Digital media outlets took a sharp turn towards unionizing in the past year, but the recent rise of organized newsmen was set in motion almost a decade ago.
Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) has been at the forefront of the industry shift. It has been able to organize ThinkProgress, The Huffington Post, Vice Media, Salon Media Group and Gawker Media in just the past year. WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson notes the recent successes came only after years of work.
“Nearly seven years ago the WGAE launched a project we called ‘Writers Guild 2.0’ to learn more about digital media,” Peterson told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “We attended conferences, watched and read a lot of content, met with creators, did a lot of research.”
The union noticed in those early years that the industry was influx and saw an opportunity. New technologies and the internet paved the way for innovation and experimentation. Those new to the industry had more of a voice and a new set of rules transformed newsrooms as traditional structures crumbled.
“We offered a Digital Media Training Program for three years, including panels that addressed business and creative issues, seminars on specific issues and skills, hands-on training on various kinds of software” Peterson noted. “And we organized. At first, this was mostly webisode creators, and the shops tended to be small. But we also worked closely with our members in broadcast news.”
The union researched, studied and met with digital media workers to better prepare for the rising industry, including the Huffington Post and Gawker.
“In early 2015 we talked with some astute, engaged folks at Gawker,” Peterson continued. “They expressed interest in forming a union there, and we invited them to a meeting at the Guild office. Ordinarily, one can expect a handful of people to attend such a preliminary meeting. This time, about 30 Gawker writers and editors showed up.”
Gawker was unique in its enthusiasm for workplace representation. The union normally keeps organizing campaigns confidential until just before it files for recognition, but the writers chose to go public immediately. Gawker even opened a public online forum so its writers could discuss and debate the merits of unionizing. The editorial staff eventually voted June 3 in support of representation.
“There is no question that the Gawker campaign inspired a lot of other writers, editors, and video producers in digital media to unionize,” Peterson said. “But I think there were deeper dynamics at work at the same time.”
The union had built a solid foundation by the time digital media innovated itself into a crucial industry. New outlets saw their newsrooms expand as more readers switched from traditional news services to online content. The union was an established option for the growing workforce.
“It requires skilled, dedicated organizing work,” Peterson noted. “Building lists, having coffee with lots of people, engaging the most active people to get more and more people involved in the effort. At the same time, I think the wave of unionizing also reflects the maturation of digital media.”
WGAE paved the way for unions venturing into digital media. In the past year other unions have also seen a surge of digital workers looking to unionize. The NewsGuild of New York was recently able to organize Al Jazeera America and The Nation as well as the stateside affiliate of the Guardian Media Group.
“Not that long ago no one really knew if digital news was a viable business,” Peterson said. “There were a lot of pure aggregators, and there was real concern about this amounted to pure cannibalism that would eliminate original writing, real journalism. Now there are digital media companies that are viable.”
Digital media proved itself a worthy competent of the overall industry. It no longer consisted of blogs and small outlets, but of some of the most widely used content and news creators in the world. Digital media has created many new opportunities for writers and producers to launch successful careers.
“Digital journalists recognize this, and increasingly think of the field as one where real careers are possible,” Peterson went onto say. “As journalists contemplate digital news careers, they also think about how to improve those careers, and that is where unionizing comes in.”
Peterson argues collective action through unionizing gives workers a voice as the industry continues to change around them. For the outlets which have already joined the union ranks, the transition has been smooth. The outlets thus far have been fairly progressive, and so they tend to have a better appreciation for the merits of collective action.
“I think the owners tend to be progressive,” Peterson added. “And they also recognize that their readers and viewers might not react well to anti-union campaigns. Also, the fact is that there is very broad and deep support among the writers, editors, and producers.”
Peterson is optimistic of what’s around the corner for the industry and his union. He hopes what the union has achieved in the past year will lead to an even stronger presence going forward.
“I think we now have a critical mass that will enable us to make concrete gains at the bargaining table,” Peterson concluded. “We should be able to correct some of the inequities in compensation, and to create upward pressure on pay rates across the board. We should be able to lock in good benefits where they’re being offered, and maybe to make some improvements.”
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