Shadowproof

US Journalists Form Unions To Survive ‘Hedge Fund Vampires’ And COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash

From national media giants to small local newspapers, journalists are unionizing across the United States.

Many of these unions have sought representation from the NewsGuild, a branch of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). They include editorial staff, who recognize the shared working conditions of an industry in crisis. 

By forming regional guilds, workers are able to form a network separate from their publications’ overly corporate culture, allowing them to establish shared demands and speak candidly about dwindling job opportunities, racist hiring practices, shrinking newsrooms, and scarcity myths promoted by fat-cat executives. 

Much of this activity is unreported at the national level, but workers have publicized their actions on social media. Members of the New Yorker Union, for example, have detailed their negotiations with Condé Nast since their January 21 work stoppage. Management has been slow to propose methods of achieving a better work-life balance, and weeks of bargaining sessions have become public record on Twitter. 

Journalists at Pitchfork and Ars Technica unions joined the New Yorker staff to counter the company’s meager wage proposals and reveal further disparities across newsrooms, including restrictions on freelancing with other publications for supplemental income.

“Management’s best defense of these positions is that they are intended to reflect the status quo,” New Yorker Union tweeted. “But if the status quo was working for employees, we wouldn’t have unionized. We will win the contract we deserve through collective action—our members stand together, ready to fight.”

Represented by the NewsGuild of New York — which also covers staff of the New York Times, BuzzFeed, The Nation, Daily Beast, and New York magazine, among others — these unions create space for constructive criticism of managerial corruption.

The NewsGuild empowers journalists nationwide to speak up about abusive practices in human resources departments and the hedge funds financing their publications, as publishers consolidate newsrooms and force staff members into increasingly unstable positions. It currently represents more than 16,000 media workers all over the country, and that number is growing. 

Curbing the Spread Of News Deserts

The erosion of local journalism, while ongoing for more than a decade, has been accelerated by a “pivot to video” in the last five years. Parent companies rapidly acquire struggling independent newsrooms and shed workers in a comprehensive downsizing of labor and product, prioritizing video content and digital advertising over in-depth investigations.

Publishers typically misconstrue the power dynamics between them and tech giants like Facebook and Google, which together receive 99 percent of ad revenue growth. Studies repeatedly show that replacing investigative reporting with clickbait videos drastically drops website engagement for local newspapers, because most can be accessed right on social media platforms.

Many companies are unwilling to invest adequate funding into pricey video equipment and software. These kinds of corporate blunders mean local journalists take on extra work with no additional pay, all while management justifies producing less content and leaves workers out of their discussions.

While new media unions have long been in the spotlight, local organizing efforts risk vanishing into the background. 

The NewsGuild launched the Save the News campaign in early 2020 to prevent the spread of news deserts across non-metropolitan areas. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, several newsrooms owned by media giant Gannett have been unionizing despite the company’s rampant union-busting tactics. 

Four Gannett newsrooms in Florida — Palm Beach Post, Palm Beach Daily News, Naples Daily News and Fort Myers News-Press — voted to unionize on the same day last June. In December 2020, the Austin American-Statesman in Texas and the Desert Sun in southern California announced their respective union campaigns; the latter won in an overwhelming majority on February 17. And on February 10, the Record Guild in New Jersey went public, representing newsrooms at the Daily Record, NorthJersey.com (Bergen Record), and New Jersey Herald. 

Waves of layoffs and furloughs led McClatchy newsrooms to form similar regional unions across publications. As the country went into lockdown in March 2020, the Idaho NewsGuild unionized editorial workers at the Idaho Statesman, and the company refused voluntary recognition. All non-management employees, 18 in total, voted unanimously to unionize by mail-in ballot. 

Their success became foundational for other McClatchy newsroom organizing, with subsequent union campaigns receiving voluntary recognition from the company. 

Workers at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram unionized in Texas, followed by South Carolina’s Packet/Gazette Guild — which brought together workers at the Hilton Head Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette — in November 2020.

The Washington State NewsGuild formed in December 2020, representing workers from the Tacoma News Tribune, the Olympian, the Bellingham Herald, and Tri-City Herald. 

COVID-19 And The Labor Crisis In Journalism

The pandemic has uniquely accelerated the labor crisis in journalism, but over the last five years, unions have risen in popularity.

The Los Angeles Times Guild, which formed in 2017, set an example for organizers to elect their own leaders and represent themselves in negotiations, without the presence of union reps. In 2019, the Arizona Republic organized a similar democratic unit without voluntary recognition from Gannett. 

These campaigns were inspirational for the Dallas NewsGuild, which formed in 2019 with editorial workers from the Dallas Morning News and Spanish-language sister publication, Al Día Texas. Both publications are owned by A. H. Belo, a family-owned business that attempted to sabotage the union campaign in underhanded ways.

Leah Waters, an organizer and editor at Dallas Morning News, detailed former CEO and majority stakeholder Robert Decherd’s claim that a family-oriented company — and $40 million in the bank with no debt — meant that a union would be unnecessary. Even with family values and a financial surplus, the newsroom still underwent waves of outsourcing followed by a major layoff of 43 workers in January 2019. 

