How to Save Journalism

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The biggest threat to the health of the media industry is Silicon Valley. And the antidote might just be organized labor

New Republic - July 11, 2019

"... The generation that took jobs in digital media after the rise of the internet entered a world that glittered with promise, seeming to afford more new opportunities than ever before, even as print media was in decline. When Hamilton Nolan explained why Gawker employees were organizing in a 2015 blog post, he suggested that the symbolism of the effort was just as important as the material factors: “It’s now possible to find a career in this industry, rather than just a fleeting job,” Nolan wrote. “An organized work force is part of growing up.” 

When we look back on the horrible summer of 2019, we might find that what seemed to be a minor event at the time turned out to be a watershed. On June 6, more than 300 workers at Vox Media staged a walkout in protest of management’s refusal to accede to their contract demands. The firehose of content on Vox’s websites—which include Eater, The Verge, SB Nation, and flagship Vox.com—dried up. The Vox walkout marked the culmination of a broader unionization drive in the news business, as workforces have mobilized at old-school daily rags and brand-new digital operations alike, in search of better pay, better benefits, and some measure of security in the unstable, revenue-challenged news business. 

Vox’s workers won that battle, when management finally agreed to hammer out a collective-bargaining contract after 29 straight hours of negotiation. But that victory added up to more than generous new salary increases and severance provisions. It was, just as important, an occasion for solidarity across the media industry: Other union shops—within the Writers Guild of America and NewsGuild, the two big journalism unions—and freelancers closed ranks to prevent Vox management from paying freelancers to populate their now-stagnant platforms. Here was a new phenomenon, with expansive implications for the industry as a whole: a worker movement that spanned different companies and individual unions and included freelance journalists.

When we talk about the future of journalism these days we typically discuss different corporate models of content provision; be it The New York Times and its paywall; The Washington Post and its plutocratic benefactor; The Atlantic and its roster of TED Talk–like panels bankrolled by corporate sponsors like ExxonMobil; or Vice, The Outline, BuzzFeed, and the venture capital lined up behind them. By now, the media man loudly declaring that he will be the one to come up with a model to save journalism—whether it be Josh Topolsky or Chris Hughes or Jeff Bezos—has become a cliché. But none of these models has yet proven to be sustainable in the long term or applicable industry-wide. And none addresses the real reason the news industry has been in precipitous decline, losing 23 percent of its workforce between 2008 and 2017. 

Last month the News Media Alliance released a report that revealed Google made $4.7 billion from news content in 2018—all while investing barely a cent in producing actual journalism. Tech monopolies, which both accelerate and exploit conditions of extreme economic concentration and wealth inequality, are bleeding media dry. Media companies have responded with adjustments that are painfully modest compared to the scale of the problem, hoping they can somehow scrape by as Google and Facebook gobble up advertising revenue. ...
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