When Newsrooms Decide to Unionize

By News on the Record Archives
Cover image for  article: When Newsrooms Decide to Unionize

The current unionization push in journalism may seem like a warning bell for some in the media and advertising industries, but it's serving as a clarion call for others.

On the afternoon of July 23rd, BuzzFeed News senior film reporter Adam B. Vary tweeted a photograph of a cake emblazoned with, "A union is born."  Vary and his colleagues in BuzzFeed's newsrooms in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington were celebrating the culmination of an approximately five-month effort to receive certification for a union of Buzzfeed journalists.  The effort began in earnest in February in response to the staffing cuts when BuzzFeed laid off 15 percent of its employees due to difficulties in meeting profitability targets.  Although initially resisted by BuzzFeed's leadership, including chief executive officer Jonah Peretti, the unionization push gained momentum and was dragged over the finish line after a walkout by Buzzfeed workers in June.

The BuzzFeed unionization effort has been widely reported as another mile marker in a push along these lines that has taken place across much of the industry — in print and digital — since 2015.  Less than a half year after Lydia DePillis' January 2015 Washington Post piece "Why Internet Journalists Don't Organize," journalists at Gawker decided to become the exception.  And then those at Salon, The Guardian U.S., ThinkProgress, HuffPost U.S. and others followed suit.

The trend also spread to publications expressly on the left, including the socialist publication Jacobin and Glenn Greenwald's The Intercept.  By 2018, similar things were happening at some print newspapers that previously hadn't had a unionized editorial staff, including outlets owned by Tribune Publishing (formerly Tronc, Inc.) such as the Chicago Tribune and the Hartford Courant.  All the while, the union initiative received mixed responses from leadership at the various publications, from strong opposition in many cases to measured support from executives, such as Gawker founder Nick Denton.

Although those at some publications have scored victories in terms of higher wages, guarantees of editorial independence and more desirable working conditions, the unionization effort has not always worked out as planned.  For instance, in October 2017, Joe Ricketts closed down his fledgling local news projects DNAinfo and Gothamist after staff voted in support of "unionizing with the Writers Guild" despite Ricketts' stated opposition.  The shuttering of the publications cost 115 workers their jobs and also represented a blow to a company that was seeking to build an enterprise in the already embattled space of local news.  Explaining Ricketts' decision to close the company in response to the unionization move, a spokesperson stated: "The decision by the editorial team to unionize is simply another competitive obstacle making it harder for the business to be financially successful."

This all takes place amid vigorous debate.  Proponents of unionization argue that not only are the objectives for workers worthwhile in and of themselves, but also that they result in better content over time, as employees are more inclined to stay at a publication longer and invest heavily in the journalism they produce.  Critics of the move argue that unions create an adversarial dynamic between a publication's leadership and its journalists, while also potentially adding costs at news outlets already hurting for profits.

Perhaps the most important question when it comes to the unionization push is: "Why now?"  The first major move for organized labor in the United States in the news space came in April 1934 when The American Newspaper Guild sealed its first contract.  It was with The Philadelphia Record and it spread from there, bringing unions to many papers across the United States.  Like the unionization movement of the 2010s, this original media unionization push came in the wake of layoffs and reports of less than stellar pay.  For instance, three years before, in 1931, the New York World, which once had Joseph Pulitzer at the helm, laid off 3,000 workers when it closed.  It seems to be something of a similar story today, except the layoffs and low wages at modern news providers are more the result of increased competition from tech giants such as Google and Facebook rather than a global economic depression.

But, of course, it's not just the behemoth platforms that are making newsrooms and their employees so uneasy.  As Claire Lehmann, a pioneer of so-called "new media," tweeted in the aftermath of the beating of Andy Ngo this July: "The future of journalism = individuals with GoPros broadcasting straight to social media, bypassing mastheads.  So, yes, any journalist who relies on a salary from a dated institution would naturally feel somewhat threatened by those who make their own way."

Platforms from Twitter to Medium are arguably posing a risk to more traditional publishers, which must contend with the costs of an editorial process.  But it's not only that.  The consistently low public trust in news media can lead some previous consumers of the mainstream outlets to look elsewhere, threatening the subscriber or reader base of many publications.

The unionization push among journalists is a rare bright spot for unions, whose memberships have declined considerably (from 34 percent of American workers in 1954 to 10.7 percent today, with only a 6.5 percent current rate for private-sector jobs).  Some might be inclined to read the current unionization push, particularly in digital journalism, as a canary in the coal mine for the health of digital media.  It was only when the problems — such as the layoffs — began that journalists, many of whom hardly grew up in union households, decided that this was the answer.  This interpretation may very well be true, but that ought not be read necessarily as an indictment of the health of these publications in times to come.  As we saw with the last unionization effort nearly 85 years ago, a fragile state of the news media is often far from permanent.

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