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?
Overall, unionization in media has tumbled in recent years. Although it is difficult to measure union representation across such a fluid profession, according to federal data, less than 7 percent of workers in the fields of “arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations” are represented by a union. Between 2000 and 2012, union membership in the information industries, including broadcasting and publishing, dropped from about 15 percent to under 10 percent.
Many struggling journalists don’t even have a boss they can turn to to make demands. Freelancing has become the norm for many journalists, whether they’re working as foreign correspondents for papers that have shed their foreign bureaus, or pumping out web-optimized listicles for start-up entertainment sites. Though it’s unclear how many journalists primarily work as freelancers today, one survey by Freelancers Union and E-Lance-ODesk estimates about one-third of the workforce, including multiple sectors, does some form of freelancing—by choice or by necessity. (Some juggle a variety of gigs, moonlighting as a copyeditor while reporting a long-form enterprise story, for example.)
Some groups, such as the National Writers Union, have made modest strides acting as collective voices for freelancers (a few years ago, NWU protested the Huffington Post’s exploitation of unpaid blog contributors). But even these efforts have been constrained by anti-trust laws, which absurdly treat freelance organizing as they do racketeering operations.
According to an online survey of freelance investigative journalists, conducted by Project Word (a project of Investigative Reporters and Editors that facilitates independent investigative reporting), more than 40 percent of respondents said an investigative story would earn them less money today than what they typically would have earned for the same work five years ago. Nearly seven in ten reported that outlets commissioned work without covering the upfront expenses, like travel. Many never recover their financial investment in an investigative project through the payment they ultimately receive for published work (particularly when websites often pay less than print for comparable pieces).
The survey reveals intensifying insecurity among freelance workers, which reflects the turmoil in the media industries as a whole, even as the diversified marketplace for “content” opens new opportunities. Journalists may celebrate online media’s creative explosion of niche publications, viral activism, and globalized cultural platforms, but still fear these innovations are coming at the expense of creative people’s livelihoods.
The vast majority of survey respondents said they wished for some form of workforce organization. They might not want the formal structure of a union—many freelancers opt for independent work precisely because they prefer working as free agents rather than as staffers. But many yearn for some basic structure for, say, exchanging information on what it’s like to write for different outlets, or pooling industry data to better understand working conditions.
Gawker’s unionization raises tricky questions—and new hope—for online media makers who are trying to carve out a career path in media where traditional jobs are quickly disappearing. The so-called creative economy has romanced many young journalists into toiling for start-ups on poverty wages, writing for free to gain “exposure,” hoping blindly that their nonstop “content production” will eventually distill into a steady career. Meanwhile, with so much digital media being endlessly shared through “free” or ad-based platforms, even established web-based outlets are struggling to monetize their products.
But organizing in the creative industries is nothing new. The Popular Front of the 1930s galvanized artists and writers as a media proletariat, which in turn, integrated ideas of social democracy and labor radicalism into their creative work. The same period saw the unionization of screenwriters, studio musicians, and animators, who twinned art for the masses with mass political action. These days, online journalists face a new iteration of a familiar labor crisis, as they pivot between anxious precarity and creative class consciousness.
Ursula Lawrence, an organizer with Writers Guild who helped organize the Gawker staffers, says online journalism might benefit from the organizing model used by screenwriters. Those workers generally operate on a contract basis and pursue projects independently, but, as union members, negotiate deals based on an industry-wide union contract that sets standards for compensation and basic work rules. Tailored for project-based work in the entertainment industry, the model meshes the flexibility of a “gig economy” with the collective leverage of a union infrastructure.
“We’re having conversations among independent content creators about…how they should be treated and what sorts of creative rights they should have,” Lawrence says. As Writers Guild grapples with the changing technological environment, “the point is really to have a conversation in that group about what is fair and how they can create collective power without necessarily a shared employer.”
The atomized structure of digital publishing makes labor organizing messier and more improvisational. Now a local paper can crowdsource proofreaders overseas as a cheaper replacement for a real copydesk. But maybe a coder at a lifestyle website could unionize with telecommuting bloggers. Or investigative journalists could network to collaborate on grant applications or enterprise stories.
One experiment in bringing new digital organization to the freelance realm is Wordrates and Pitchlab, the twin Kickstarter-funded ventures of freelance journalist Scott Carney. Through a crowd-sourced online platform, Wordrates would build a Yelp-esque clearinghouse for “user-submitted ratings of editors and publications,” with reviews on prospective pay rates at different publications and a forum to compare notes on contract terms. It’s not a labor advocacy group but a basic market-based platform that helps tackle informational asymmetry in the industry. The idea is to force transparency to give writers greater leverage in negotiating contracts.
Pitchlab would offer a professional development hub pairing freelancers with more established journalists, who work as a kind of journalist’s literary agent to help them hone story ideas. The pitchers then help shop the pitches around to publications where they already have an in. The venture aims to raise payscales by maximizing networking potential, but doesn’t grow labor power in the traditional sense across the workforce. Still, by building a networked community into the production process, Carney says, “The hope is that the free market will—just like with the book-publishing industry and with the movie industry—provide an avenue for reliable income for writers.”
There remains a yawning gap in journalism for an organization that can pressure publications to pay equitable rates, cover reporting costs and provide fair working conditions. Maybe that’s where journalists might fuse the touch-screen with the good old-fashioned union card.
Bernie Lunzer, head of NewsGuild, which represents about 26,000 reporters, digital producers and other workers in newspapers and related fields, says the freewheeling online journalism sector is reaching a quarter-life crisis of sorts. “Even amongst some younger people, there is a sense that…they’re becoming more cognizant that not all media is poor, that some of the media outlets some of [them] are working for are profitable,” he says. “And yet they’re still supposed to be happy believing that they’re working at a start-up, and that they’ve got an espresso machine or a foosball table.… People are not stupid, and they understand that they have to have some balance at some point.”
NewsGuild’s attempts to organize freelancers are still embryonic, but its Pacific Media Workers division runs a “freelancers unit,” which recently signed a contract offering union-level protection with the online-based social media consultancy Social Movement Technologies. Though the organizing was facilitated by the company’s in-built pro-labor ethos (it specializes in social-media training with community organizations), the workers seek to negotiate on concrete terms, like raising the $25-per-hour pay rate. Generally, the freelancers unit provides services like assisting writers in obtaining healthcare benefits or in recovering payments from publications.
Though younger journalists might chafe against the inherent instability of the digital media market, Lunzer says, “unfortunately right now the only real choice for a lot of millennials is to vote with their feet, to leave a place. But with a union, you can stay at a place that you like and make it better.”
Those working independently as roving freelancers are meanwhile struggling for solidarity as traditional 9-to-5 jobs yield to contract-based and project-based labor. There are more ways for autonomous journalists to carve out a niche, but also more economic cracks to fall through.
As the online press spawns new forms of storytelling, both the medium and the message have a chance to redefine themselves. On the expanding digital media horizon, Project Word Director Laird Townsend reflects: “I’m not sure how much more of this amazing trend [of online media production] will play out before people stop and just say, ‘Hm, okay. We have something new here, and we haven’t really caught up to it. How are we going to organize ourselves, both management and workers, and independent contractors.’ Each will be looking at this, each will be trying to make it work.”