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How to Save Journalism

The biggest threat to the health of the media industry is Silicon Valley. And the antidote might just be organized labor.

When we look back on the horrible summer of 2019, we might find that what seemed to be a minor event at the time turned out to be a watershed. On June 6, more than 300 workers at Vox Media staged a walkout in protest of management’s refusal to accede to their contract demands. The firehose of content on Vox’s websites—which include Eater, The Verge, SB Nation, and flagship—dried up. The Vox walkout marked the culmination of a broader unionization drive in the news business, as workforces have mobilized at old-school daily rags and brand-new digital operations alike, in search of better pay, better benefits, and some measure of security in the unstable, revenue-challenged news business. 

Vox’s workers won that battle, when management finally agreed to hammer out a collective-bargaining contract after 29 straight hours of negotiation. But that victory added up to more than generous new salary increases and severance provisions. It was, just as important, an occasion for solidarity across the media industry: Other union shops—within the Writers Guild of America and NewsGuild, the two big journalism unions—and freelancers closed ranks to prevent Vox management from paying freelancers to populate their now-stagnant platforms. Here was a new phenomenon, with expansive implications for the industry as a whole: a worker movement that spanned different companies and individual unions and included freelance journalists.

When we talk about the future of journalism these days we typically discuss different corporate models of content provision; be it The New York Times and its paywall; The Washington Post and its plutocratic benefactor; The Atlantic and its roster of TED Talk–like panels bankrolled by corporate sponsors like ExxonMobil; or Vice, The Outline, BuzzFeed, and the venture capital lined up behind them. By now, the media man loudly declaring that he will be the one to come up with a model to save journalism—whether it be Josh Topolsky or Chris Hughes or Jeff Bezos—has become a cliché. But none of these models has yet proven to be sustainable in the long term or applicable industry-wide. And none addresses the real reason the news industry has been in precipitous decline, losing 23 percent of its workforce between 2008 and 2017. 

Last month the News Media Alliance released a report that revealed Google made $4.7 billion from news content in 2018—all while investing barely a cent in producing actual journalism. Tech monopolies, which both accelerate and exploit conditions of extreme economic concentration and wealth inequality, are bleeding media dry. Media companies have responded with adjustments that are painfully modest compared to the scale of the problem, hoping they can somehow scrape by as Google and Facebook gobble up advertising revenue. 

In the face of a clear and immediate threat from Big Tech, what journalism needs is a bulwark. What it needs is some serious leverage. What it needs, in this annus horribilis and beyond, is organized labor—which, in many instances, is also the very thing media companies fear most. 

The Vox walkout wouldn’t have been possible without an earlier watershed: In 2015, Gawker Media voted to form a union under the Writers Guild of America. A few months later, the union signed its first contract, amid much hand-wringing about whether other digital news organizations would follow suit. 

Did they ever. In the four years since Gawker first voted to unionize, VICE, Mic (RIP), Salon, ThinkProgress, HuffPost, MTV News, Slate, Law 360, Talking Points Memo, Pitchfork, The Daily Beast, The Intercept, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, Thrillist, and Refinery29, among others, have all organized. Nor were union drives only gaining momentum at digital media outlets. The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune—137 and 172 years old, respectively—both organized last year under the NewsGuild for the first time. New York, The New Yorker, and this magazine, among other legacy titles, did the same. In four short years it has become harder and harder to think of a major media company that isn’t unionized or in the process of forming a union.

For journalists, this has meant that many of us, regardless of what type of job we have or what beats we cover, have now come into contact with collective organizing. I joined The New Republic as an intern in 2016; when I left, by then a staff writer, in 2017, we were in the very early process of organizing our own union with the NewsGuild, which is now bargaining its first contract. I went to Gizmodo Media Group (formerly Gawker Media, now G/O Media), only to find out nine months later that Univision, GMG’s parent company, was going to lay off a large percentage of its workforce. Employing the negotiating clout of GMG’s union, we were able to win generous 18-week buyout packages—one of which subsidized my career as I transitioned to freelancing. For the past year, I’ve worked as a full-time freelancer and recently joined a group of journalists working to formally organize freelance digital media workers. 

I say all of this to make clear that I am not at all ambivalent about media unions (I am still a dues-paying member of the Writers Guild), nor am I an objective third-party observer. I have directly experienced both the material and community gains that collective action provides, as well as the precariousness of a non-unionized shop. Many of the friends and professional connections I’ve made over my short career, some of whom have been interviewed for this piece, have been part of union drives. In the most basic sense, that’s the first norm that organizing shatters—the isolation of workers from one another.

The generation that took jobs in digital media after the rise of the internet entered a world that glittered with promise, seeming to afford more new opportunities than ever before, even as print media was in decline. When Hamilton Nolan explained why Gawker employees were organizing in a 2015 blog post, he suggested that the symbolism of the effort was just as important as the material factors: “It’s now possible to find a career in this industry, rather than just a fleeting job,” Nolan wrote. “An organized work force is part of growing up.” 

