Unionized newsrooms threaten the very thing that helped digital media grow

With unions cropping up in digital newsrooms across the media landscape, publishers have to be wondering if they should be worried. Could their staff be next?

For those who have grown their businesses on the back of a low compensation model, the sparks of collective bargaining at Gawker, Vice and Salon represent a new threat: Non-union salaries have historically trailed those of union salaries, according to the University of Georgia’s long-running Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Graduates. In 2013, the most recent year the survey was done, the median annual salary for B.A. graduates was $40,500 for union and $32,000 for non-union.

“Pay varies from company to company, but it is consistently lower than traditional media, where union collective bargaining has led to better pay structures, retirement security and a voice on the job,” said Justin Molito, director of organizing at the Writers Guild of America East, which is working to organize editorial staffers at the three digital publishers. “As the digital media industry has grown up and increased both its footprint and professionalism, the people creating that content want to share in that prosperity and be able to establish and maintain sustainable careers.”

Five thousand full-time edit jobs have been created across major digital publishing companies, according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 count. That’s been a boon for new journalism grads but also enabled online media to grow on the cheap because inexperienced staffers can be had for less than senior ones (and they can offer a buzzy workplace, “prestigious” bylines and equity in lieu of high pay). Two of the companies where edit staffers voted to unionize, Gawker and Vice, have been criticized (by each other, among others) in the past for paying low salaries.

Long hours and free labor have driven the growth of the digital media economy, said Peter Kreisky, chairman of the Kreisky Media Consultancy. “They’re expected to work almost 24-7, and they do,” he said, pointing to recent reporting on The Huffington Post. “Arianna’s the best example of that.” While raising pay could open the door to more nimble competitors and constrain digital publisher’s growth, he said, “A lot of people question whether [the low-cost model] is sustainable.”

And digital publishing is already locked in a fight for survival. Advertising revenue is hard to come by. More dollars are being pumped into digital media, but most of it is going to Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL. Publishers are facing fresh scrutiny from advertisers who are questioning ads’ viewability, clickbait and other audience-growing tactics of the past. Advertisers’ shift to machine-based buying often means lower ad rates.

Employees that are seeking to unionize insist their vote isn’t just about higher pay; indeed, one of the highest-profile digital publishers, BuzzFeed, reportedly has sharply increased its spending on editorial. Some at Gawker have cited a safety net in a time of economic uncertainty and improved internal communication as a reason for a union’s appeal.

As long as major brands shift more ad dollars into digital, the economic situation for startups should be OK, said Bryan Goldberg, who has been involved in two of them, Bleacher Report and Bustle. “Digital media companies are in much better shape now than they were five years ago, and that is manifesting itself to every stakeholder in the company. Writers included.”

Still, other digital media companies would do well to pay attention. The WGA said nothing’s imminent, but that it’s speaking with editorial staffers at other digital shops that have contacted the union. “Gawker and Vice have been trend setters for long time,” said Wenda Millard, president and COO of MediaLink. “I would watch.”

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