Digital Publishers Cross New Territory in Merging Companies With Unionized Staffers

A slew of recent media mergers put these employees in the middle

Business people shaking hands
It’s a new process for these digital media companies, especially if those newsrooms are unionized by different shops. Getty Images
Headshot of Sara Jerde

When media companies merge, questions of redundancies in operations, strategies and staffing naturally arise. Oftentimes, employees are left confused. But what happens to two newsrooms that have both unionized under different unions?

Seeking fair working conditions amid a tumultuous time in the industry, staffers at Vox Media and New York Media unionized, New York Media in December 2018 and Vox in June 2019. The new media conglomerate will have to build itself around a framework established by union contracts among Vox Media’s editorial and video staffs and a looming contract with New York Media’s editorial staffers. 

And as mergers and acquisitions continue in the media industry, so will questions about how those publishers grapple with another trend in the digital media industry: the influx of unionized newsrooms, particularly when baseline working conditions like starting salaries and predetermined raises are already set.

Vox Media and New York Media maintain that they won’t actually be getting into the nitty-gritty of how to combine those unionized newsrooms because the brands that have done so will remain separate and distinct under their respective companies. Some of those union negotiations, though, are still ongoing.

New York Media has voluntarily recognized its union and is negotiating with a bargaining unit, represented by The NewsGuild of New York, formed late last year by 180 print and digital staffers at New York Media. In mid-November, the union sat down to revisit its contract for the first time since the merger was announced.

A list with the title "Media Companies that Recently Formed Unions"

“Our union remains as committed as ever to securing a fair and strong contract and creating a more equitable workplace,” it said in a statement.

Hundreds of Vox Media’s editorial employees, meanwhile, have a collective bargaining agreement with Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE). “While we expect to find exciting opportunities for collaboration, we’re not combining unionized newsrooms,” the Vox Media spokeswoman said.

Undoubtedly, more digital media properties will have to parse through what the process looks like as the industry continues to merge and acquire one another as publishers chase scale and consolidate resources. Group Nine Media and PopSugar, two other media companies that are poised to merge, intend to keep newsrooms distinct and not combine unionized brands (i.e., Thrillist and The Dodo) with other nonunionized Group Nine brands or PopSugar’s newsroom. 

“As a general matter, when there’s a merger, there are different work cultures that have to be taken into account and things you take for granted,” said Lowell Peterson, executive director of WGAE. “A different company might have a different history of how independent it allows its newsroom to be.”

It’s a new process for these digital media companies, especially if those newsrooms are unionized by different shops. In New York, where many media companies are headquartered, newsrooms tend to unionize with either NewsGuild of New York, which includes BuzzFeed News, or WGAE, which includes G/O Media.

WGAE tries to build certain provisions into its contracts to prepare for M&As, including additional time in case of a company transition and the ability to access archives. Whether those contracts are binding, though, depends on the type of sale, Peterson said. If the purchase or merger comes about via a stock sale or trade, then the agreement stays in place by law. If it’s an asset sale, it depends on who remains working.

“Unions in the journalism business today understand the need for flexibility in the current environment,” said Mitchell Stephens, professor of journalism at New York University. “From everything I’ve seen, unions have shown tremendous flexibility to save or strengthen these businesses.”

Of course, the industry is no stranger to union support, which has negotiated on behalf of newspapers when large mergers have been approved. Executives from legacy publications have gone toe-to-toe with unions before, which offers these digital media companies an opportunity to turn over a new leaf when it comes to negotiations. Unionized workforces are not always seen as positive by new owners.

After the merger of Gannett and New Media Investment Group was made official, New Media CEO Mike Reed was quoted by The New York Times as saying the editorial team’s union was likely to be challenging to the new leadership, calling the union a “big problem” in terms of rethinking the business.

Unions have been known to protect employees, like in the case of G/O Media, with brands like The Onion, Splinter News and Deadspin. When G/O Media management laid off more than two dozen employees this year, it became a rallying cry for more newsrooms to unionize as staffers took to Twitter to voice their support over the severance packages that WGAE had negotiated.

G/O Media declined to comment for this article.

“An ongoing wave of layoffs we’ve witnessed in the last decade or two, in some cases, were lessened by unions that won severance packages,” Stephens said. “It’s wonderful to see some digital news organizations are managing, in part, by playing on the liberal sympathies of their ownership to unionize.”

This story first appeared in the Dec. 2, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@SaraJerde Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.