The Vox Media Union walks out

In November 2017, staffers at Vox Media announced a union drive. In January 2018, the company recognized the Writers Guild of America East; three months later, management and union representatives entered talks over the terms of a union contract. More than a year later, an agreement still has not been reached on key matters related to pay, severance, and contractors’ rights. Last week, many Vox Media staffers walked off the job for an hour in protest. Yesterday—the last day scheduled for negotiations—more than 300 employees went on strike.

Vox.com, Recode, Eater, The Verge, Curbed, and SBNation were among the sites affected, though visitors to these sites saw no explanation of the walkout. Some stories were published, but hardly any were by staffers (Vox.com, for instance, had a couple posts under a generic “Vox staff” byline) and overall there were fewer new pieces than normal. Megan Farokhmanesh, of The Verge, and Stefanie Tuder and Jaya Saxena, of Eater, complained that new pieces they’d written were being published on their sites without their permission; Dylan Matthews, of Vox.com, told readers not to follow the latest Twitter links promoting his work. Some of their colleagues chimed in on social media with stories of life on a low salary.

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In an internal email that was first obtained by Bloomberg, Jim Bankoff, the CEO of Vox Media, stressed that he is “still committed to promptly resolving all outstanding issues” and “couldn’t be more serious about reaching a fair and highly competitive agreement quickly.” Bankoff also indicated, however, that he remains opposed to some of the Vox union’s demands: “While paying people a lot more than market wages sounds great on the surface, it’s not realistic or smart,” he wrote. That remark attracted skepticism on Twitter. Contributors and former Vox Media staffers offered messages of support, as did the Gizmodo Media Group union and guilds at The Washington Post and the LA Times. Andy Campbell wrote about the walkout for HuffPost. The first letter of each paragraph spelled “SOLIDARITY.”

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The Vox walkout comes amid a wave of unionization efforts at digital-native publications. As Anna Heyward wrote for CJR last year, these newsrooms were not originally considered to be fertile ground for union drives: their ethos was typically that of the nimble start-up drawing on a young, flexible, itinerant workforce. In the past few years, that has changed. In 2009, Truthout, a left-wing nonprofit news site, moved to organize, but it was the very public unionization process at Gawker, in 2015, that really catalyzed a movement. Staffers at sites including Vice, ThinkProgress, HuffPost, Thrillist, Mic, and The Intercept followed suit. To proponents, the benefits of unionization—improved severance conditions, clearer communication with management—have only become more apparent during the rash of layoffs in recent months.

It’s not yet clear whether the Vox Media staffers who walked out will be back at work today. According to the union’s Twitter account, its representatives bargained through the night; they plan to continue doing so “as long as it takes.” Whether they end up striking a deal or not, the walkout shows that the industry-wide push for unionization is only gaining in strength.

Below, more on Vox Media and unionization:

  • A change of heart: After the Vox union drive was announced, in 2017, German Lopez, a senior reporter at Vox.com, tweeted his opposition to the move. Some of his colleagues wanted to unionize “as protection for laziness,” he said. Lopez swiftly changed his mind. On Wednesday, he expressed his support for the contract efforts. “When I started, I made just $30,000 a year in DC (a pretty expensive city),” he tweeted. “I don’t want anyone at Vox Media to go through that again.”
  • Friends in high places: Earlier this week, hundreds of TV and film writers, including David Simon, creator of The Wire, and Beau Willimon, of House of Cards, called on Vox Media management to reach an agreement with staff. As Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson explains, Vox Media is expanding further into film and TV production. Yesterday, Bernie Sanders tweeted his solidarity with Vox staff.
  • Slow progress: This week, Sanders also expressed solidarity with staffers at BuzzFeed News, who voted to unionize earlier this year. On Monday, the BuzzFeed News union tweeted that management has “dragged its feet” on recognizing their efforts. “It’s now been 112 days since we went public,” the union said.
  • Nothing changes: It’s not just digital shops that are looking to unionize: legacy publications including The New Yorker, The Hartford Courant, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, and New York magazine have all seen recent movement. Last year, Steven Greenhouse explored the history of media unions for CJR. “Today’s journalists are streaming into unions for many of the same reasons as reporters in the 1930s: poor wages, long hours, skimpy benefits, and worries about layoffs,” he wrote.


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen reported that The Atlantic has greatly increased the number of women in leadership roles since Jeffrey Goldberg’s appointment as editor in chief, in 2016. But after her interview with Goldberg was published, many journalists ridiculed him for saying that, “It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males.” Goldberg seemed to suggest that Hazard Owen misquoted him—she did not, she said, though she argued that, thanks to Twitter, Goldberg’s words had been “somewhat misconstrued. He didn’t say the only people who *CAN* write these stories are men.”
  • Other news from the world of magazines: as of August, Entertainment Weekly will be released monthly—but its name will stay the same. According to The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr, J.D. Heyman will replace Henry Goldblatt as editor as part of a “reimagining.” Meanwhile, the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly reports that Esquire is in “chaos” following the departure of Jay Fielden, its former top editor. “The entire top of the masthead has either resigned or been let go,” and “many of the regular freelance writers were told their days were over this week,” Kelly writes.
  • Maryland law bars reporters from broadcasting recordings of court proceedings; the state is mandated to supply them on request. For CJR, Tiffany Stevens reports that journalists in the state are pushing back on the ban. Amelia McDonell-Parry, of the podcast Undisclosed, previously used voice actors to reenact recordings, but plans to play original audio going forward. In a letter, she told a court that “we know about their rule, we think it stinks, and we’re going to go ahead and violate it.”
  • In April, after a Missouri judge closed a competency hearing to the press, Joel Currier, a courts reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said he stood “with my ear glued to the door, live-tweeting details.” Recently, the court held Currier in contempt for doing so; Sarah Fenske reports, for the Riverfront Times, that he will now have to take part in “an educational program with court staff about issues relating to freedom of the press and the right of parties to litigation to have a fair trial.”
  • The Democratic National Committee has decided not to dedicate a 2020 presidential debate to the subject of climate change despite progressive groups and at least six candidates backing the idea, Politico’s Anthony Adragna reports. Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, who has built his candidacy around climate change, says the DNC threatened to blacklist him from future debates if he participates in any external climate debate.
  • In other climate news, Telemundo announced yesterday that it will use the term “climate emergency” instead of “climate change” in its coverage. This follows similar decisions at The Guardian and EFE, a Spanish news agency. The Guardian is a partner on a new project, led by CJR and The Nation, to improve climate coverage. There are more details here.
  • CJR’s Sam Thielman spoke with Raphael Satter, an Associated Press reporter who looks for the human angle in stories about cybersecurity and high-tech espionage. “I’d much rather write a story about how a woman was surprised by Russian hackers masquerading as Isis hackers while she was having a bubble bath in her Colorado bathtub than about an unsecured AWS server,” Satter says.
  • Two months ago, ProPublica reported that a tax bill before Congress would ban the Internal Revenue Service from developing a free-to-use filing service—a long-held objective of Intuit, the industry giant behind TurboTax. Now, following a public outcry, lawmakers are planning to scrap that provision from the bill.
  • And PolitiFact, a fact-checking site owned by the Poynter Institute, is launching a Mueller report book club. Staffers will assign reading each week, then offer analysis and take questions. When Mueller gave a rare public statement last week, PolitiFact writes, “one unmistakable message came through: He wants us to read his report.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.