The latest victory took place just a month ago. On March 15, for the first time in the company’s history, the 83 online journalists working for Gimlet Media successfully unionized. Gimlet is a Brooklyn-based company producing podcasts that are downloaded 12 million times per month in 190 countries worldwide.
In the new model of newsrooms exemplified by Gimlet—which was recently acquired by the streaming giant Spotify for $230 million—the roles of computer engineers, journalists of all kinds, social media experts, radio voice talent and video producers tend to blend together, their boundaries becoming blurred within a constant creative process of content production in which it is more and more difficult to distinguish the different job responsibilities of each.
In the United States, where there is no such thing as national contracts, collective bargaining is accomplished exclusively at the company level, and the workers must decide in an internal referendum whether they want to unionize or join an existing union to fight for their demands.
While in Italy the digital world is still an unregulated Wild West in terms of rights, wages and professional roles, across the Atlantic they are starting to build something that was previously unthinkable: union protections for the young, “dynamic” and ultra-flexible multimedia creative staff.
Since 2015, dozens of digital media outlets have managed to unionize, both large and small (more on that below): a progressive march forward that is hard to believe for us in Europe, where “precariousness” still runs rampant in both old and new media.
This development is all the more surprising if we take into account the fact that in America, the young digital “journalists” (in the widest possible sense of the term) are generally very individualistic, eager to develop their own “personal brand” and always looking to get better positions at more highly-renowned outlets.
The turnover for online newspapers based on both US coasts is extremely high. People come and go, in a climate of perpetual instability that is a function of large-scale choices in terms of algorithms, big data, and the increasingly direct involvement and segmentation of the reading public.
However, to quote Hamilton Nolan, a former reporter for Gawker, “a union is the only real mechanism that exists to represent the interests of employees in a company.”
It turns out that in this environment, the idea of unions is no longer some relic from ages long past. Somewhat surprisingly from the point of view of the corporate higher-ups, unions have become themselves “agents” of capitalism on both US coasts.
In other words, unionized newsroom do better work, talented people tend to come and—most importantly—stay, readers read more content and spend more time, and the shareholders reap the profits.
It’s no coincidence that although the share of unionized workers is very small in the US overall (just 1 in 10), public approval for unions is at a historic high: on average, 62% view them positively, with the highest level of approval (as much as 65%) in the 18-34 age group (according to 2018 Gallup data).
The full story of this “long march” of the digital trade unions can be found in the most thorough investigative report put out so far on the subject, “Why Newsrooms Are Unionizing Now” by Steven Greenhouse, a veteran of The New York Times, published on March 21 for Harvard’s Nieman Lab.
Greenhouse offers a wide-ranging account covering everything from Gawker to an “old media giant” like the Los Angeles Times (see the article by Celada), a history of negotiations on issues that are sometimes obscure for European journalists (for example, there is no state health insurance or mandated maternity pay in the US), and sometimes so progressive as to be unthinkable for us: secondary copyright, the types and duration of non-compete clauses, protection from having to work on “sponsored” content, criteria for promotions and wage increases which are neither arbitrary nor automatic, and incentives for diversity (racial or in terms of sexual orientation) in the newsroom.
“We don’t view digital and legacy print as different—we view it all as one and the same,” said Grant Glickson, president of the NewsGuild union in New York.
In traditional media organizations, the need for unions arose because of mass layoffs and structural crises. In the field of new media, they have become relevant due to needs that are no less urgent: setting salaries at a reasonable level (particularly in very expensive areas, such as the San Francisco Bay Area or New York) and amortizing the economic highs and lows of an extremely volatile industry, where closures and acquisitions happen daily and no one can really predict what will still “work” on the Web tomorrow.
In this sector, booms and crashes are happening everywhere. In recent months, US digital media outlets have gone through brutal layoffs, involving no less than 2,400 journalists (nearly 500 of them at giants like BuzzFeed and Vice alone). It was a tsunami similar to the one that has been affecting old-school newspapers for a decade.
David Chavern, the president of the News Media Alliance, representing 2,000 media outlets the United States, strikes a conciliatory note: “We are neither for or against unionization … We are focused on the challenges posed to journalism by the major platforms (Facebook and Google, in particular).”
On the other hand, the trade unionist Nastaran Mohit, chief organizer for NewsGuild in New York, says that “[t]his generation is tired of hearing that this industry requires martyrdom, that it requires that you suck it up, that you accept low wages and long hours.”
