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March 21, 2019, 11:26 a.m.

Why are digital newsrooms unionizing now? “This generation is tired of hearing that this industry requires martyrdom”

“These are professional-class jobs paying working-class wages, and these people have working-class worries about being downsized, laid off, cast aside in a market that is really stripped down.”

This piece is from our sister publication Nieman Reports.

In January 2015, The Washington Post’s labor reporter at the time, Lydia DePillis, wrote a story called “Why Internet journalists don’t organize.” DePillis observed that many writers were individualistic and had “built personal brands” and therefore apparently had scant interest in unions and collective action. One employee she interviewed said digital media workers were “half-looking to jump elsewhere,” so why fight to have a union if you’re not going to stick around? An editor told DePillis that despite the industry’s low salaries and instability, digital journalists were “SO unprepared for anything like union organizing…They all went to good schools, and very few of them seem to have any experience with labor in the real workforce.”

Two months later, Hamilton Nolan, a senior writer at Gawker, was talking with an organizer from the Writers Guild of America, East, a union largely of film and television writers, when the organizer told him that workers at one news website she hoped to unionize seemed scared of retaliation if they pushed for a union. Nolan surprised her by saying why not try to unionize his company, Gawker Media, which included Jezebel, Deadspin, Gizmodo, and Jalopnik. Soon Nolan was chatting up his coworkers, and within three weeks, nearly 40 Gawker workers met one afternoon at Writers Guild headquarters to discuss unionization.

The next day, Nolan posted a piece on Gawker with the headline “Why We’ve Decided to Organize.” While noting that Gawker was “a very good place to work,” Nolan wrote, “Every workplace could use a union. A union is the only real mechanism that exists to represent the interests of employees in a company.”

“It was obvious that you needed to be unionized for the same reason that newspapers needed to be,” Nolan says. “There is always a structural imbalance in the workplace without a union. You can talk about getting better wages, better benefits, editorial protections, all those important things, but regardless of how good your job is, if you’re not working under a contract, you’ll always be at the mercy of your boss if you don’t have a union.”

Within days, an extraordinarily transparent debate had erupted in which Gawker employees posted their thoughts, pro and con, about unionizing. This online debate was fully accessible to the public. Also unusual, Gawker’s founder, Nick Denton — unlike many corporate executives in the U.S. — did not declare war against unionization. Denton instead said he was “intensely relaxed” about it. Tommy Craggs, Gawker Media’s executive editor, added that he was “politically, temperamentally and, almost, sentimentally supportive of the union drive.”

In promoting unionization back in 2015, Nolan said he wanted to ensure that everyone received a fair salary and that pay and raises were set in a fair, transparent, and unbiased way. In what became a recurring theme, he added, “We would like to have some basic mechanism for giving employees a voice in the decisions that affect all of us here.”

Photo of DNAinfo reporter Ben Fractenberg and Gothamist reporter Emma Whitford at a rally hosted by the Writers Guild of America in November 2017 by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

POSTED     March 21, 2019, 11:26 a.m.
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