Gannett’s new contract language around AI unsettles local union

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In recent contract negotiations with parent company Gannett, a local newsroom union is fighting over the extent to which generative AI will be used for news content generation.

As media organizations adopt more generative AI capabilities with the aim of improving the efficiency of content production and certain business functions like sales, unions see themselves on the frontlines of upholding journalistic integrity and retaining jobs threatened by the adoption of this new technology.

On April 24, union members of the daily Democrat & Chronicle newspaper in Rochester, New York, noticed an unexpected change in a clause around the use of artificial intelligence in a contract draft sent by Gannett.

In a previous draft sent to members on April 11 and subsequently posted on X, the clause stated that AI “may be used to generate news content that is supplementary to local news reporting and is not a replacement for it.” But on April 24, an updated draft sent by Gannett to the local paper’s guild removed that stipulation. 

“Artificial intelligence (AI) may be used to generate news content,” it read.

Another line that stated the use of AI would fall under Gannett’s ethical guidelines policy on the use of the technology had an addition in the April 24 draft, noting that the company could modify those policies “from time to time.”

The Democrat & Chronicle’s union, which is affiliated with the NewsGuild of New York and has 25 members, is now concerned about their job security as the use of AI gains more traction in the newsroom as it goes on two years of contract negotiations. Over 1,000 Gannett employees are represented by The NewsGuild, across more than 50 bargaining units.

“It was shocking and frustrating and disappointing,” said Justin Murphy, education reporter and Newspaper Guild of Rochester member. “Even though our unit is small, the kind of terms we get in our contract are extremely important, not just for other newsrooms across Gannett, but for journalists across America.”

The guild did not receive explicit notice of this change — a courtesy usually shown by management — and has not discussed it with Gannett management yet, according to Murphy. The NewsGuild of New York filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge to the National Labor Relations Board on April 24 regarding this issue, claiming Gannett was “making regressive proposals,” according to the filing shared with Digiday.

A Gannett spokesperson said the company was eager to reach a deal on the contract through negotiations at the bargaining table, but declined to comment further.

Gannett has said previously that it would not use AI to replace journalists or publish content. During the company’s Q4 2023 earnings call in February, Gannett CEO Mike Reed said the technology would be used primarily for productivity and monetization opportunities. Gannett faced backlash last year when it used LedeAI to write local high school sports stories across a few of its properties and published pieces with several errors.

Reed did not address the use of AI to generate news content in Gannett’s latest earnings call held on May 2.

The tension between Gannett management and the Newspaper Guild of Rochester isn’t necessarily a unique situation. Since last summer, editorial unions at publishers from Business Insider to Dow Jones have been wrestling with the terms of AI usage in bargaining. Union members have expressed concern about the implications of the technology creeping into their newsrooms, from taking their jobs to impacting the quality of the content they produce. (Not to mention how big of a deal this topic was during the union strikes in Hollywood last year.)

Some contracts have included language addressing AI use since then.

In December, the Associated Press’ union reached an agreement on a three-year contract, which included protections against the “riskier aspects” of AI. (The union did not respond to a request for comment on what those aspects entailed before publishing time.) That same month, Future Plc’s union also ratified a new contract, which included a new article that “grants protection from layoffs due to AI, protection from byline misuse on articles using generative AI, and offers training on AI tools at the Employee’s request.”

In August, editorial employees at the Financial Times’ trade publications ratified their first union contract, which included a requirement for the company to discuss the introduction and effects of newly introduced technology like AI on employees in advance of their use.

But not all negotiations have gone smoothly. Dow Jones’ union IAPE authorized a strike vote on April 29, in part to demand “better job security protections—including against advances in artificial intelligence—as well as derivative rights for any employee aiming to license material they created as the basis for a book, film, television series, podcast, or other similar publication,” per a statement from the IAPE.

Murphy said, “Whatever the language is, we’re asking for acknowledgement [in our contract] from the company that [it] might use AI in any kind of way as it develops, but it is not going to be to replace either the work of journalists or the journalists themselves. We want that in writing.”

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