Yet just a few years later, that world has lost its luster. Local news outlets are undergoing a mass extinction, dying lonely deaths or being devoured by mega-conglomerates like Sinclair. Digital media outlets pivoted to video on the lure of Facebook ad revenue, and newsrooms were devastated when the numbers didn’t meet what Facebook had promised. As of this June, almost 3,000 media jobs have been lost across the industry in 2019. It’s now become clear that unions are not just a symbolic necessity, but also an existential one. “Now I think the stakes are much different, and people are organizing with much more urgency,” David Hill, vice president of the National Writers Union local 1981, told me. “I think now there’s a much broader understanding of why we need unions in media.” 

What’s been widely reported about the recent wave of unionization were the immediate, material gains won by insurgent union shops—contracts with salary floors, generous severance packages, paid family leave. Just as important, however, is the sort of cross-industry solidarity we witnessed during the Vox walkout: All these union shops are feeding off each other, learning from each other, pushing each other to ask for more. Workers at Law360, for example, won successorship, meaning that if the company were sold the new owners would have to take on the company’s existing collective bargaining agreement. Vox employees secured a unique diversity initiative that requires 40 percent of the applicants that make it past a phone interview (50 percent for senior positions) to come from under-represented backgrounds. 

“Vox is securing something for Vox, and Vice is securing something for Vice, and G/O is securing something for us, but what we’re effectively doing is setting industry standards for each other because we are going to be moving in and out of different jobs,” said Jezebel editor Katie McDonough, who was on Gizmodo Media Group’s bargaining committee. “People tell lots of stories about what lifts all boats, but this is actually what’s doing it.”

The shift to an organized industry also has political implications—and not just because journalists are becoming more active through their union work. In the larger scheme of things, unionized media workers are starting to see the world and themselves in a new light. Journalism, like other creative-but-poor industries, is predicated on the idea that its practitioners are just lucky to be doing what they love; they’ve long been conditioned to believe that there’s  something inherently prestigious, even noble, about this type of white-collar work. But as media jobs become more precarious, undermined by the same monopoly forces affecting workers in other parts of the economy, media workers are increasingly seeing themselves as workers first. 

This is what Marxist-minded leftists have long termed class consciousness, and that consciousness is spreading, within legacy and digital media brands alike. “It’s really a culture shift at The New Yorker, where some people feel that being paid in prestige is acceptable and expected,” said Natalie Meade, a fact-checker and bargaining committee member at the magazine. “One thing we’re trying to instill in the culture is that we are intellectual workers, and a union is something that is worthwhile in the long run for the longevity of the magazine.”

David Fucillo, a member of the editorial staff at SB Nation and a bargaining committee member for Vox, said, “The people who started to understand the importance of labor a little bit more are now going to be advocates wherever they end up going. Building out those relationships won’t get talked about a lot, but I think it’s critical for an industry that leaves a lot of people feeling isolated.”

No journalists are more precarious or isolated than freelancers, who also face the greatest obstacles when it comes to organizing. Because they are usually unable to join union shops, it’s easy for companies to pit freelancers and staff employees against one another. Many freelancers work alone, sometimes in another state or country than their editors, who are often both their bosses and their only contact at a publication. Labor laws are stacked against freelancers—if they organize, say, for better rates at a publication, they could be subject to antitrust laws that treat each freelancer as an individual business collaborating with other businesses to set prices. 

And with digital and legacy publications laying off workers en masse then relying on cheaper freelance labor, organizers say that it’s become more urgent than ever to bring freelancers into the union fold. “The distinctions between freelance, staff, contract, and permalance are so porous that at a certain point they become meaningless,” freelance writer Haley Mlotek pointed out—most journalists will typically find themselves filling all those roles at different points of their career. 

For the past year, Mlotek has helped kick-start an informal freelance media organizing drive that includes media workers (like me) who have experience organizing different shops and can employ similar tactics to set and raise standards for freelancers. “The freelance solidarity project is a group of volunteers who are not waiting for things to get better,” Mlotek said. “We want things to be better now. There is so much about the way media works that is outside of our control, but we can control how well we take care of each other and how deeply we think about building our communities.” 

The volunteer-led collective voted in May to affiliate with the National Writers Union as a distinct entity and is currently working with the union to find a way to do so. The NWU itself has a history of wins that freelance organizers are hoping to replicate, including getting publications like L.A. Weekly and The Village Voice in the 1980s to make agreements with their freelancers that included provisions like minimum rates, compensation for exploratory research, and additional fees if the company delays publication. In 2017, the NWU reached a similar agreement for freelancers at The Nation

“The NWU did a lot of this work in conjunction with unionized staff writers,” Hill said. “The NWU was able to work in solidarity with them to get standards for freelancers. We are trying to follow that model, we want to work in tandem with staff writers who are also unionizing and leverage their power to help our fight.” 

Traditionally, legacy media unions saw freelancers as a threat to their bargaining unit, but the upheavals in digital media have transformed that equation. “Freelancer issues impact union members,” said Megan McRobert, an organizer at the Writers Guild. She pointed to an example of companies paying freelancers late or stiffing them entirely, which makes it more difficult for staff editors to commission those writers for further assignments. “Staffers have approached companies and said, ‘We’re aware of what’s happening here,’ and used that union seat at the table to share information and bring people together so that individual freelancers aren’t completely on their own.” 

