Why old school organized labor is needed in new digital newsrooms
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When I left my job as a senior reporter at Law360 last summer, the farewell was bittersweet. I’d had my quibbles with the company’s management and editorial policies, but I also learned a ton, grew as a journalist and made friends.

We ate cake on my last day.

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A month later, and two weeks into an exciting new job at Reuters, I had just finished two days of breaking news training when I received a threatening letter from Law360 telling me I was violating the company’s non-compete agreement. The Law360 non-compete clause stipulated I could not work for another legal news organization for a full year following the end of my employment. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Law360 also asked the general counsel of Thomson Reuters to “take immediate steps” to ensure I did not disclose any of the “critical and sensitive confidential” information I allegedly gained in my two years there.

Within two days, I was fired.

Law360 rescinded its non-compete clause last month under pressure from the New York Attorney General, but my firing sparked a wave of outrage in the newsroom that ultimately led a majority of editorial employees to seek union representation.

As E. Tammy Kim wrote in Dissent Magazine this week, Law360 employees are the latest in what some have described as a “wave” of digital newsroom unionizations - they follow in the footsteps of reporters at Gawker, the Guardian US, ThinkProgress, and The Huffington Post.

The ever-shrinking legacy newspaper business is also seeing newsrooms turn to collective bargaining to beat back owners who have turned to layoffs and cuts to secure higher profit margins. Two newsrooms in Illinois organized unions to counter cuts and content demands from Gatehouse. And The Ledger in Lakeland, Fla., recently moved toward forming a union in hopes it can stop more cuts to the newsroom by Gatehouse, according to a report by the Columbia Journalism Review.

The rank-and-file of the Law360 newsroom have their work cut out for them. On Thursday, a human resources representative sent reporters an email saying Law360 would not voluntarily recognize the union. The company has also hired the notorious union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis and will be pushing for extra time before an NLRB vote, according to the News Guild. Newsroom employees, who have already had 10 months to think about their options, are hoping to cast their ballots in early August.

When I worked at Law360, I was under the impression that the company and its (mostly) young reporters had an implied social contract. We would agree to churn out stories for low pay in return for a few years of experience and the chance to step up to a bigger publication -- Reuters, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal. When I was fired from Reuters, do in part to the actions of Law360, that implied social contract was revealed for what it always was — an illusion.

The refrain I so often heard from colleagues the Law360 newsroom - “hey, at least we have jobs in journalism” - was a salve against their growing frustrations with pay, story quotas and long often uncompensated hours. The working conditions in digital newsrooms may not inspire sympathy the way physical laborers do on the factory floor, but that does not mean they are easy. Digital journalists are continually expected to write more content, at a faster pace, for less pay. We are also told that we need to produce scoops, that quality matters, that we must compete to shape news coverage. Like many other white collar workers, we are expected to be tethered to our phones 24/7.

Burnout and financial insecurity are the most common complaints I hear from journalists who have left the industry. A talented former colleague of mine recently joined PR firm after seven years of beat reporting, saying he was driven out by ever-increasing page view quotas and constant pressure to sensationalize the news.

As content marketing continues to grow into its own industry, digital journalists also bear witness to the crumbling of church/state divisions between advertisement and reporting. We’re expected to remain objective while keeping our readers happy. But as these difficulties pile up, digital journalists are expected to be grateful just to have work, to have a byline. That’s particularly true of freelancers, which I am now, who fight over the chance to earn $150 for three days worth of reporting and writing, or who will work for no pay just for the coveted prize of “exposure.”

Unions haven’t been able to protect journalism from all these market forces, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that unionized digital writers still represent a small portion of the news industry. “In the shadow of ongoing cuts and the uncertainty of the digital economy, it’s hard enough to tread water—let alone while holding hands,” wrote E. Tammy Kim.

I don’t think the journalists of the digital newsroom think they’re insulating themselves from the volatility and uncertainty of the market by unionizing. But they’re seizing on one of the few mechanisms of power available to them.

The unionization of digital newsrooms is, like most labor movements, a struggle between workers and the powers that employ them. In this sense, these efforts are nothing new. But they also represent the desire to resist the forces of individualization wrought upon all of us by the gig economy, the digital demand for personal brands, and the shrinking of the American safety net.

When newspapers first started unionizing in the 1930s, journalists “linked their cultural labor to systemic labor struggles,” wrote Michelle Chen in The Nation after the now-shuttered Al Jazeera America digital newsroom announced it would unionize last year.

Journalists in the digital newsroom can do the same.

Russell-Kraft is a freelance reporter based in New York. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, NYMag.com, Vice, AlterNet, Refinery 29, Fusion and Jezebel. Follow her @srussellkraft


 

 

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