As the digital age continues to disrupt the way we produce and consume information, media workers are facing a shift of seismic proportions. The old business models of big news corporations are disintegrating, and journalists’ jobs started imploding around the time you got an unlimited data plan. But some in the industry are finding new ways to stay afloat in the online ether—paradoxically, by revamping a vintage idea: grassroots labor organizing.
Last week, the staff of Gawker, one of the most iconic web media companies, voted by a 75-25 margin to form a union with Writers Guild of America East. Representing more than 100 online editorial staffers, the bargaining unit covers a network of Gawker Media’s outlets, from Gizmodo’s tech literati to Jezebel’s feminist pundits. The workers acknowledge that they’re on untrodden territory (Writers Guild primarily works with entertainment writers), and there was much lively banter—displayed, true to form, on a snark-laden public comment thread—between workers who were voting “yes” or “no.” Ultimately, the move was touted as the start of “a new model for cooperation in digital media.”
The exact form of the unit and contract demands will be hammered out later, but the bottom line appears to be that staff wanted to unionize to protect their current wages and benefits and also sought greater control over the operation as the company evolves in a volatile online marketplace.
Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan says that the union was the workers’ initiative, but “When we brought it to management, they were surprisingly supportive and simpatico.” That might raise some eyebrows over just how hip to the labor movement Gawker’s majority-owner Nick Denton actually is. But maybe digital disruption is in this case replacing old-school labor-vs.-management antagonism with a more cooperative, albeit less predictable, way of workplace politics. Besides, the model isn’t so new: The newspaper union NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America has recently organized two leftist alternative news outlets with a significant web presence, In These Times (where I’m a contributing editor) and Truthout. (NewsGuild also represents the staff of The Nation.)
Though it may often seem like Twitter spats and endless listicles are making real journalism obsolete, the production of media—the reportage, analysis, and narrative craft—can’t be reduced to algorithms. So could the current moment of confusion across the industry prompt more media workers to organize, even as regular staff positions evaporate? And will the more disruption-friendly, horizontal nature of the online sphere shake up received wisdom about what it means to wield collective labor power?