The nation’s largest news union is taking a more aggressive stance in the face of job cuts, perhaps signaling an inflection point for all news unions
The head of America’s largest labor union representing journalists has some pugilistic advice for BuzzFeed chief executive Jonah Peretti: “Don’t be a coward.”
The sharp rebuke from NewsGuild-CWA president Jon Schleuss comes as both sides are set to meet Tuesday to discuss the company’s plan to slash editorial jobs amid a newsroom management shakeup. But the biggest uncertainly about the talks is if Peretti will even attend.
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BuzzFeed journalists are publicly fuming that Peretti has largely avoided his news team since last week’s announcement that cost-cutting measures could gut the 100-person BuzzFeed News staff by one-third. The team’s workers were also infuriated when he left an all-hands meeting just before it was opened up for questions.
The employee backlash, however, handed NewsGuild leaders a golden opportunity to take a more aggressive posture in its playbook for protecting journalism jobs. Being more assertive will send a clear message to owners of other media outlets, while also empowering rank-and-file members and attracting new ones. Unions are ready not only to use stronger language and tactics to protect their members, but will start turning toward state and federal labor departments, as well as their legislators and allies to step up the heat.
“Is Jonah Peretti going to show up on Tuesday, not be a coward, and speak directly with his workers?” Schleuss told TheWrap. “One of the most embarrassing things you can do to yourself in front of journalists is to run away and hide. He knows you have to answer their questions.”
A company spokesperson said Peretti wasn’t available for an interview, though the rep said the CEO will be scheduling meetings with each newsroom desk in the coming weeks. Peretti, in a transcript from his all-hands meeting last week, assured journalists that he was “committed to the news” but was “no longer going to subsidize it with revenue from other divisions. We did that for many years, but now we need to transform news into a sustainable business.”
National media unions like the NewsGuild, SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild are at an inflection point as they contend with a confluence of issues. Digital media, once the main disruptor in the decline of daily newspapers, are themselves being disrupted. Union members nervous about their future have recently gravitated toward headline-grabbing strikes.
Employees of The New York Times’ product review site Wirecutter staged a five-day strike in November on salary complaints. Gizmodo Media Group journalists held a weeklong strike in March after its contract with parent-company G/O Media expired. And BuzzFeed News staged a one-day walkout in December amid stalled contract talks as the company prepared a lucrative initial public offering.
BuzzFeed’s editorial employees are currently in the process of pulling together a list of potential union actions, with a strike reserved as a last resort. Among the ideas likely bandied about is reporters holding a “byline strike” by stripping their names from stories, a tactic the Philadelphia Inquirer used in a 2020 dispute over the paper’s coverage of race issues. The Los Angeles Times relied on lunchtime walkouts and petition drives as it unionized. But, Times journalists also tried to get under the skin of top management by synchronizing their phone alarms to all go off at a specific time during staff meetings.
Newsroom employment fell by 26% since 2008, according to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of Labor Department statistics, with 30,000 jobs lost from digital, print, radio, television and cable broadcasters. The cuts were partly driven by hedge funds and private-equity shops that began scooping up distressed newspaper assets in the early 2000s, and slashing costs to increase profits.
“The sad reality in the last 20 years is that anyone entering journalism knows it’s precarious,” Schleuss said. “And digital-native journalists have seen employment go up but wages aren’t. This is a huge reason thousands of journalists have unionized in the last five years — they are really getting tired.”
Digital media startups like BuzzFeed were considered the news industry’s biggest disruptor by siphoning off newspaper subscribers. But now, digital media is going through a similar disruption as institutional shareholders lobby CEOs for business models to behave more like higher-growth tech companies.
During the last few years, New York City’s massive media industry has been upended by a spate of union deals. Digital players like BuzzFeed, NBC News Digital, Mashable, Quartz, and Pitchfork have voted in union representation. They join traditional journalism operations like The New Yorker, Fortune, The New York Times, the Daily News, and Sports Illustrated. Schleuss said he fields about three phone calls a week from newsrooms wanting to join the guild.
“We knew what to expect from private equity investors, which is to cut staff and boost profit margins,” said one journalist who served as a union organizer at a national newspaper but declined to be named for fear of reprisals. “But the deflating part about BuzzFeed is that the decision to basically shut down the newsroom came from someone who was their biggest champion.”
Indeed, Peretti was once seen as a potential savior for journalism by building one of the first digitally native global newsrooms. Though BuzzFeed News is unprofitable, with some speculating it loses an average of $10 million a year, the division has won a string of prestigious awards that includes a first Pulitzer last year.
The media entrepreneur, who also co-founded Huffington Post in 2005, made a series of buzzy hires when launching BuzzFeed, including naming Politico’s Ben Smith as editor in chief. Peretti and Smith then lured away prominent investigative reporters from major U.S. newspapers, pledging them an ability to pursue ambitious projects.
But as the company marched toward its 2022 initial public offering, BuzzFeed management began making severe cuts to the newsroom’s once 350-member staff. Dozens of layoffs were made after acquiring HuffPost in early 2021, following even steeper cuts the year before.
Making BuzzFeed News staff even more on edge was a CNBC report last week that major institutional investors urged Peretti to shut down the news operation entirely. This, in part, is what led to the departures of Editor in Chief Mark Schoofs, Deputy Editor in Chief Tom Namako, and Executive Editor for Investigations Ariel Kaminer.
Schleuss argues that the company violated labor laws by striking tentative agreements with the guild knowing that job cuts might be looming. He also said the company broke the law by deliberately going around the union’s bargaining team and approaching employees directly with buyout offers.
The union said last week it will be filing an unfair labor practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board and urged BuzzFeed management to prepare a “full and fair” union contract. A company spokesperson said, “BuzzFeed made it clear from the start that buyouts would be negotiated with the union, and that we wanted to move quickly so that people could make decisions about their lives as soon as possible.”
Despite the potential legal wrangling, Schleuss admits complaints to the U.S. Department of Labor seldom lead to investigations, and that financial penalties tend to be insufficient to protect workers.
And that may lead union leaders to devise new ways to draw attention to the plight of newspaper workers. For instance, political lobbying efforts by news unions have been getting attention from Washington. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2020 pulled out of a star-studded event hosted by The New Yorker Magazine in solidarity with the magazine’s employees who were sparring with management over labor issues.
Schleuss said union leaders could also take their case to Wall Street’s mutual fund managers. There’s been a massive trend in the past few years toward socially responsible investing, as retail investors steer clear of specific companies, industries or geographic regions that don’t align with their ethical beliefs.
“This is such a righteous fight,” said Schleuss, a longtime data journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times before becoming president of the national guild two years ago. “And I’m humbled and privileged to be part of it.”
But his optimism gives way to the seriousness of protecting the journalism industry: “The local guild members decide what actions they want to take in labor disputes with their companies. My job is to bring the gasoline to the fires that they build.”