Multiple online publishers have made large reductions in editorial staff over the last few years — and one factor seems to permeate many different newsrooms that have faced this peril — unions for journalists.
Indeed, newsrooms in New York City and Washington, D.C. may be the last place many Americans think of when they think of workers’ unions, but in fact, many unions can be found right there. Over the last half decade or so, media staffers, especially at online news sites, have made an effort to unionize their newsrooms, and in many cases, succeeded.
Yet many of these unions were not able to stave off the looming threat of job losses. Indeed, as news outlets juggle driving traffic, attracting advertisers, and keeping the money flowing, many have had to make reductions in staff to keep their company on track.
Here are the online media companies that cut writing staff after they unionized.
Vice, the brainchild of Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi, and Gavin McInnes, was an early media success story. Emerging out of Montreal, Canada and later relocating to New York City, the brand is now worldwide and has inked deals with many media companies, making Smith a billionaire.
But while the news division of Vice initially made waves on the internet with wonky YouTube mini-documentaries and raunchy articles, its image has drastically changed in the past five years, especially as Vice’s editorial department left behind much of its politically incorrect content to focus on social justice-related pieces. (RELATED: Vice Airs Documentary On Black ‘Healing Retreats’ For People Who Need ‘A Break From White People’)
In recent years, the company has grown exponentially but also experienced serious growing pains. In 2015, employees began to unionize, and in 2017, Vice News employees won union recognition.
On Wednesdays we wear VICE Union shirts. pic.twitter.com/CNfR1l5yOU
— VICE Union (@viceunion) November 28, 2018
That same year, Vice fell nearly $100 million short of its revenue target. In early 2018, Smith left his role as CEO. The company instituted a hiring freeze in 2018, and in early 2019, the company cut about 250 employees. In June, the company again shook up staff, and in August, Viceland, the company’s entertainment channel, also faced layoffs.
Gawker, a site beloved by readers for its trashy and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny content, made its mark on the web with punchy pieces about celebrity news and the New York media world.
But the site also faced serious problems that lead to it getting shut down altogether. In 2015, the company’s workers decided to unionize, publishing a piece titled, “Why We’ve Decided to Organize.”
“Though our company is relatively well run, pays relatively competitive salaries, and treats its employees relatively well, there are still certain issues that many employees would like to see addressed,” the article reads in part. “We would like to ensure everyone receives a salary that is fair for their time at the company and the work they do. We would like to ensure that things like pay and raises are set in a fair, transparent, and unbiased way.”
“We would like to have some basic mechanism for giving employees a voice in the decisions that affect all of us here,” the employees demanded.
Later that year, the company’s workers did vote to unionize and it was recognized by the company. In 2016, the company and the union secured a contract, which reportedly guaranteed full-time writers a minimum salary of $50,000, a minimum salary of $70,000 for “senior writers,” and a minimum of $90,000 for top editors and employees.
However, all of this organization couldn’t save Gawker workers’ jobs. Following a lawsuit by Hulk Hogan, funded by Peter Thiel, the website shuttered in fall of 2016. (RELATED: Journalism Prof Torn Up Over Loss Of Gawker: ‘Courage In The Media Needed’)
Vox Media, a parent company of several websites, including the wonky Vox.com, dealt with layoffs in early 2018, shortly after the company recognized the Vox Media Union.
It’s unclear if the job cuts were due to the unionization effort underway, but job losses were felt across the board, losing 50 staffers in their sports brand SB Nation, their video team, and their other brands like Racked and Curbed.
We’re thrilled, and strongly believe this contract is a big step toward creating an even better workplace — here are some of the highlights! pic.twitter.com/hzYIOdAYrY
— Vox Media Union (@vox_union) June 14, 2019
Job cuts haven’t deterred the workers’ unionization efforts. In June, the union and the company reached a contract deal after 29 hours of negotiation. (RELATED: The Numbers Are In: ‘Vox Adpocalypse’ Was Really Good For Steven Crowder)
BuzzFeed was founded in the mid aughts and under the leadership of Jonah Peretti, separated themselves from other websites with quizzes and mini-games about everything from pop culture to politics to personality tests. The site also mixed in a good dose of social justice-type content as well as original reporting under the banner of BuzzFeed News.
However, BuzzFeed’s high ambitions did not always match with their actual earning potential. In early 2019, BuzzFeed reduced staff by nearly 15 percent of its overall workforce after a disappointing miss in revenue goals over the past two years.
Immediately following the job losses, the remaining staffers moved quickly to unionize, with nearly 90 percent of the staff joining the push for unionization.
We, the U.S. employees of BuzzFeed News, are organizing with @nyguild to form a union so we can secure better protections for our coworkers. Read our full mission statement https://t.co/CPqjgSdt7L pic.twitter.com/hNu9JvT6OF
— BuzzFeed News Union (@bfnewsunion) February 12, 2019
In a statement, BuzzFeed’s union committee said, “It’s not all fun and memes.”
“Our staff has been organizing for several months, and we have legitimate grievances about unfair pay disparities, mismanaged pivots and layoffs, weak benefits, skyrocketing health insurance costs, diversity and more.”
Management at BuzzFeed hasn’t had the best relationship with the union — in June, employees walked out at multiple office locations after four months of negotiation. In July, BuzzFeed agreed to recognize the union, but a contract has still not been struck. (RELATED: BuzzFeed Doubles Down On Trump Story, But Won’t Discuss Documents Or Sources)
One of the most curious rise and fall stories in recent online media history can be seen in Mic.com, which started off as a politics site called PolicyMic, and later evolved into a liberal clickbait factory.
During Mic’s glory days, social justice-minded stories routinely went viral on Facebook, generating millions of clicks for the site.
Mic’s staff also proudly began to process of unionization in 2018.
Mic Union is back at the bargaining table today, and not just the bargaining committee! we’ve got more than a dozen mic union members. like always, we’re speaking to management about why Mic Union is so important to us and how to make mic even better! pic.twitter.com/85jyHOYmdV
— Mic Union (@mic_union) October 26, 2018
However, the business model was not sustainable, and the site was eventually acquired by Bustle Digital Group, but not before most of its employees were fired in November 2018.
— Mic Union (@mic_union) November 30, 2018
As Business Insider reported, many speculate that the layoffs were due to the need to get rid of union employees. (RELATED: How Mic.com Exploits Social Justice Outrage)
What This Means For The Media
Other smaller media outlets have faced other issues with unionization. One notable example is the New York City news site Gothamist, which was shut down in 2017 following unionization. Gothamist came back to the web in 2018 now back on the web following an acquisition by WNYC.
ThinkProgress, another news website with unionized staff, also had to shut down this year. The center-left Center for American Progress (CAP), which owned the site, tried to sell it over the summer but could not find a buyer. In September, the site was closed down completely.
Despite widespread layoffs, the online media world is still relatively intact, as many websites continue to make money and drive the news.
But liberal news outlets are in a difficult balancing act between employees who wish to unionize and owners who need to keep their companies in the black. As these tensions continue to rile newsrooms, we may hear about media companies laying off workers again sooner rather than later.