That summer, organizing discussions became more serious. More than 130 workers felt their duties increased, and their beats had shifted around, leaving little time to pursue longer-term investigations.

“The paper just wasn’t a destination anymore,” according to Waters. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s, this was a paper that everyone could not wait to work for, but it had become a paper that people couldn’t wait to leave. It’s sad, because this is my hometown paper. I started wondering how it got so bad. My colleagues have always been great to work with, but the conditions under which we were asked to produce great journalism were untenable.”

When Waters asked her coworkers about their concerns, they expressed having really high standards for their products that outsourced labor could never replicate. GateHouse workers in other parts of Texas had misspelled Dallas-specific names and left inaccuracies in Morning News stories. The Morning News staff had not received raises for 12 years, and the breaking news team experienced constant turnovers. Further, management claimed that the publication had switched from a newsroom “of record” to a newsroom “of choice” — a sort of scarcity myth claiming the paper cannot cover all the news, as they simply do not have the capacity. 

“Who is going to pay for less coverage?” Waters posited. “And then, based on who pays for it, what is the content we are prioritizing? And who are we not covering exactly? As a newspaper, we historically have amnesia around communities of color in Dallas. Our union is deeply interested in reframing and recapturing audiences that are actually the majority of our community.”

The Latin American diaspora comprises more than 40 percent of the Dallas population. Even still, Latinx editors and writers at Al Día told Waters that they felt like “second-class” workers who were only ever consulted by management to do Spanish translations for them. 

The Dallas Morning News has covered white affluent communities since 1895 — and A.H. Belo’s labor lawyers even attempted to sway the two newsrooms to form separate units — but their combined union with the NewsGuild is a much more accurate reflection of the communities they serve.

The Gannett Model: A Nightmare For Newsrooms

The corporate takeover of local journalism has brought out the interrelated nature of different newsrooms owned by the same company, with reporters often working across publications. 

Andrew Pantazi, a reporter and organizer with the Florida Times-Union Guild, said that watching the 2016 union campaigns at Florida’s Lakeland Ledger and Sarasota Herald-Tribune made unionizing feel tangible in Jacksonville, along with campaigns at the Arizona Republic, South Bend Tribune, and Springfield News-Leader. He claims the Gannett model is unsustainable for workers and for the media industry in the long term.

“These companies have this view that if they just keep getting bigger, then somehow they will cut out all their costs by centralizing digital planning, centralizing editing and design work, centralizing and regionalizing until everything is solved,” Pantazi told Shadowproof. “But it’s not working, because they are speeding up the decline in revenue, and people don’t want to subscribe anymore.”

“No one wants to pay for worse content, and they are accelerating that by refusing to invest in the future,” Pantazi argued. “They have no plan for how we continue to get news in our communities outside the national landscape in 10 years. Our view is you do it by valuing workers. They clearly disagree and would rather give a lesser product every year with the hope that it just magically fixes itself.”

Gannett newsrooms are fertile grounds for organizing due to the company’s ongoing imposed buyouts, layoffs, and consolidation of printing, copy editing, and other operations — plus the recent $1.1 billion takeover by GateHouse Media. 

Gannett, which profited from the Atlantic slave trade, is currently managed by hedge fund Fortress Investment Group. The company regularly faces criticism for its labor practices, particularly in relation to the golden parachutes and bonuses promised to its executives. 

An endless cycle of exchanges and acquisitions has trapped workers in a bureaucratic nightmare, largely unfolding without transparency. At the very least, unions can guarantee workers a seat at the table and the potential to negotiate how these transactions affect them, so long as they succeed in winning their elections.

Last year, at the height of the pandemic, Gannett CEO Mike Reed fought NewsGuild efforts to hold mail-in union elections, arguing they were inappropriate. The company’s attorneys even filed a motion to object. 

While their journalists were covering electoral politics and voter suppression in local communities, the company’s executives were actively attempting to stop their own workers from voting. 

Pantazi claims that Reed has skirted on the edge of securities fraud by making inaccurate public statements about the company’s health, largely to increase shareholder value. He calls these actions “highly offensive” to the workforce and great incentives to change that dynamic across the country.

“They’ve shown what speaks to them,” Pantazi said. “The only thing that matters is money, so there is no other way to get their attention or improve our conditions unless we control the supply of money. We are going to control that when we control our labor.”

“If they are afraid that workers across Gannett are not going to continue producing this monetized journalism, and if they fear a credible strike, then all of a sudden they have to pay attention to us.”

Reporters and editors often work overtime to produce investigations while doing their regular news reporting, all while organizing in their minimal spare time. Their jobs as investigators for the public occasionally contrasts starkly with the missions of the financiers managing them. 

Many Gannett workers have gone their whole careers without cost-of-living raises — not just merit raises but basic wage increases adjusted to yearly inflation — making it difficult for workers to envision fairer hiring practices or plan out their retirement. 

