Unionizing the Digital Newsroom

Unionizing the Digital Newsroom

In unionizing, digital media workers have laid claim to a powerful lineage of newsroom organizing. But is there more they could learn from the militant newshounds of the past?

New York NewsGuild organizer Nastaran Mohit speaks to Al Jazeera America digital workers (NewsGuild)

In January I attended a meeting at the offices of the NewsGuild in Times Square. The Guild, as it’s called, though there are many guilds, is on the ninth floor of a skyscraper with a modern, ultra-white lobby. The union itself dates back to 1934, when it sought to add editors, writers, bookkeepers, sales agents, janitors, and newsroom cafeteria workers to the ranks of an incipient American labor movement. This on-site rank-and-file joined the printers and delivery-truck drivers who’d already begun to form bargaining units.

I knew little of this history when I voted, with the majority of my Al Jazeera America website colleagues, to join the union in October 2015. The fifty of us in the “digital print” division—a fraction of the company’s 700 mostly broadcast workers nationwide—were motivated less by labor nostalgia than by material, day-to-day concerns: lack of job security, uncompensated workloads, editorial constraints, and attrition. A union contract, we hoped, would protect us from being disciplined, even fired, at a boss’s whim; it would lock in pay increases and benefits, ensure overtime compensation for those working shifts, equalize parental leave across gender, and protect older colleagues from discrimination.

By the time of our January meeting, the holidays had passed, and we were ready to begin negotiating a first contract. The handful of us on the bargaining committee prepared a survey to gauge members’ needs and wants, and explained, over pizza and beer in the Guild’s large conference room, that we’d soon send it out over email. We imagined ourselves sitting tête-à-tête with upper management, looking them right in the eye and eliciting groans of surrender, or at least, a few favorable contract provisions.

At the end of the meeting, a news editor asked out of the blue, “What would our rights be if the company were to shut down?” Some of us chuckled nervously. The parent corporation, Al Jazeera, a mostly broadcast news network based in Qatar, had its quirks and Wizard-of-Oz moments, to be sure (a favorite quip: “You think you’ve got it bad, my boss really is a dictator”), but an across-the-board closure seemed improbable; the American brand was only launched in 2013, after all. A NewsGuild staffer responded reassuringly that we had no reason to think anything of the sort was imminent, but that, as a union, we would have the right to engage in “effects bargaining” and negotiate severance. We wrapped up the meeting in good spirits.

The next morning, I was finishing a piece at home when an official-looking email arrived in my inbox: a mandatory, 2 p.m. meeting at Midtown headquarters. This happened periodically—all-staff advisories of reshufflings up top or new company-wide goals—so I asked a few colleagues to keep me posted. One joked by text, “What if it’s a shutdown? Haha,” referring to our conversation the night before.

Just after 2 p.m., my phone lit up with a handful of texts. Al Jazeera America, both the cable TV channel and our website, would go dark by April, the messages read. A complete and total closure of our massive news startup—what the New York Times had called, just two and a half years earlier, a “giant stimulus project for American journalism.” I pictured the scene—hundreds of people standing, arms crossed, in the high-ceilinged hive of the TV studio, like stunned sports fans after an unexpected loss.

The president and CEO gave us ninety days’ notice, as required by a law governing mass layoffs. Some 700 workers—employees and independent contractors, from make-up artists and sound technicians to accountants, producers, on-air correspondents, and web editors—would lose their jobs along the way. Few other details were known.

The company sporadically coughed up details about the “winding-down: the fate of our health savings accounts and 401(k)s, our accumulated vacation and comp days. Al Jazeera would provide a generous separation package: bonus pay leading up to shutdown, two months’ severance pay, and health insurance until we found new jobs. But there were catches and exceptions. Take a new job too soon, even a miserable one, and you’d lose out on the deal.

As unionized employees on the digital side, we weren’t automatically entitled to the company’s offer; we had to bargain for our own. A few of us, along with a valiant team of NewsGuild representatives and an attorney hired by the union, began meeting with management and their lawyer to negotiate. It was a bitter substitute for regular contract talks, but through face-to-face negotiations with management, we won improvements to the package for non-union workers and an even better one for our members.

When we unionized last October, Al Jazeera America joined what seemed like an organizing “wave” among all-digital news outlets. We were preceded by Gawker in June, the Guardian US in July, Salon in August, and ThinkProgress in September. Then, in January 2016, the Huffington Post—with 262 union-eligible workers, by far the largest digital unit to wade in—was finally recognized by management. The campaigns were small but reported in great detail, and with an unusual level of praise. With Gawker, which has an immense following and a culture of spilling its own beans, this was no surprise. Most union drives simmer underground for weeks or months. Gawker’s, on the other hand, took just days and went something like this: star staff writer Hamilton Nolan heard from a union representative and called a mass meeting; the employees signed cards and announced their move on gawker.com, inviting a debate over the pros and cons of unionism in the comments section; their boss said he was “intensely relaxed” about the whole affair and would accept whatever the workers decided. The union forged ahead.

