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Content Creators of the World, Unite!

Working in online news has become financially perilous and hazardous to your health. Can journalist unions change that?
journalism labor unions

Time to unionize, girl. (Photo: Andreas Gradin/Shutterstock)

Any journalist can confirm that the lower rungs of the media ladder are far from glamorous. But few media consumers understand the human misery that sometimes goes into making the articles, listicles, videos, and photo galleries that readers take for granted (and expect for free!). Amid tired talk about the decline of traditional media and the rise of “content farms,” few have studied the consequences, physical and mental, on the workers themselves.

Julia, now 29, lives in Brooklyn and spent a year working as an editor for a popular online news start-up. (We have changed her name and chosen not to identify her workplace for this story at her request.)

“[It] was perhaps the most grueling professional experience I've ever had,” Julia says. “I felt like I was a slave to the news cycle—eventually, when I left, I was pretty much working from seven a.m. to seven p.m. I didn't work on weekends, but it did feel like there was an expectation to work if something came up that was relevant to my section.”

According to Robert Karasek’s landmark model of job strain, the hardest jobs not only require people to work hard and fast, but offer workers little control over their conditions or the content of their work.

To understand fully what's going on with digital media workers, it's important to understand that digital media “content” is a product for consumption, like shirts, iPhones, or fast food hamburgers. Every day, millions of people click and share content from sites like BuzzFeed, Gawker, Mic, Vox, Slate, the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, and Salon.

It's a bit more complicated than this, but media companies, for the most part, turn a profit based on how many views (often referred to, crudely, as “eyeballs”) their sites get. The more eyeballs a site gets, the more it can charge companies to place ads on it, and the more money the site makes. And the way to get more eyeballs is by pumping out ever-increasing amounts of “content,” and putting it up faster than competitors. Some print sites, such as the New York Times and the New Yorker, supplement their advertising income with a subscription model. But most sites—particularly newer ones—rely on the eyeballs-for-ads model, which can be miserable for workers.

Julia felt that the pressure to constantly create new content was detrimental to her performance as an editor, and that she needed to sacrifice being patient and mentoring younger writers in order to meet rapid, frequent deadlines.

In recent years, a series of plagiarism scandals has brought the integrity of some media organizations into question. Writers have been found lifting passages from other news websites, Wikipedia, and even Yahoo! Answers. It’s very hard to argue that these incidents are unconnected to the brutal demands of online media production, with its constant pressures to feed more and more content to the Internet, whatever the human cost.

“People's job security very much relied on their ability to produce numbers, and no one seemed to be safe,” Julia says. “It created a very high anxiety work environment—that crushed creativity, and made well-being secondary to working.”

In addition to her long hours—for which she received no overtime compensation—Julia’s modest salary made living in New York City difficult. Her rent was $1,050 a month before utilities, and her take-home pay was not too far above the city’s minimum livable income. Her situation is not uncommon. A 2014 BuzzFeed survey of nearly 900 journalists determined that entry-level journalists make a median salary of $40,000 a year, with one-quarter of respondents reporting salaries under $35,000 a year. Most media jobs are located in New York City and Washington, D.C. The minimum livable income for one adult without dependents or debt is $29,736 in New York City and $30,867 in Washington. Many people working in media have debt to pay off from college and journalism school, and from working uncompensated or below-minimum wage internships in order to compete for an increasingly small number of full-time staff positions.

Julia’s working conditions began to take a toll on her mentally, physically, and emotionally. It was difficult to find time during the day to take breaks with the never-ending stream of content to be created.

People who work 55 hours or more a week have a 33 percent greater risk of stroke and a 13 percent greater risk of coronary heart disease.

“There's this bizarre competitiveness around being switched on all of the time,” Julia says. “It didn't seem to be encouraged to switch off on weekends, evenings, or vacations—like I've experienced at other places where I've worked. I felt like a content creation machine, rather than a human. Even when I was off of work for being sick, I felt pressure to be online anyway.”

In a landmark 1979 study of job strain, labor sociologist Robert Karasek found that what makes a job stressful isn’t just how difficult it is, but how much decision-making power the person doing it has. According to Karasek’s model of job strain, the hardest jobs not only require people to work hard and fast, but offer workers little control over their conditions or the content of their work. This type of work can lead workers to develop depression, musculoskeletal problems, and high blood pressure. And a recent analysis just published in the Lancet found that “people who work 55 hours or more per week have a 33 percent greater risk of stroke and a 13 percent greater risk of coronary heart disease than those working standard hours.”