“As the use of freelancers within media kind of exploded over time, it was something that our union really had to understand and educate the membership about,” said Nastaran Mohit, organizer at NewsGuild. “That this is the future of the industry and rather than view freelance workers as a threat, these needed to be workers that the unit was fighting for.” 

Organizers and activists are also targeting the scourge of permalance positions that often entail near-to-full-time work without the benefits or security of a staff job. In May, when an editor tweeted out a “full-time freelance” job at Epicurious with no benefits, he was subject to an enormous backlash. Indeed, just last month, this magazine faced similar criticism when it posted a 29.5-hour-per-week part-time editorial role that also did not include any benefits (an average of less than 30 hours is the definition for a part-time employee, for which employers aren’t required to provide health insurance). Amid online backlash and The New Republic’s own union tweeting about the issue, the magazine later amended the position to include those benefits.

Newspapers first organized in the 1930s in part because reporters and editors  wanted to secure editorial independence from their publishers. As Steven Greenhouse wrote in Columbia Journalism Review, “Many reporters in the Newspaper Guild’s early days were looking for guarantees that they could do their work without powerful publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Frank Gannett, a fierce critic of Franklin D. Roosevelt and a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, pressing them to tilt their journalism to the right.”

Today’s journalists are facing corporations that are far more powerful and influential than a mere newspaper publisher. Even if they do secure a decent wage and a measure of security, there are only so many ways an individual publisher can protect them from Big Tech’s world-destroying appetites. “People are seeing the limits within individual companies, the idea that there’s an unlimited amount to extract from an individual company,” McRobert said. As more media workers organize, the next fight will be for industry-wide strategies to extract more from publishers, as well as to combat the ever-increasing power of Apple and Google and Facebook. 

Even BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, who has refused to recognize BuzzFeed News’ union, sees the value of collective action—one of his big ideas to, yes, “save” media is for individual companies to merge into a single entity to negotiate better terms with tech platforms. “If BuzzFeed and five of the other biggest companies were combined into a bigger digital media company, you would probably be able to get paid more money,” Peretti told The New York Times last year. 

“Clearly [Peretti] understands the importance of unionization if he thinks it’s critical for his own industry,” said Dominic Holden, politics reporter and member of BuzzFeed News’ organizing committee. Still, it’s far from clear, in Peretti’s call for a new consortium of collaboration-minded media properties, just who would get paid for establishing new revenue streams. Peretti would presumably continue to extract profit from the people who are actually producing the content that he’s selling without granting them basic labor rights. And what about the tech companies themselves? Would Peretti continue to criticize them if BuzzFeed got a bigger cut? It’s far from certain that Peretti, who has enormously benefited from BuzzFeed’s symbiotic attachment to Silicon Valley’s monopoly model of profit extraction even as he has called for reform, is interested in the kinds of radical systemic changes that will be necessary to stave off the Google-pocalypse. 

To reclaim the foundations of a free press in America, media workers need to get serious about dismantling tech monopolies and implementing policies that would reverse our new Gilded Age. It seems to be no coincidence that countries that operate the freest press regimes, such as Norway, Sweden, and Finland, also have comparatively low income-inequality. The Jonah Perettis of the world think that they can solve the media crisis in isolation, without acknowledging that they are integral to and have benefited from the system that gave rise to this crisis in the first place. 

Alex Pareene, now a staff writer at The New Republic, has noted in Columbia Journalism Review that, “The solution, if we want to have a lot of media companies creating varied journalism, will probably have to come not from the entrepreneurs or consultants—who have shown no ability at all to create sustainable media businesses, nationally or locally—but through policy.” He argued for the regulation of platforms—the type of policy that will likely only be made possible if workers gain enough power to advocate for it. 

What’s more, union activism can help bridge the yawning power dynamic that now separates tech monopolies from the flailing media sector. Tech companies will have to feel threatened if they’re going to implement reforms and meet media companies more than halfway—and the companies themselves clearly pose no threat at all. The way the media business works now is that Facebook and Google and Apple News reap the bulk of the profits produced by the labor of journalists—either by leapfrogging the ownership structure entirely or enlisting short-sighted owners, who mostly compete with one another, to give away their content for a pittance. The Vox walkout, which for hours deprived Big Tech’s customers of the content they enjoy, should be a red flag for Silicon Valley—in much the same way that a four-hour walkout by BuzzFeed workers just over a week later should have caused tech barons to squirm uncomfortably in their boardrooms. Just imagine what journalists could do if they could organize, informally or otherwise, across the industry.

At the very least, unionization has raised awareness that industry-wide issues can be addressed via industry-wide organizing. Perhaps Peretti and other bosses can also take a cue from their workers in how they see their own overlords—not as “partners” or “clients” but as a self-interested class that must be fought. And while there are no easy fixes for the media industry’s declining fortunes, unionization can at least put media workers on a provisionally more secure footing, as members of a greater labor movement seeking to bring exploitative capitalist forces to heel. 

“This is not something that is dependent on the whims of billionaires and media conglomerates,” said Mlotek. “We have so much power as long as we work together and see it as such.”