Organizing New Media

Megan McRobert
Hamilton Nolan

A former Gawker writer and a union organizer on online worker unions, life under Univision, and labor's new opportunities.

clasesdeperiodismo / Flickr

Interview by
Jason Farbman

Gawker Media, Inc. was not the first online outlet to unionize, but it was certainly the most public. When employees first very visibly announced their union drive, they made clear that they wanted to inspire others, in online media and beyond, to organize, too.

In the year since employees unionized, Gawker Media — which included its flagship site GawkerGizmodo, Deadspin, Jezebel, Kotaku, Lifehacker, and Jalopnik — was very publicly bankrupted by a lawsuit financed by PayPal founder Peter Thiel. The company was put up for auction, and after media giant Univision bought it, many assumed Gawker was dead.

“The bankruptcy and the lawsuit were the end of Gawker as we knew it,” predicted one observer. “When you get into bigger and bigger companies, they impose more rules. They have to. They’re held more accountable for their actions.”

Those predictions may have proven true. Immediately after the purchase, Univision dropped the Gawker name and website, and changed the umbrella group’s name to Gizmodo Media. News reports indicated early clashes between new management and workers over liability protection for authors and for Univision’s decision to delete half a dozen posts deemed too controversial, but which the staff considered well-reported and accurate. The union criticized the deletions “in the strongest possible terms.”

Over that same period, several other media companies also unionized, including Univision-owned Fusion.net which, despite management’s anti-union campaign management, saw over 90 percent of Fusion’s seventy-member bargaining unit vote to unionize. (This week, however, management announced layoffs.) At TheRoot.com, another site owned by Univision, 100 percent of the editorial staff recently signed union cards; legal news site Law360 also recently unionized.

To discuss how their union is helping to shape life after the Univision buyout, Jacobin’s Jason Farbman spoke with Hamilton Nolan, senior writer at Deadspin, and Megan McRobert, an organizer at the Writers Guild of America.


JF

Gawker sat at the intersection between old-style journalism and this other thing — sort of new media, sort of like a dot-com startup. Where exactly does Gawker fit into the broader media and corporate landscape?

HN

Nick Denton always went back and forth: “We’re a tech company, we’re a media company …” But I think in the end, Gawker Media was a media company, and Gawker.com was a publication.

The underlying idea was like, “We’re just gonna tell the truth.” Not in that high and mighty way, but just in a way that media companies that are more connected to the establishment can’t do. That was really key to Gawker’s success and popularity. We were gonna tell the truth and tell what we know to the reader, and we’re not gonna have like two classes of information where the media insiders know one thing and everyone else knows this sort of sanitized version of what the media insiders know.

JF

If someone is doing work they consider noble, sometimes they think a union isn’t needed.

HN

I’ve written about labor for a long time, and people would write and there’d be comments like, “Are you guys organized?” And I kind of dismissed it. I thought it was important for Walmart employees to organize, but we have good jobs.

Over time my thinking evolved. I think that unions should be a basic feature of the workplace for everybody. If you don’t have a union, there’s inherently an imbalance of power. So when I got there in my mind and made a connection with the Writers Guild, that’s how it happened.

JF

The Writers Guild organizes writers at big shows — Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, for example — where people are well-paid, love their jobs, and where long hours are just a hallmark of the work. When you first meet with people about forming a union, is there a lot of doubt to overcome?

MM

What’s interesting about this industry is the degree that people come to us. That’s not something I’m used to in the union world. I’m dedicated to digital media. I work with Gizmodo, Vice, Huffington Post, Fusion, and The Root. That those place are mission-driven has been one of the catalysts — people are like, “live up to your values.”

We know there are issues like salary inequity, we know there are issues with diversity, we know there are issues with favoritism, with editorial issues, and so at all these places it’s been, for most people, a catalyzing issue because they expect things to be better.

JF

Even if there is some section of people that is excited about unionizing, there must be those who are against unions for whatever reason.

MM

For a lot of people, it’s internalized. They assume the boss will fight or retaliate. They don’t want to be fired, or even to confirm they have less power than they already think they do. It’s also an industry in which individuals rely heavily on relationships.

But Fusion was actually the first media company who ran an anti-union campaign. At all of the other places, once a campaign was public management remained neutral or even took a posture of support.

JF

One of the reasons Gawker workers unionized was to resolve “communication issues.” What sorts of issues were you addressing? Were you able to resolve them?

HN

Workplace communication stuff might be hearing about what corporate decisions are being made, when they’re being discussed, and not having things just drop down on your head. It was pretty standard workplace communication stuff, probably similar to a lot of these digital media companies. They all start out really small and sort of boot-strappy, and then you wake up one day and you’re like, “Wow, [looks around a conference room at the lavish Manhattan office] — look at this fuckin’ office! What happened?” They go from working in a bedroom to being a real company.

