In November, workers at Vox Media joined a plethora of outlets whose employees have pushed for a union in the past few years. “Unions have made traditional newsrooms across America stronger and better for decades, and we’re excited to join the movement in digital media to bring these protections to this industry,” they wrote in a statement. A supermajority of the company’s editorial and video employees had signed union cards. Yet the company’s management have thus far declined to recognize the union.
Organizing newsrooms is the best way for journalists to fight for their rights in the current precarious media landscape. But the problems media is facing go deeper, and eventually, even a robust union movement will run into some giant roadblocks: not just in the way their companies are run, but rather, the way the entire industry operates and the direction it’s heading. It’s time to start thinking about what a better way might look like.
The move to unionize, as workers at Vox and the Los Angeles Times are attempting, is a courageous one. These days, layoffs in journalism are coming left and right. The LA Weekly “eviscerated” its newsroom, laying off 9 of its 13 editorial staffers. The Village Voice ended its legendary print edition after 62 years, the same fate that befell the award-winning Houston Press last month. traditional media institutions like Gannett and the New York Times, but even digital outlets like Buzzfeed and Mashable aren’t exempt. Countless outlets have cut writing staff in an ill-advised attempt to “pivot to video.” And some outlets have shut down outright. “Tronc,” the comically evil media corporation that owns the Baltimore City Paper, shut the paper entirely after its staff voted to unionize; two weeks after its last issue, alumni of BCP (including former EIC Brandon Soderberg, reporter Lisa Snowden-McCray and writer Maura Callahan) and Washington Blade editor-in-chief Kevin Naff started the Baltimore Beat, which partners with the independently-owned The Real News Network, is headed by Snowden-McCray as editor-in-chief, and is now in its seventh issue. Billionaire Joe Ricketts did the same thing at DNA Info/Gothamist. (Ricketts said that “unions promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed.” He eliminated this “us-against-them” dynamic by firing his entire staff.)
Media workers have almost no say in large decisions about the fate of their institutions, and are at the complete mercy of whichever rich dilettante or publishing conglomerate happens to control them. No wonder, then, that many journalists are trying to increase their bargaining power and gain greater protections. Unions offer at least some degree of leverage in protection. In November 2016, workers at fusion.net (now known as Splinter) voted to unionize with the Writers Guild of America-East (WGAE); days later came around a round of layoffs. Yet, although the union didn’t have a contract yet, WGAE negotiated with Fusion to provide “a union-negotiated severance of two weeks per year of service, including extended health benefits, with a minimum of eight weeks’ pay and benefits.” When media companies try to stifle criticisms of owners or advertisers, as The Washington Post did, it’s the unions that step up to defend workers’ right to free expression. Employees at Vice, which was notorious for paying full-time employees in New York City well under $30,000 a year, managed to substantially improve their salaries after unionizing with the Writers Guild of America. Vox Media employees also stand to benefit from increasing control over their conditions: just recently, editorial director Lockhart Steele was fired for sexual harassment well after the company’s top brass had been informed of his behavior and done nothing. The Columbia Journalism Review noted that pushes for unions among media workers have become unexpectedly strong recently, as millennials realize that collective bargaining may be a way to mitigate the precarity they face in the industry.
Yet, while unionization is undoubtedly the best available way for media workers to increase their ability to control their workplaces, there are some inherent problems with the structure of media institutions that can’t be fixed through organizing. Ultimately, what matters most is still ownership. Unions can increase workers’ ability to negotiate with management, but in order to truly improve the long-term predicament of both workers and the industry itself, we need to understand the fundamental problems with the industry, paramount of which is how it’s funded.
One such problem is the growing dependency on venture capital, as the corresponding relentless push for profits in an industry where they are hard to come by. After it was reported that BuzzFeed and Vice had both missed their revenue goals for the year, Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall described the current landscape as a “digital media crash,” writing that:
[I]nvestors are realizing that scale cannot replicate the kind of business model lock-in, price premiums and revenue stability people thought it would. Another way of putting that is that the future that VCs and other investors were investing hundreds of millions of dollars in probably doesn’t exist. That means that they’re much less likely to invest more money at anything like the valuations these companies have been claiming. The big picture is that Problem #1 (too many publications) and Problem #2 (platform monopolies) have catalyzed together to create Problem #3 (investors realize they were investing in a mirage and don’t want to invest any more). Each is compounding each other and leading to something like the crash effect you see in other bubbles.
For print, the problems are similar. In 2000, print advertising generated $67 billion for American newspapers; by 2015, the combined advertising generated from print and digital was $19.9 billion—roughly exactly what it was in 1950. It’s just not easy to profit from media, so when institutions are run by investors who want to see returns, the result is austerity and clickbait.
Because there’s very little money to be in made in journalism, there has been a steadily growing reliance on wealthy patrons who view media as just another investment. There are high-profile examples like Amazon zillionaire Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ amusingly catastrophic turn as owner of the New Republic. (Hughes didn’t even have to lay off half the staff during the switch to a Silicon Valley-inspired click-driven content model, because they instantly resigned en masse.) But there are also the wealthy conservatives who have moved to consolidate control over the media, including progressive outlets. In late 2015 someone bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal under the name “News + Media Capital Group,” forcing the paper’s own reporters to undertake a deep investigation into who actually owned the paper; it turned out to be conservative megadonor Sheldon Adelson. All three of the reporters who broke the story were gone within six months.
More recently, the LA Weekly layoffs came with news that the paper had been purchased by a group including developers, investors, and “philanthropists,” headed by Brian Calle, a former vice president of the right-wing, Koch-funded Claremont Institute. Ben Carson associate Armstrong Williams indicated that he wanted to buy the Washington City Paper before venture capitalist Mark Ein bought it. And Time Inc. recently sold to the Meredith Corporation—which owns about two dozen lifestyle magazines and fifteen radio stations across the country—for $2.8 billion, about $650 million of which was provided by the Koch brothers’ private equity firm.
