Why Newsrooms Unionize – and How it’s the Future of the Journalism Industry

Reporters at the hyperlocal online news publication Gothamist worked for six years with low pay, long hours and little job security.

The 27 reporters, most young, ambitious graduates of top journalism programs such as Columbia University and New York University, voted to join the Writers Guild in America East in late October 2017.

Within a week, they were out of jobs.

The owner of the website, Joe Ricketts, shut down Gothamist and its sister D.C.-based publication DNAinfo with no prior notice to his employees.

“[When we were told], I yelled a lot and somebody told me to stop. Now we’re all trying to figure out what to do,” said David Colon, a reporter for Gothamist, in a Nov. 2 article in the New York Times.

Ricketts defended his decision to shut down the papers as strictly business decision. For 24 hours, all content on the website had vanished and the only post on the site was a letter from Ricketts. “The progress [of the websites] hasn’t been sufficient to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded,” Ricketts said in the letter, archived by the New York Daily News. The site’s archives came back online a day after the shutdown.

New York Public Radio station WNYC bought out Gothamist in March. According to WNYC publicist David Cotrone, Gothamist reporters are currently unavailable for comment during the transition process.  

The Gothamist and DNAinfo shutdown is unique in its abruptness. However, across the nation, more news reporters are pushing to unionize as news organizations struggle with budget cuts due to shrinking circulation and advertising.

Alex Kirshner, a college football writer for Vox Media’s sports website, SBNation, played a key role in organizing the Vox Media Union. In January, the union achieved recognition via an agreement on the scope of the bargaining unit- a key step towards unionization. Kirshner said that with a staff of 400, it is hard to boil down to one reason for organizing, but overall “we wanted to have a seat at the table when the company would be making decisions that would be impactful on all of us for the rest of our lives,” in a phone interview with MediaFile on Monday.

The process lasted a year, and not all of the Vox Media staff initially wanted to organize. “A difficulty in unionizing comes from friction felt by both high-ups in the company and colleagues who might be apprehensive to unionize,” said Kirshner. “It took many, many meetings, and endless group chats.”

Carolina A. Miranda, an L.A. Times staff writer and organizer of the recently founded L.A. Times Guild, said during a phone interview earlier this month that a successful newsroom depends on a stable, reliable and transparent ownership, which is why the future of the industry lies in union organization.

“The budget cuts, the layoffs, it’s created a perfect storm of issues that I believe has led more newsrooms to unionize,” said Miranda.

In January, 248 out of 292 L.A. Times employees voted to unionize their newsroom following a campaign popularized on Twitter, which began as a result of an accrued vacation policy. The L.A. Times Guild is the newspaper’s first union in its 136-year history.

“It started off very slowly, as just an idea a few staff members had,” said Miranda. “When other staffers came on board, and word got out on social media, that’s when it steamrolled.”

Throughout the union’s campaign, supporters used social media to vouch their support. After the vote passed, the L.A. Times joined a larger union, NewsGuild, which is a sector of the Communications Workers of America. NewsGuild-CWA represents twenty-five thousand employees in media across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.

The L.A. Times Guild’s use of social media allowed the Guild to gather a wide public outreach and was a factor in its success.

In an era where President Donald Trump writes tweets calling publications such as CNN and The Washington Post “fake news,” there has been an increased stress on public faith in the journalism industry. However, increased interest in unionizing from journalists has nothing to do with politics, but rather economics and corporate ownerships.

Michael C. Harper, an administrative law professor at Boston University, agreed, saying unionizing is an issue within the industry, not necessarily a result of the current political moment.

“Generally, when you have a Republican leader, whether it be president or business owner, they’re going to be anti-union,” said Harper. “Jeb Bush could be our current president, and journalists would still be in this situation.”

Charlie Johnson, a home page editor at the Chicago Tribune, is currently fighting for the formal recognition of the newly-founded Tribune Guild. In November, Johnson felt inspired by the L.A. Times Guild and co-founded the Tribune Guild. Johnson spent half a year sourcing staff interest and corresponding with NewsGuild, hoping to gain enough momentum to have Tronc, the Chicago Tribune’s parent media company, recognize the union.  

“I had no idea what I was doing and didn’t get very far at first,” said Johnson in an interview on Tuesday. “As soon as the L.A. Times Guild went public, we pushed our process.”

On Tuesday, the editorial staff presented a letter to Tribune publisher Bruce Dold, announcing 85 percent of the Tribune staff had signed formal cards in support of unionizing the newsroom, according to NPR.

On Wednesday, Chicago Tribune Guild announced via Twitter, “Tronc had declined to meet the deadline for voluntarily recognizing the Chicago Tribune Guild.”  The Guild will continue to peruse formal recognition and has increased its goal to 90% newsroom support.

The shutdown of Gothamist, the success of the L.A. Times Guild and the continuing process of the Chicago Tribune Guild are all examples within this year of how the news industry is rapidly changing, with increased labor rights at its forefront.

“Things that are good [in the industry] aren’t going to stay good forever,” said Krishner, vouching for the younger journalists to get involved in unionizing. “Organizing together, and having each other’s backs, makes us more powerful when it comes time to generate positive change.”

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