How Media Workers are Organizing in the Dual Economy

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Yves here. I want to quibble a bit about the idea that reporters, now apparently “media workers,” were middle and upper middle class. That is a recent development. It was not all that long ago that people from working class backgrounds dominated the ranks of reporters, although admittedly having a desk job and a byline meant the role itself was white collar. Indeed, one of the strengths of traditional gumshoe reporters was their lack of identity with and allegiance to government and corporate officials. Michael M. Thomas’ observation about the decline of the New York Times1 is broadly applicable: “They were dining with those they should have been dining on.”

Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

America has become a dual economy, with excessive riches for the few on the top and precariousness and scarcity for those on the bottom. As a result, white collar workers who for the second half of the 20th Century enjoyed good pay, stability, and benefits are now fighting for basic rights as workers. One of the fields in which this change has been most visible is digital media, particularly this month as Vox and BuzzFeed News workers have challenged management with walkouts.

Hamilton Nolan, a senior writer at Splinter News and formerly a writer for Gawker, talks about the trend of labor activism in digital media.

Aaron Freedman: In the past few years digital media workers have been on the frontlines of unionizing private workplaces. Why is that?

Hamilton Nolan: I think that journalists are smart enough to understand the basic fact that unionizing is good for them. Once people in our industry saw unionization happening, the unavoidable logic of the idea really pushed it everywhere. People also want to see to it that companies that claim to have a social mission live up to their own rhetoric.

Worker ownership is re-entering American political debate, with Bernie Sanders now endorsing a policy for workers to gain ownership in the companies they work for. Do you think digital media workers could be at the front lines of that fight as well?

I think cooperative ownership is great, and in a sense coops are the most evolved form of unions—total ownership by the workers. That said, I have not seen any realistic pathways to that happening in our industry. Media is a very risky, up and down industry and I’m not sure how workers would go about taking ownership of established media companies, or if the risk would be worth it. That said if there is creative financing out there that incorporates a fair risk calculation I’m sure people would consider it.

Only a few decades ago, journalism was seen as a middle-class and upper-middle class career. Now we’re more likely to think of it as some of the most precarious, poorly compensated white collar work that exists. What happened?

The newspaper industry was stable, it had high profit margins, and it was widely unionized. It had a great run and created a lot of stable, well-paid jobs. The rise of the internet seriously undermined print media. I see our own industry’s union movement as part of an ongoing process to make journalism a stable, living wage career once again, not just a constant hustle that keeps workers in a precarious existence and doesn’t have an open door for a truly diverse group of people. Unions are in the process of rebuilding in new media what the print media used to have.

For a while it seemed like the unionization wave in digital media was not bleeding over into other startups. That changed earlier this year when Kickstarter’s staff announced they were unionizing. Do you think we’ll see more tech workers organizing? What are the challenges and opportunities for union organizing you see in those types of shops?

Tech will absolutely unionize. It is inevitable. For one thing, the biggest and richest and most powerful companies in America are all tech companies. It is not tenable for organized labor to be completely absent from the most powerful part of the economy. Tech must unionize for the sake of the labor movement in general. From the perspective of tech workers, the only way they are going to get their fair share of the fantastic profits being made is to work collectively. The logic, again, is unavoidable. I am certain that we will see more tech unions in the near future, although cracking the biggest tech companies will be a long term project.

The past few years have seen an uptick in militant organizing and strikes by teachers. Teachers, of course, have long been a heavily unionized workforce, but do you think their militancy could inspire similar efforts by the newly unionized crop of digital media workers?

Teachers are somewhat comparable to journalists in the sense that they are a lot of smart, decently educated, idealistic, and not particularly well-paid people. This also goes for academic workers. These groups are a prime source of labor activism: stepped on but organized, and they know what they need to do to make things better. I think that militancy already exists in media unions. You just saw the Vox walkout, for example. Militancy will probably grow in reaction to events. Teachers are stepped on in a more profound sense than media workers, but the more organized and conscious the workers in our industry become, the easier it will be to pull off strong labor actions to make this a fairer place to work.
1 Thomas dates the beginning of the end of the Times to when “Punch” Sulzberger joined the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1968.

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  1. Arizona Slim

    A lot of these companies rely on freelancers. Who also are badly treated. They also need unions.

  2. Ep3

    Yves, sports is the worst at this. There’s a reporter with a Detroit newspaper who got to attend the baseball team’s “hang with the team” event, an event costing $5,500 to the average joe, he got to go for free, all the while being the beat writer assigned to the baseball team. where in Detroit during bankruptcy the billionaire owner of the hockey & baseball teams, got the city to pay for him a new hockey arena, which is shared with the basketball team. So owner gets a stadium, gets to rent it to basketball, basketball gets a free place to play, while the city is in economic ruin. I won’t get into how this same billionaire owner is being given cash payments by the city AND being sold pieces of city land at huge discounted prices. Then he is sitting on those pieces of land, waiting for them to increase in price while city falls apart.

    1. Cal2

      Do you think that sports really is of any importance politically?
      In my opinion, sports are promoted as a means of keeping Americans apolitical, a safe way to discharge emotions and dumb down, distract and docilize the very people, i.e. men, especially black men, who should be outraged at their loss of social and economic mobility.

      When the NBA constantly headlines newspapers, registers as the “most popular” story, and no mention is made of the what, four wars we are fighting in?, then sports are a force for evil, not just a distraction.

      Nothing wrong with physical fitness and sportsmanship, but the greedplex of pro sports, as you describe above, has nothing to do with that.

  3. David in Santa Cruz

    Quibble? Reporters as “upper middle-class” was a brief and recent phenomenon. During my six decades, the chain-smoking veteran reporters who I knew had come up from the state-college-educated working class. They toiled in newsrooms reeking of ink and newsprint, adjacent to the highly-unionized press rooms.

    Ivy Leaguers who didn’t want to stain their white cuffs while playing Woodward & Bernstein are a recent phenomenon. Fearless journalism can only be practiced by outsiders, and the decoupling of intellectual production from the physical printing presses — and the union pressmen who ran them — wrecked the profession.

  4. Tyronius

    This blog is the embodiment of what the Internet has meant to journalism. It seems to be something everyone involved is still figuring out- except the pressmen, of course. They’re not coming back.

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