Journalists love to cover other journalists, and media reporters vastly outnumber those on the labor beat. The articles they wrote—about Gawker, Salon, and the rest—had a heavy refrain: that these shops were “historic,” their staffs laboring pioneers of the digital realm and its millennial workforce, a.k.a. “Generation 1099.” Would Facebook or Google be next? Outlets stated again and again that Gawker was the first digital-only publication to organize, though this wasn’t the case. In 2009, the progressive website Truthout had formed a union of about a dozen writers and editors. And the Daily Beast has also had one, owing in part to the print inheritance of its corporate sibling, Newsweek.

The coverage and self-presentation of digital workers obscured a longer history of media organizing, too. Today’s newsroom inhabitants—conceived as content creators, tweeters, posters, and impresarios of their own “personal brand”—are described in Silicon Valley dialect. We are aggregating entrepreneurs, at odds with one another and alienated from our predecessors in print. To unionize is to lay claim to a powerful, if deeply flawed, lineage. Yet we’ve detached ourselves from an instructive century of mobilization.

The implosion of local, regional, and even national newspapers (along with magazines, glossy and matte) has made the print world an object of fear. Millennials may have a vague memory of newspaper strikes—as recently as the mid-1990s, the very picture of white- meets blue-collar muscle—but feel no confidence in them as a tool. I’ve heard many journalists blame newspaper unions for hastening the death of the industry by their stubborn adherence to work rules and aging technology. This is why, some digital staffers tell me, they decided to sign cards with the (screen) Writers Guild instead of the NewsGuild, which once represented nearly 50 percent of American editorial workers.

As Michelle Chen noted in the Nation, “media unionization 3.0” is a new spin on “an old story.” But judging from the first two contracts to emerge from this recent spate of union drives, the era of “militant newshounds” has given way to a tech-enabled era of digital collaboration. In February Gawker negotiated a first contract that includes a minimum salary, handsome pay raises, and matching 401(k); in April, Vice workers approved an agreement guaranteeing pay raises, monthly meetings with management, and severance pay. There was no mention of overtime pay or comp time, mainstays of established collective bargaining agreements in the industry.

More worryingly, neither shop pursued protection from arbitrary firing—what’s typically called a “just-cause termination” clause. Madeleine Davies, a senior writer at the Gawker property Jezebel, told me that their newsroom didn’t see traditional news contracts as “modern”; they trusted editors to decide who should and shouldn’t be employed, she said. Matt Taylor, a Vice employee representative, told the International Business Times that he was happy with “provisions that are specific to today’s creative workplaces in the digital space.”

We are, on some level, at ease with precarity. Not just the hoverboard-riding, “trim 20-somethings” we stereotypically associate with today’s newsrooms, but all of us. It’s critical to remember, however, that job security has a relative value. Older workers, people of color, women, and those from low-income backgrounds tend to need it more. For them, the traditional gains of collective bargaining—protection from firing and discrimination, pay increases, and health insurance—remain essential.

The workers at Vice secured severance pay just in time. A month after finalizing their contract, dozens were laid off in the United States and England—ostensibly for financial reasons, so a just-cause termination clause might not have helped. Job losses have plagued nearly all the newly unionized outlets: the Huffington Post, Gawker, Salon, and, of course, Al Jazeera America. For Gawker, recently forced into bankruptcy by a $140 million verdict against it, and Salon, which seems to be dangling by a hair, more may be on the way. And in late June, some two dozen employees were let go from the International Business Times.

Beyond the venture capital–fueled media markets of New York and Washington, D.C., even higher-stakes layoffs and buyouts are happening all the time, all over the country, leaving an increasing number of communities without reliable local news coverage. The Bureau of Labor Statistics counts only 54,000 print and broadcast reporters nationwide, with median earnings of $38,000 per year. A 9 percent decline is expected over the next decade.

To be a journalist these days is to be a Buddhist: no past, no future, only present. In the shadow of ongoing cuts and the uncertainty of the digital economy, it’s hard enough to tread water—let alone while holding hands. A year out from Gawker’s announcement, digital unionizing seems to have slowed down, though at least a few newsrooms are continuing the slow, hard work of clandestine organizing. This week, around 130 workers of Law360 petitioned to join the NewsGuild, following their former colleague’s successful campaign against the outlet’s use of non-compete agreements. Taken together, these ripples in journalism reflect a larger trend of white-collar activism, among graduate students, adjuncts, and foundation staffers.

I recently spoke with a laid-off reporter in his mid-twenties. He was just three years out of college and two pink slips into media. He’d been working in a Manhattan newsroom alongside colleagues earning as little as $35,000 per year—with the possibility of bonuses for stories garnering huge numbers of clicks. The newsroom was an aggregation machine, he said, designed to “just keep the content machine churning,” yet he and his colleagues still “wanted to go on to good things, to careers in journalism.”

I asked him about his dream jobs. Where could he imagine going and staying for years, even decades? He didn’t have an answer. “I’m not even thinking about that,” he said. “I’m just thinking, ‘how can I get a job that lets me do good stuff for the next year?’”

E. Tammy Kim is a writer and member of the New Yorker’s editorial staff.