In what some consider to be a surprising move, the newsroom staff at the Chicago Tribune, a newspaper historically averse to organized labor, has announced that it is seeking to form a union.
First Newsroom Union in Tribune History
On April 11, 2018, journalists informed Tribune management that they are preparing to unionize the newsroom, a first in the newspaper’s 171-year history. The organizers’ stated goals include regular raises, advancement opportunities, better parental leave policies, and greater diversity.
A minimum of 30 percent of newsroom employees have to support a union effort in order for it to be recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, at which point management may then either recognize the union or request a formal vote.
Aside from the above demands, the organizers also noted that they are seeking a greater voice for the newsroom, expressing concerns about journalistic independence, staffing resources, overcompensation of executives, and shifting leadership priorities under the Tribune’s current ownership, Chicago-based Tronc, formerly known as Tribune Publishing.
An Industry in Decline
When Tribune Publishing first rebranded itself as Tronc (short for “Tribune Online Content”) in 2016, the press release announced that the company was transforming itself into “a content curation and monetization engine.” As such, it would place a greater emphasis on embedded videos and on syndicating its “content” across all of its media properties.
The shift in emphasis on viral content over more traditional journalism may be understandable in light of an industry that has been hit hard by the emergence of online publishing – and with it, the loss of traditional print advertising revenue and a sharp drop-off in circulation. According to the Pew Research Center, “total weekday circulation for U.S. daily newspapers – both print and digital – fell 8 percent in 2016, marking the 28th consecutive year of declines.”
Meanwhile, the newly-christened Tronc itself suffered an 8 percent drop in advertising revenue and a 4 percent decline in total revenue in the same year.
In light of these prospects, many once-prominent newspapers have either gone online-only or shuttered entirely, while the remaining news outlets have shed jobs at an alarming rate. Under the current environment, critics say, fewer and fewer staffers are being forced to produce more and more content for lesser and lesser compensation.
Media Workers Unionizing
Faced with such a dismal state of affairs, many media workers are saying “Enough!”
The newsroom staffers and content creators for both traditional and new media companies have started organizing and forming unions. Their motivations are similar to those who create and join unions in most other industries: to provide workers with fairer compensation, better protection from unjust management practices, and a greater voice in the future of their companies.
In fact, recent stories suggest that unionizing media workers have been meeting with some success.
In January 2018, Vox Media, the digital publishing company responsible for such sites as Eater, Curbed, Recode, The Verge, SB Nation, Racked, Polygon, and Vox.com, agreed to a collective bargaining agreement with the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE) on behalf of 400 of its editorial workers.
In April of the same year, Chicago’s own Onion Inc. also entered into collective bargaining negotiations with WGAE for about 100 employees working at The Onion, AV Club, ClickHole, and Onion Labs.
Previously, WGAE organized similar digital entities such as Vice Media, Gizmodo Media Group, The Root, The Huffington Post, Thrillist, and Salon.
As for more traditional media, the Tribune’s longtime local rival the Chicago Sun-Times is now actually owned by a union – at least in part.
In July 2017, the Chicago Federation of Labor and a group of individual investors, led by former Chicago alderman Edwin Eisendrath, purchased the paper and its parent company, Sun-Times Media Group. And who was the top competitor that the consortium bested for ownership of the venerable Chicago news institution? Tronc.
Long Road Ahead
Nevertheless, despite this positive headway, the contemporary newsroom union, whether at traditional outlets or in new media, still faces a long road ahead, as some recent cautionary tales suggest.
On October 26, 2017, 25 of the 27 New York employees at Gothamist and DNAinfo, which provided neighborhood news coverage in various US cities, voted to join WGAE. One week later, billionaire owner Joe Ricketts, whose family also owns the Chicago Cub, shut down ALL of the Gothamist and DNAinfo sites.
The move, which some interpreted as retaliatory, left 115 people out of work, including employees in Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, even though they themselves had not unionized.
In February 2018, the parent company of the Los Angeles Times struck a deal to sell the paper to a billionaire doctor, only weeks after its journalists had unionized the newsroom.
The story of the Los Angeles Times should be of particular concern to those pushing for a newsroom union at the Chicago Tribune.
Its parent company is also Tronc.