Mark Olalde, an environmental reporter at the Desert Sun and organizer with the Desert Sun NewsGuild, claims it can be difficult to separate the work of journalism from the business.

“There have been multimillion-dollar payments to executives who take a new role and then multimillion-dollar payments for them to leave a couple years later due to a redundancy,” Olalde shared. “Until recently, Mike Reed worked for a hedge fund and was not even directly employed by us, by the very company he is leading.” 

“Meanwhile, our journalists get rejected if they ask for a fair market rate, or if a female reporter asks to be paid as much as a male reporter doing the same level and volume of work,” Olalde said.

Pantazi also caught Reed in lies regarding layoffs and diversity hiring. When Reed told Poynter that the company would lay off 10 employees, Pantazi did his own independent study and found that management was actually planning to lay off up to 200 employees. 

The company published columns asserting they would strive for better diversity in hiring, but Pantazi claims that in bargaining they fought just to get a very basic Rooney rule to interview non-white candidates. 

In public statements, the company promises a workforce as diverse as their readership, but they have yet to sign contracts reflecting these commitments.

Olalde similarly claims that the company has made promises that have yet to trickle into the reality of hiring. A large segment of the Desert Sun coverage area and readership is Latinx, with a high percentage of first-language Spanish speakers, but their newsroom is almost entirely white. 

Their union is also working toward fairer exit plans for workers nearing retirement age. Their veteran journalists are barely protected or guaranteed a significant retirement package, and the current system leaves them gambling their futures with each year they continue working.

“A few members of our unit have 20 to 30 years of experience,” Olalde said. “Every year, they’re offered a voluntary buyout and have to decide if they think they can make it until the next voluntary buyout without getting laid off. They know this community so intimately well, built a life here, yet they are not even allowed to go out on their own terms after decades of service.”

For older workers, it is important to preserve the legacy of their work and  ensure it does not come crashing down due to private-equity capitalists based in New York City, who care much more about a higher quarterly earnings report. Accordingly, the Gannett caucus of NewsGuilds is in the process of finalizing a pay study across the country in its unionized newsrooms, similar to that of the Washington Post Guild, to give an overview of where inequalities exist among rank-and-file staff.

‘Hedge Fund Vampires’ Can’t Be Allowed To Win

Journalists in McClatchy newsrooms face similar kinds of neglect and slow progress, which was exacerbated by the company filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year. 

The NewsGuild of Idaho took to social media to publicize the company’s mismanagement of Idaho Statesman editor Christina Lords, who was fired for advocating on behalf of workers.

In January, the Fort Worth NewsGuild publicized the poor childcare benefits available for editorial workers at the Star-Telegram. 

The NewsGuild is working with four newspapers in Washington state that are short-staffed across multiple areas. Chase Hutchinson, an organizer and reporter for Tacoma News Tribune, claims he and other journalists collaborate throughout the state on different stories, making it easy to network with previously unfamiliar coworkers. 

“McClatchy has been doing our job for us, by disinvesting in our newsrooms and not handling the necessary shifts, and that all culminated in the bankruptcy,” Hutchinson claimed. “But it was a much bigger story than that. It was about disinvestment in local journalists and lack of support for people doing the hard work every single day.”

“We started having conversations that were very eye-opening for everyone, and it expanded to other locations, too. We realized that the problems in Tacoma existed in Olympia, and Bellingham, and in the Tri-Cities. We’ve done a lot of the same work and seen each other’s bylines pop up in separate publications, because the company uses our stories across all four papers.”

McClatchy and Chatham Asset Management, the hedge fund managing them, have yet to respond to their demands, which include better work conditions, increased diversity, and higher wages. After withholding cost-of-living raises from its unionized workers, McClatchy voluntarily recognized the union. 

“We have been going through the stresses and anxieties of the world writ large, but that has only reaffirmed the necessary work that we are doing in our day-to-day jobs and, once we clock out, immediately coming together and figuring out how to make that work continue to be supported and preserved beyond even our time here,” Hutchinson said. “We see it as not just us but our communities, too, because everyone should have a reliable and robust newspaper they can look to for information they need.”

Corporate consolidation is occurring across the mediasphere at a time when skilled journalists outnumber reliable job opportunities. In February, Alden Global Capital acquired Tribune Publishing, leading the NewsGuild and workers at the Chicago Tribune to publicize the hedge fund’s strategy of gutting local newspapers and maximizing profits. 

Alden has garnered a reputation as a “hedge fund vampire,” and the Tribune acquisition means that the hedge fund will now manage major newsrooms like the Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, and New York Daily News — the latter of which will soon hold a union election with the National Labor Relations Board.

Outside of the NewsGuild, new unions at the Financial Times and Medium have announced campaigns since the start of 2021, and freelancers are also organizing with the Freelance Solidarity Project and the Industrial Workers of the World Freelance Journalists Union

Media companies all hire and compensate full-time and freelance workers differently so journalists now have a better chance of achieving transparency. 

The industry’s incentives are still out of place, especially with parent companies owned by hedge funds, but unions do not have a skewed perspective. They have labor power to build, and they can fight together for a more equitable future. 

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