The constant stresses, job instability, and lack of downtime inherent to the media lifestyle can lead to both long- and short-term physical and mental ailments. It’s not unusual to hear about media workers developing carpal tunnel syndrome, back problems, ulcers, and serious mental-health problems.

Some of the stress is a function of the news industry’s fears about beating the Facebook bots. “The rise of social networks and their ability to determine the fortunes of media companies by delivering millions of readers—or not—with the flick of an algorithm feels existentially destabilizing,” writes Dan Kois of Slate. “The fact that none of us knows how this will turn out leads to a kind of whistling-to-the-gallows attitude.”

“Since I was working all of the time and feeling the pressure to never switch off from work, it seemed like my anxiety from work was the only thing I could ever talk about,” Julia says. “I was generally more irritable, and I liked myself less back then. I generally felt so drained from my work week, that sometimes it would even be difficult to enjoy my time off, since all I felt I could do was eat and sleep.”

The Convergence has issued a statement of media workers’ rights.

Mike Elk, 29, lives in Washington, D.C. He worked as a labor reporter for Politico starting in September 2014, but appears to have been fired in August. There is speculation that Elk—who is the most visible face of a burgeoning movement to unionize digital media workers, and was attempting to unionize Politico—was fired because of his attempts to organize.*

“The first couple months there I really couldn’t take the pace,” Elk says of his time at Politico. “At Politico, they want to be first with everything, and that’s how they define their revenue model. In addition to all the stories they write, they do these morning newsletters. [The newsletters] go out at midnight. So people come in. They work a full day. Then they go home. They try to write the newsletter before they go home. Then they have to edit the newsletter. It’s such an unpredictable schedule, and there’s no formal system at Politico for how to deal with working overtime. There’s no comp time, there’s no overtime.”

Many younger workers are loath to push back against these expectations. They understand that the media industry is a competitive place, and many feel fortunate to have one of a limited number of full-time jobs.

“If you’re a younger reporter, it becomes very difficult to draw boundaries,” Elk says. “I’m an established reporter with a long track record. I can walk into a newsroom and say, ‘No, I’m not working those hours.’ Because I’m not afraid of getting fired. But if you’re 22, right out of Stanford Journalism School, you’re not going to stand and up and say, ‘I don’t want to work these hours.’ You’re going to say: ‘Hey I’m grateful to have this job. You want me to work around the clock? I can do that.’ So younger reporters who haven’t had as many big stories feel that the only thing they have to give is their entire lives.”


Elias Isquith, 26, is a staff writer at Salon who lives in Queens.

“My day probably starts at around eight,” Isquith says. “That involves checking the news and trying to think about what I want to write for the day. I usually write one piece a day of about 700-1,000 words. I work on that in the morning and the afternoon. I eat while working. Then usually around two or three I do a 20- to 40-minute phone interview, and then from whenever that’s over to the end of the day I work on a Q&A transcript of whatever previous interview I’ve done and get that ready for publication the next morning. [My day is] probably from like eight to six.”

Elias works from home. He feels that his work is meaningful and emphasizes that, compared to many American workers, he is relatively fortunate.

“The job I do, and that most of my peers do is a job that people are lucky to have,” he says. “There are so many jobs that are so much harder, and less rewarding, financially and spiritually.”

Nonetheless, Isquith has involved himself in Salon’s push to join the Writers Guild of America, East. He hopes Salon’s decision to join the union will set a progressive precedent for the industry, and effectively mitigate some of the things that make working in digital media so tough.

“I think [unions will] raise the profile of working conditions,” Elias says. “Instead of some of the hardships of current working conditions being seen as a private issue of the employee, those kinds of concerns will be pushed into a political realm within the industry or the workplace in the sense that management understands that it’s important for them to talk about that, care about that, and try to change things.”

And change does appear to be on the horizon. Prior to Salon’s vote, Gawker and Vice voted to join the same union.

Meanwhile, the News Guild—a newspaper union—launched a $500,000 campaign to unionize digital newsrooms. The News Guild already counts old media mainstays such as Reuters, and the New York Times among its members, as well as the labor-centric companies like Truthout and In These Times.** The Daily Beast is also a member, thanks to a 2010 merger with Newsweek.

But last July, the Guardian U.S. voted unanimously to join the News Guild. And in September, Al Jazeera-America’s digital newsroom voted to join as well.

