For A Sustainable Media

The way forward for the press

A couple of weeks after I graduated, my editor at the independent blog company I had interned for over my junior-year summer called to offer me a full-time gig. This was about a month after a has-been professional wrestler nearly sued the entire company out of existence.

Taking a risk, I dumped the summer internship I had secured and took the job. That fall, the company got bought by a massive media conglomerate; the independence vanished overnight. Where once the fate of our media company and our financial futures rested solely in the hands of our owner, Nick Denton, that power now belonged to a faceless group of overpaid midlevel executives who would pop in every few months for increasingly disastrous all-hands meetings.

Fast forward to the spring of 2018. Saddled with debt by the privateequity firms that they had stupidly sold pieces of themselves to for years, the conglomerate, or rather its debtors, decided costs needed to be trimmed. For us, that could have meant dropping 30 percent of our staff, as the conglomerate initially (reportedly) hoped. Instead, because of our union, the result was eighteen weeks of severance for the forty-four staffers who took the deal. A major loss, but also a mitigated one.

Now jump to this spring. In March, a day after I joined a dozen fellow employees in informing the lawyers for the faceless conglomerate that we would strike if they did not offer us a fair contract, the conglomerate conceded to our heroic bargaining team and offered us a fair contract. A month later, our (highly successful!) blogs were sold as part of a preplanned dump-off to a(nother) private-equity—sorry, “growth” equity—firm, which immediately replaced our bosses with two nondescript mid-sixties white guys to run a company whose cornerstones include Jezebel and The Root (which focus on women’s and African- American issues, respectively). Oh, and the big conglomerate that used to own us gave us about a two-week notice that our company’s more than 200 employees had to move out of our office. The economic issues that have befallen the digital news industry in the past five years, and America in the last forty, have also befallen print media: Outlets are increasingly coming under the control of a select few major investors and newspaper groups, whose executives feel far more beholden to their stockholders than to the communities their outlets serve, let alone the reporters serving them. And at a certain point, a union, as they are currently constituted, is limited when these people decide the axe must fall.

The summer following my sophomore year, I interned for The News & Observer in Raleigh, on the sports desk. Thanks to industrywide consolidation and some terrible investments made by some C-level suits, mass layoffs had ravaged the newsroom. As a result, the three-story office was a ghost town. The interns, along with the remaining staff, sat through meetings where the higher-ups explained how the paper was actually still profitable, but because it was not independent from the dozens of other properties this corporation controlled, its profits did not mean more jobs or higher salaries, but that the money simply vanished, poof , off to settle the company’s aforementioned debts. A couple of years later, they swapped their office for a smaller one, selling the storied building to a company that invests in “securities, real estate, and oil and gas.”

In the same way that our union could not stop Gawker Media from being sold, a union would not have saved The N&O from its post-Recession contraction. It almost certainly would have secured workers better health care and salaries and, eventually, buyouts, but a union in the form that presently pervades the print and digital sectors would not have withstood the inherent idiocy of late-stage capitalism.

The idea of always-elusive high profit margins and quick cash-ins has spelled doom for workers at every outlet from Vox to The Denver Post, because at the end of the day, newsrooms that do not control their own financial fate, or have a sole owner that is concerned with more than their ROI, are asking their owners to minimize their own outsized slice of the pie chart in favor of providing a crucial and quickly fading community service. What we have seen on the owners’ part, repeatedly, is the opposite. They instead point to us, the reporters and editors, and say we must do more with less. Then, after normalizing the new work practices, they will ask the same of us again. And then again. And then again, until there is left but one person clacking away in a hollow bullpen, assigning, filing, editing, and publishing all the day’s news.

For the current and future employees in the news media to create a sustainable model that fosters lifelong careers and moves away from the benefits-absent freelance model, unions are necessary. But they must grow and evolve with the goal of inserting a group of representatives in the boardroom to force executives to hear the voice of all those who contribute to the production of the outlet, so that when it comes time to make a risky investment or cutbacks due to macroeconomic reasons, the workers at the bottom are not the only ones getting screwed. Since 2015, more than 2,000 digital media workers have unionized their newsrooms. It is time for these workers, and for their colleagues in the print industry, to declare the era of single-handed domination by venture capitalists and conglomerates at an end.

I’m not old or grizzled or wise. But I’m already tired of praying for a benevolent billionaire, and other journalists should be, too.

Martin ’16 is a staff writer at Splinter, where he covers Indian Country and Southern politics. He is also a citizen of the Sappony Tribe and a proud member of the Writers Guild of America-East.


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