When people realize they work for a real company, they start to have certain expectations. Many of these companies are still being run as if they were just this little thing, but Vice is a multibillion-dollar company, HuffPo is a big company, Gawker was a huge company.

In our contract we established a monthly meeting with management where they have to sit down with people from the union and talk about what’s going on. It’s a basic example of how just the fact of having a union creates a channel for management to communicate through, so it’s not just at their whim — they feel like this is an entity they have to talk to.

JF

For journalists, the need to self-brand is so strong. How does it affect a workplace when everyone has individualized strategies for career advancement?

HN

It’s definitely true that you’re your personal brand, or you have your Twitter followers, and your personal brand is really what’s gonna build your career. While that’s true, this is a place where a lot of people who were attracted to work here valued being able to write what they want to write.

We are the kind of people who valued what the company gave us, which is freedom, basically. Other places will give you money or other places will give you prestige bylines, but what this company gave writers was freedom. So the kind of person who valued that freedom was attracted to it.

That is the kind of thing people want to protect. To that extent, people did have a kind of shared interest. The dynamic you’re talking about is real, but capitalism is also real. You’re gonna have an employer, and that employer is gonna have interests, and you’re gonna have interests.

JF

Is that true more generally, across digital media?

MM

It varies based on the publication and on the person. So getting people to that point when they’re ready to identify with a union — particularly in public ways, like in changing their Twitter icon — can take some work. It’s not only something that the boss is gonna see, it’s something that the readers and their peers are gonna see.

Some people are just ready to do it, partly because it aligns with their values. I used to work at a health-care union, and people didn’t always want to wear a union button, because they just wanted to be with their patients. Figuring out how to make being part of a union as much of their personal identity as their workplace identity, to the extent that those overlap, is something that most unions negotiate.

JF

At Gawker there was a friendly relationship between management and the workers at the time of unionization. But it was, after all, a for-profit corporation, and each of those groups do have distinct interests — as you said, capitalism is real.

HN

This is probably true about every workplace in this industry: some people are friends with their boss. The top people here were promoted; they were people I worked next to. I’m friends still with them, and you don’t want to be class enemies across the table.

It shouldn’t necessarily be an antagonistic relationship. And to the extent that you can make people understand that this is a basic feature of the workplace, it seems to work. In this industry in particular, the people who started these companies tend to be more than just businesspeople — they have a sort of editorial vision that at some level is a social good.

So that is something that is now getting put to the test all across the industry. I think it’s healthy.

JF

In the contract you negotiated mandated severance if someone is fired. But there’s no due process clause for termination or tenure protections. It’s a noticeable absence, particularly since these protections have been a hallmark of union contracts for the past hundred years.

HN

We polled people about what they wanted in the contract and “just cause” did not come up — most people didn’t consider it to be an issue. When we organized we were this independent company and the bosses were our friends, people we trusted. There were layoffs at certain times, for financial reasons, where good people were let go. We have provisions for layoffs in the contract.

There wasn’t a big perception that this is a company where people are gonna get fired for bad or for unfair reasons. Now we’re owned by Univision, so the situation is different today than when we signed the contract. So I don’t know what the future will hold.

MM

The three digital contracts we have right now are at Gizmodo, Vice, and ThinkProgress. We’re still in bargaining at Salon and Huffington Post, and very confident that at Fusion we’ll succeed eventually.

These clauses look different at every single company. Partly because people are different at every single company, and partly because it’s driven by people’s priorities. And everything that we fight for at the table is driven by what people say they need and are ready to fight for.

Termination is one of the starkest differences at the three different companies. And the different termination policies are fundamentally being driven by people coming together and saying, “This is what makes sense for our workplace.”

JF

It was striking how much coverage Gawker got, and still gets, from the mainstream media, and how not completely terrible that coverage is. A year after unionizing, are you seeing any results from that coverage?

HN

Since we organized, this industry went from more or less zero to union penetration in the space of one year. There was a small number of places organized, but we were the first big online company to unionize. Since then, Salon, Huffington Post, Vice . . .

MM

. . . ThinkProgress, Fusion . . .

HN

And then some others went with the News Guild: the Guardian, Al Jazeera. I think the industry is getting to the point where a union is gonna be more of a default than an outlier. [Editor’s note: Jacobin staff are members of the News Guild.]

MM

In terms of the coverage, journalists love to write about other journalists. It’s a rare thing in the union world to put out a press release and it turns into calls and articles without having to really push for those. And there are plenty of union campaigns that are not turning into articles, let alone good articles. The connectedness of the industry, I think, is why you’re seeing that volume.

HN

I write about labor, so I get the press releases. The level of coverage we got is ridiculous. The day we organized one hundred people I heard from someone who was like, “That’s great! We organized two thousand janitors that same week and nobody wrote about it.”

JF

How does new media fit into the bigger picture of the US labor movement today?