If Josh Marshall is right and there is a crash, all of this is only going to get worse. In five years’ time, your media options might look pretty limited: the few large national papers, whichever digital outlets manage to churn out enough daily listicles to break even, your local television station owned by right-wing Sinclair Media, maybe a local daily newspaper owned by a large conglomerate. If you’re really lucky your city might still have one alt-weekly, but chances are it will either be in the process of pivoting to video or the process of desperately trying to avoid pivoting to video before the inevitable pivot to video.
It’s increasingly obvious, then, that in the long term, we need different models. And the best way for the left to fight back is to simply do it ourselves. We need to build outlets that aren’t beholden to anyone, and that operate in the interests of their subscribers and workers, rather than their advertisers and investors. The good news is that it’s possible. And a number of people have already gotten started.
There are a few different ways a truly independent media institution can be built. One path is towards crowdfunded news co-operatives. In 2014, Sam Sacks and Sam Knight launched the District Sentinel, a progressive, D.C.-based site that highlights under-covered issues within the federal government. “We both felt at the time that the ‘news space’ on the Left had been corrupted by liberal take-mongering, and there was a lack of actual reporting on federal policy from a leftist perspective,” they told me. “So we tried to fill that gap.” In 2015, the duo raised over $10,000 in an Indiegogo campaign, and currently, they pull in roughly $3,200 per month, with most of that coming from the 550 people who subscribe to them on Patreon. (Knight says that he works catering gigs on the side to make ends meet.)
Other issue-specific and local outlets have similar models. The South and Midwest-focused labor outlet Payday Report (disclosure: I have written and edited for them in the past) draws much of its funding from one-off donations and Patreon. And David Forbes started the Asheville Blade in 2014 after a labor dispute with their previous outlet, the Asheville alt-weekly Mountain Express. “I knew there needed to be some way for people to directly fund journalism,” Forbes told me. “I thought that if we could get enough subscribers, we could keep the lights on and pay the bills.” The Blade, a local left-wing news site covering the sub-100,000 people North Carolina town, now pulls in nearly $1,500 a month off of Patreon subscriptions. 219 people donate per month—I’m one of them—mostly at either $3 or $10, with the average donation being $6.65. Forbes intentionally tries to keep it affordable. “I don’t want it to be something that people who work in service industry or retail…I don’t want them to feel like they’re excluded from this, at all,” Forbes says.
Forbes recommends the model for other cities:
The Gothamist, [writers of the old] LA Weekly, they have the reader base… I think they could do something at a similar model, and with the kind of legacy they have, they could put together enough to hire a fair number of people and not rely on advertising in the future. If you remove the ‘Hey, you’re not gonna get suddenly bought out, or advertisers aren’t gonna call you up and yell at you and say they’re pulling your funding if you run a story they don’t like’…And if you have workers and journalists on the ground having a say in how things are run? You prevent burnout, and you end up getting much better journalism.
There are other means of supporting independent media. One way is for left-adjacent organizations to invest more in journalism. Earlier this year, I wrote a story for the website of Scalawag, a left-wing magazine based in North Carolina and focused on Southern issues, about the North Carolina Republican Party’s war on the judiciary. My funding didn’t come from Scalawag itself, though, but from the nonprofit Democracy NC, a voting rights organization based in North Carolina. Scalawag is a great outlet, but its freelance budget is shoestring, and without outside assistance it would have been difficult to produce a story that took several weeks to report out and write. The work would have paid less than minimum wage, when broken down by the number of hours it took to produce, and it would have been hard for me to pass up other, better-paying opportunities over a story that was one of the most important that I wrote all year. Multiple organizations around the country similar to this idea have started up. After the announcement of the Baltimore City Paper’s closure, and the financially-driven cancellation of Baltimore radio host Mark Steiner’s long-running show, Steiner and alumni of the BCP began the Baltimore Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Based on a similar organization in Boston, the BINJ operates solely as a way to fund independent projects. So far, they have raised just under $9,000, and have begun funding projects. These include grants to the Writers In Baltimore Schools program, to produce a series of profiles of Baltimoreans and their neighborhoods, as well as a $2000 grant to Baltimore arts and culture magazine True Laurels and funding for a basketball project by former BCP reporter and photographer Reggie Thomas called The City That Hoops. It’s the kind of stuff that alt-weeklies have always brought, but that will die as those newspapers shutter.
What the new have in common is that they’re crowdfunded or subscriber-driven, with no venture capital involved. They have no illusions that they might go public one day, and they have substantial freedom to produce the kind of content they think is important. Of course, the money still has to be fronted by like-minded people who are willing to invest in sustainable left media, and in order to get people to make that investment, left journalists have to show how it can pay off. But the concept can first be proven on the small scale, through doing more and more impactful reporting. It takes hard work, of course: journalism that exposes corruption within institutions and the people who run them is arduous, and takes much more time and effort than a hot take. But as people see what new institutions can do, they may be willing to care and offer whatever support they can afford. Reader support is how alt-weeklies became viable in the first place, and it’s one reason why the progressive outlets that have lasted have stayed around for so long.
It is still a bleak landscape for media, and there may not be a true shift without some kind of major extinction event for digital and print media. It’s crucially important for workers to have a union and collective bargaining rights, because we’re not going to prise media from billionaire owners anytime soon, and crowdfunded media can’t yet hope to compete with large institutions in terms of resources. But we’ve got to keep trying to build. The current way of doing things isn’t sustainable, and we’re careening towards a future where journalism becomes synonymous with stenography for the ruling class. And if progressive media is to survive, it will have to try something new.
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