“We who are tasked with communicating the voice of the voiceless must retain a voice ourselves,” Al Jazeera’s digital newsroom said in a statement. “We want our newsroom to exemplify the best practices of a modern, humane workplace that values diversity, equality and fairness.”

Many younger workers are loath to push back against these expectations.

The workers are currently in negotiations with management. If they are unable to join the union, Al Jazeera would be forced into a federally supervised National Labor Relations Board election.

The News Guild is currently conducting eight separate union drives at companies including Politico, the Huffington Post, and six others that have not yet been made public.

Elk—seizing upon what some see as promising developments in unions for journalists—is leading the Convergence to Organize Digital Media, which is holding a conference in Louisville during the second week of October. Ahead of the conference, the Convergence has issued a statement of media workers’ rights. The list of demands addresses overtime protections, freelancer rights, and intern rights, including the right for media interns to unionize. It also includes protections against discrimination, a commitment to increasing racial and ethnic diversity, and the right for media workers to unionize “without interference from management.”

“I’ve talked to people all over, and constantly I’m hearing stories about people saying, ‘Yeah, I’m dealing with being forced to work all the time as well,’” Elk says. “This is inherent of digital media companies. With email, it’s tough for people to draw boundaries. A lot of people treat it like: ‘Hey, I want to hear a response to that email, I want to hear it when I email you.’ Outside of the places that are unionized, like NPR, there aren’t any real standards of when you should work and when you should not work.”

Some companies are pushing back against the movement. Unions “wouldn’t be very good for employees at BuzzFeed—particularly people who are writers and reporters,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti told staff at a recent company meeting.

“A lot of the best new-economy companies are environments where there’s an alliance between managers and employees,” Peretti said. “People have shared goals. Benefits and perks and compensation are very competitive, and I feel like that’s the kind of market we’re in. A lot of times when you look at companies that have unionized, the relationship is very different. The relationship is much more adversarial.”

Curious about what BuzzFeed’s management-employee relationship looks like, I obtained a copy of the company’s employment contract.

“The Company has the right to terminate my employment at will, at any time, for any or no reason, with or without cause,” the contract states.

The document goes on to detail that “You and the Company agree to waive any rights to a trial before a judge or jury and agree to arbitrate before a neutral arbitrator” for “any and all claims or disputes ... including (but not limited to) claims against any current or former employee, director or agent of the Company, claims of wrongful termination, retaliation, discrimination, harassment.”

While neither of these clauses is extraordinary in a modern employment contract, they certainly don’t suggest an alliance between management and employees. In fact, the language is practically adversarial.

Though Julia is happy to see digital media workers starting to unionize, she wonders if unions alone will be able to fix problems that stem from the industry’s dominant business model of eyeballs for ad dollars.

“I wonder if unions can help push companies to change how they measure success,” she says. “The issue is that traffic is the biggest measure that's used in digital start-ups, but it shouldn't be the most important thing. Unions might force companies to think more of their employees as humans to invest in, which can only help.”

I used to work as an editor at a news website in New York, where my job was, essentially, to caption photographs. I captioned probably 100 photographs every day, working with a content management system (CMS) that lacked spellcheck (to remedy this, we would type the captions in an open Word document and copy and paste them into the CMS fields).

One day, about three months in, two of my bosses took me into a small conference room. They told me that they were dissatisfied with my performance—in particular, some typos I had made, and an instance in which I had incorrectly identified a man in a photograph as Brian Williams. I was told to sign a document that essentially told me if I made any more errors, I would be fired. Stunned, I cried as I made my way home from the office. I had been at the company less than six months, which meant that, in New York, I was ineligible for unemployment benefits.

I developed crippling depression and anxiety, worried every moment of every day that I would make the fatal mistake that would cost me my livelihood. Once, alone in my apartment, I got a panic attack so severe that my entire body went numb. Thinking I was having a heart attack, I called 911.

I eventually left that job—and New York—but the trauma still lingers. The hardest part about that experience was feeling like it was all my fault for not working hard enough, fast enough, or perfectly enough. I certainly didn’t attribute my troubles to lack of labor rights.

The more I talk to other media workers, the more I realize that my experience was far from unique. It makes me glad to see media workers trying something new.

As Elias tells me, “obviously, the status quo is not sustainable.”


*UPDATE — September 14, 2015: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect where Elias Isquith is currently based.

**UPDATE — September 17, 2015: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the membership of the News Guild.