide” with “non-digital” employees who were already unionized. “Our fight is emblematic of the journalism industry itself,” Baruchman writes. “The Seattle Times digital staff is composed of more people of color, more women, and more young people than the newsroom as a whole. We lead the way in innovative, forward-thinking work, but our fragile status underscored that we were being treated inequitably for our contributions.”
  • “Passion projects”: For CJR’s new Existential Issue, Maya Binyam explored the plight of freelance media workers. “Freelance journalists, thrust into shared employment conditions, have banded together as a creative class but rarely as a working one,” Binyam writes. “As isolated instances, their predicaments are often chronicled through the bootstrapping rhetoric of diligent entrepreneurship. But as a collective set of problems belonging to a labor force that provides an increasingly significant share of the industry’s market surplus, they’re best described in blunt terms: exploitation.” (Binyam wrote for CJR’s previous magazine on unions and diversity; you can read that here.)

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Israeli police officers in Jerusalem raided the city’s Al-Aqsa mosque, and fired rubber bullets and stun grenades as Palestinian protesters threw stones; according to Al Jazeera, hundreds of Palestinians were wounded, including six journalists covering the raid, five of whom inhaled tear gas and one of whom was physically assaulted by an Israeli officer. As many US news organizations reported on “clashes” at Al-Aqsa, Discourse Blog’s Jack Mirkinson pushed back: “This is not a ‘clash’ between two equal sides,” he wrote. “This is a straightforward attack by Israel on Palestinians.” Later, Hamas militants in Gaza fired rockets into Jerusalem and other parts of Israel; Israel then carried out airstrikes on Gaza, killing nine children, Palestinian officials said.
  • Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo checked in with MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News to assess the direction of cable in the post-Trump era. “Conversations I had with a range of executives, producers, journalists, agents, and analysts painted a stark reality,” Pompeo writes—one source told him that “we’re unlikely to reach that peak of Trumpified interest in cable news again,” and that networks are figuring out “how do they quickly make that okay?” Rashida Jones, MSNBC’s president, told Pompeo that going forward, she’ll be looking at metrics that are “much broader than just how many people are watching us on TV.”
  • Vice Media Group is looking to go public by merging with a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, the Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin reports. The SPAC, 7GC & Co Holdings, “is preparing to pitch institutional investors on the deal beginning this week,” Mullin writes, but there is no guarantee that the deal will go through, or that “institutional investors will want to fund the proposed Vice Media transaction.”
  • Yesterday, Teen Vogue named Versha Sharma, a managing editor at NowThis, as its next editor in chief; she (sort of) succeeds Alexi McCammond, who was appointed to the role earlier this year but dropped out amid staff and reader concerns about her past tweets and general suitability for the job. Teen Vogue, Sharma said, “does a good job of showing how interconnected everything is, whether it’s fashion or politics or culture.”
  • For CJR, Ko Bragg explores the problem of journalists making “casting calls” for sources—or seeking subjects who fit a pre-defined, often specific “profile of suffering.” The practice, Laurie Bertram Roberts, a reproductive justice advocate in the Deep South, told Bragg, leads journalists to focus on “extremes,” and “miss a lot of the stuff in the middle, stories where multiple, conflicting things can be true at once.”
  • In 2012, Fenit Nirappil, a Washington Post reporter who was then a journalism student at Northwestern University, worked on stories about the murder conviction of a Chicago man named Ariel Gomez. Now Gomez is free and suing officials who were involved in his case; as part of their defense, the officials want to subpoena swathes of documents from Nirappil. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is pushing back.
  • Last month, Rick Santorum, a former Republican politician and CNN contributor, made remarks in which he erased Native American culture. For Canada’s National Observer, Julian Brave NoiseCat argues that CNN could now “help fight the pervasiveness of Santorum-style ignorance” by hiring a Native commentator: “Native contributions to American life are many. But we’ve never had one of our own as a regular on CNN.”
  • And after Medina Spirit won the Kentucky Derby, then failed a drug test, Bob Baffert, the horse’s trainer, went on Fox News to set the record straight. “This America is different and it was like a ‘cancel culture’ kind of a thing,” Baffert said. “So they’re reviewing it.” Churchill Downs, the racetrack that hosts the Derby, has suspended Baffert indefinitely.

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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.