HN

It’s obviously good from a PR perspective to get the idea out. But our union is not going to have more of an impact than unionizing Walmart. You would hope that the people at the bottom could organize first, because their needs are the most pressing. Still, our organizing does something to advance the idea of unions as a basic feature of the workplace.

A lot of the coverage we got when we first started organizing was like, “Unions! What an old idea! It’s such an old-school idea that no one does it anymore, and now we have an Internet company doing it!” But we advanced this idea that it’s not an irrelevant or old idea, that unions are something you should want in a workplace.

So if desirable jobs become union jobs, you sort of lead people to the realization that unions are a desirable feature of the workplace. I hope factory workers do have unions, but I don’t want people to think that unions are only for factory workers.

MM

But it’s important that this industry unionize. We’re seeing a shift in media where companies like Univision are buying up a lot of places, Verizon is buying up a lot of places. People who are doing journalism — especially the people who are writing about labor and social justice movements — need to have editorial independence, to have stable jobs, to have the ability to tell those stories.

It’s a great moment to ask, “What are the core elements of traditional union organizing? What would it look like to maintain the one-on-one union conversation, working collectively, escalating strategically, all of the core elements of union organizing while at the same time looking at the ways people are using social media technology?” There’s a lot we haven’t figured out how to maximize.

JF

When Univision bought out a bankrupt Gawker Media, many predicted things would change so drastically that the new company would not even resemble the old one. And some of the early moves Univision made suggested that may be the case: immediately dropping the Gawker name, resisting liability protection for authors, and for Univision’s decision to delete half a dozen posts — a move which the union criticized, strongly and publicly.

Were those predictions proved true?

HN

We, ah, got off to a rocky start.

Gawker dying was tragic. They pulled down those stories. We got mad about the stories being pulled and had a union meeting on the Monday morning after it happened. We discussed how we wanted to respond. Did we want to walk out?

We were told Isaac Lee, one of the top editorial people at Univision, was coming up again to talk with us. That at least showed some sense of urgency on Univision’s part to talk with us, that this was a precarious situation.

Initially Lee had had a lot of good things to say to us about journalism. The union brought everyone together, and we said “This is not okay with us. This is not something we want to do.” We had a whole tussle about them taking down those posts. We decided that we want to have some discussions about the process for pulling down stories and ask for indemnity in writing.

As a result, we got them to give us a guarantee of indemnity. The general standard in the media is that your company will cover you if you’re sued for something you wrote. But that is rarely put in writing.

So after those posts came down the union said, we want to know that Univision will have our backs if anything controversial happens and our authors are also being sued. We won that. They gave it to us.

A written guarantee of indemnity is another good example of something that should be an industry standard. I have no idea why it’s not already — there’s no good reason not to have indemnity in writing except to give a company an open door not to honor it.

These unfortunate incidents aside, all the writers have approached the transition with a sense that we were going to keep writing what we want, keep doing good stories. It’s still really early in our relationship with Univision, but I’m hopeful and expectant that, editorially, none of the good parts are gonna change. From the week it was owned by Nick Denton to the week it was owned by Univision, it’s all the same people doing all the same things.

JF

You negotiate your next contract in two years. Where do you see labor organizing going in that time — at Gizmodo and more generally?

MM

In this industry specifically, we’re seeing that the expectation is that the union continue working after the contract is settled. We’re really pushing the labor model away from organizing for a contract, then “See you in a couple years when we have to mobilize for a contract again.” We’re settling contracts and people are like, “Cool, what’s next?” You have a representative system in place, but there are issues that don’t always get totally resolved in a contract, like what does it look like to have community and collaboration across work sites?

Diversity has become a really big issue that people want to continue organizing around. What does it look like to have a diverse and representative newsroom? What impact does that have on editorial coverage and the sort of stories that get told? You can get some provisions to that end in a contract, but it is tough to totally solve that problem in a contract because we live in a wildly racist, sexist society.

So then the questions are: do we have a diversity committee? What are we doing on job postings? People are talking about mentorship programs, about equitable solutions around pay and parental leave, as a way of maintaining diversity as newsrooms get a bit older.

Making constant organizing more of the norm is happening in this industry and I hope it will become more of the standard in labor. As a whole we’ve gotten away from that too much.

HN

When I look at the labor picture as a whole, I consider that we’re living in a time of historical economic inequality not seen in a century, and we’re at a time when unions only represent 10–11 percent of the workforce. There’s a connection between those things.

It’s imperative that unions as a whole prioritize organizing new people. If you can’t get a bigger chunk of the workforce into unions, then unions are always going to be a niche, special interest that can be easily dismissed — when in fact unions should be a proxy for the working class. Labor has to prioritize organizing new members and turning around that decline in membership.

Our industry is an example of one that started from almost nothing and then, in a very short time, with a lot of hard work, came a long way. There are a lot of opportunities in industries like ours that are more or less untouched by labor — if unions prioritize organizing. I hope unions pursue those opportunities.