In this highly competitive and constantly evolving context, unions offer a brilliantly simple solution—especially when adapted to the new times. They have been effective even when adopting means of protest that may look unserious to us in Italy, such as the newsroom walkout (everyone leaves together for an hour), everyone going to work wearing union shirts, setting up pickets and distributing leaflets in the streets (strikes almost never happen), or stunts involving inflatable dolls (such as kicking out an enormous inflatable rat from the newsroom, which more or less represents the management).
In addition to these forms of protest, there are at least two that are more radical: in-depth, ruthless journalistic investigations on the multibillionaire owners, which are published on social media in the middle of negotiations, and the creative use of all possible forms of communication with the public to inform them of the journalists’ demands and problems.
This is worlds away from the traditional “prudence” in Italy: here, journalists wouldn’t ever dream of writing an objective article about the problems of their newspaper or TV newsroom, not to mention the general problems of the sector or the injustices afflicting their profession.
It could be mutually beneficial for newsrooms on both sides of the Atlantic to exchange best practices and methods.
More and more, the struggle for wages and better working conditions is becoming indistinguishable from the struggle for better journalism.
It’s not completely implausible to suppose that the readers would decide to support the journalists’ cause if they were fairly, accurately and objectively informed about what was at stake.
Three steps to successful collective bargaining
Although the overall percentage of unionized workers is the lowest in US history, in the field of new digital media the trend is decidedly going in the opposite direction.
Since 2015, over 30 online media outlets (from Vice to Buzzfeed, from Huffington Post to The Intercept) have experienced a boom in unionization, with several collective negotiations that have been successful and have led to improvements in both wages and staff retention in the newsrooms.
How did they do it? The solution consists of three steps:
- The workers must develop a collective consciousness and mobilize as part of a union organization;
- The union must convince them that it is indeed possible to negotiate better working conditions;
- The workers must be willing to take risks during the negotiations.
Pragmatic as ever, the Americans are developing playbooks for work and struggle that can be adopted in any situation of insecurity, economic hardship or obstacles against unionization.
The first step, according to Masters and Gibney, two researchers at Wayne State University and Penn State University, is for the unions to really listen to the workers, regularly communicate with everyone, convey a hopeful attitude and explain the tangible benefits that can be obtained.
A key tool for labor struggles that has become indispensable nowadays is social media, which is used very aggressively to alert the readers and the public of the stakes of the “digital” workplace dispute.
The second step, the workplace dispute proper, should be resolved quickly. It is better to have a first collective bargaining agreement that no contract at all (or just individual contracts, as is the practice in the US, particularly in the dotcom sector).
Sometimes, even the very first achievements by the workers can be remarkable, taking into account, for example, that in the US there is no paid maternity leave, and that contracts often include non-compete clauses which make things very difficult for workers who want to relocate elsewhere.
The final step: spread the word, spread the word, spread the word. Let other corporations and non-unionized newsrooms know that things have changed.
Two organizations fighting for “journalists 2.0”
The largest union among American journalists is the historical NewsGuild (the new name of what used to be the Newspaper Guild, founded in 1933, whose site can be found at newsguild.org), which represents over 25,000 journalists employed by more than 200 outlets.
Until ten years ago, this union’s membership was concentrated among traditional media outlets, and it was obviously behind the times in terms of understanding the new digital media and organizing the workers in that sector.
However, a second protagonist came into play: the smaller Writers Guild East (wgaeast.org, currently with 4,700 members), traditionally associated with the audio-visual world of film and television.
The latter saw digital media as a natural extension of its field of activity, and concluded its first successful negotiation in 2015 on behalf of the 118 journalists writing for Gawker (the following year, Gawker was forced to close because of the historic amount of damages won against them in court by the “king of wrestling,” Hulk Hogan).
Both the WGA and WGA East are also negotiating on behalf of freelancers, and no longer make any kinds of distinctions between the types of media in which their members happen to be working.
The FNSI in Italy
In Italy, there is one sole, independent and unified trade union representing journalists, the National Federation of the Italian Press (FNSI).
Founded in 1908 and later re-founded in 1943, the FNSI is a free trade union association, whose members are the regional professional associations of journalists.
The FNSI defends press freedom and information plurality, and fights for the rights and interests of journalists.