Unions are becoming ubiquitous in digital media

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GAWKER MEDIA became the first digital media platform to unionize in 2015 with the help of the Writers Guild of America.

Gawker Media made history five years ago for being the first digital news company to ratify a union contract, kicking off a wave of Labor organizing at digital outlets that has yet to recede.

Last week, staffers at the online publishing platform Medium announced their intention to unionize, following in the footsteps of Gawker, HuffPost, Salon, Slate, Vice, BuzzFeed News, Vox Media, Bustle Digital Group, Wirecutter and The Ringer, to name a few. Many local newspapers and legacy media organizations such as Hearst Magazines, Wired and The New Yorker also have joined the movement, as well as the digital arms of NBC News and MTV News.

“I think a lot of people perceive media as this white-collar profession, but the reality of working in a lot of media jobs was really low salaries, bad benefits, very little job stability,” said Hamilton Nolan, a Labor reporter for the magazine In These Times who worked at the now-shuttered Gawker and helped spearhead the union efforts there. “One thing that the unions have done across the industry in many, many places is just to put in place a basic safety net for workers.”

STAFFERS ON THE ONLINE publishing platform Medium announced their intention to unionize last week, following in the footsteps of Gawker, HuffPost, Salon, Slate, Vice, BuzzFeed News, Vox Media, Bustle Digital Group, Wirecutter and others.

MEDIUM WORKERS UNION
Medium Workers Union represents about 140 employees across departments including editorial, engineering, design and product. A strong majority of those staffers have signed union cards with Communications Workers of America, one of the country’s largest unions, which represents staffers from tech companies like Alphabet (GOOGLE) and Glitch and those at media companies like The New York Times (NYT) and the Wall Street Journal.

Founder Ev Williams launched Medium in 2012 as a place “where people share ideas and stories that are longer than 140 characters and not just for friends,” a nod to what used to be the character limit on Twitter (TWTR), the other platform he helped launch.

In addition to hosting content for professional and amateur writers, Medium has launched several of its own publications including OneZero, GEN and Zora, which cover tech, politics and women of color, respectively. In June, Colin Kaepernick joined Medium’s board and announced plans to create stories for the platform about race and civil rights in the United States. Last month, Medium acquired Glose, a digital platform for buying, reading and discussing books.

NO SPECIFIC DEMANDS – YET
While many newsrooms have unionized to address immediate concerns such as mass layoffs, lack of pay equity or glaring diversity issues, Medium staffers said they are not seeking to bargain over specific changes, for now.

“Medium is a workplace like any other where there are imperfections, there are issues, but we’re not running to this initiative with a set of established demands,” said Kelli María Korducki, senior editor at Forge, a Medium publication. “The priority is really to unite the workforce.”

Lyra Naeseth, a principal software engineer at Medium, told CNN Business that the union’s goal is “to alleviate the systemic imbalance in our workplace.”

Management gets “to stand together, talk about values, talk about our plans,” Naeseth said. “Our union is an opportunity for the broader workforce to do the same.”

MANAGEMENT ‘ASSESSING NEXT STEPS’
A Medium spokesperson said in a statement to CNN Business that management is “aware” that employees have started a union.

“This is an important matter that merits thoughtful consideration, and we are assessing the appropriate next steps,” the statement said.

A Medium staffer told CNN Business that management acknowledged the union efforts and said it is assessing next steps.

In a “vision statement” shared with CNN Business, workers at Medium cited the importance of equity and support for employees amid a changing media and tech landscape as reasons for organizing.

“This is the age of newsroom buyouts, startups folding, tech companies shifting more jobs to contractors, and the general implosion of independent media,” they said in the statement. “Tech and media companies alike are constantly changing direction, dissolving and reforming, pivoting and refocusing. This often creates business advantages, but it also upends workers’ lives.”

Medium laid off one-third of its staff in 2017 as it pivoted its business from advertising to subscriptions. The company now competes with other subscription news businesses including newcomer Substack. Williams told CNN Business last month that one of Medium’s selling points is a built-in audience.

‘A BASIC FEATURE OF EVERY WORKPLACE’
Unions have had a long history at newspapers, but the more recent efforts inspired by Gawker’s success launched a new era. Workers have sought to address a lack of basic benefits as well concerns about what seemed like constant editorial pivots.

Nolan, who is also on the council for Writers Guild of America, East, which represents HuffPost, Vice, Slate and other news organizations, argued that unions “should be a basic feature of every workplace” — regardless of whether the company is in a state of crisis or not — but added that they have been crucial to the media industry given its instability from the economic cycles and evolving technology.

“What has driven the unionization in media is just the power of the idea itself,” Nolan said. “People that work in this industry recognize that this is clearly a good idea: to unionize and to be able to bargain collectively against your employers.”

Naeseth, who has worked at Medium since 2017, said she has “learned so much” about publishing and been able to get to know more colleagues through the unionization effort. Some unions at other media companies represent certain departments such as editorial, but the staff at Medium saw this as an opportunity to unite across the organization.

“At the end of the day, we’re all building platforms and communicating to a mass audience,” Korducki said. “As a workforce, we take that responsibility as seriously in the work as we do in the environment that we foster.”

(Reprinted from CNN Business)


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