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Not an ‘assembly line’? Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Why HuffPo and other ‘new’ media journalists are choosing unions

Newsroom unions are back. In newly found solidarity, journalists in American digital newsrooms are getting organised. As “new” digital news outlets are turning “old” - or rather maturing and delivering profits, it’s not surprising journalists are demanding better pay and working conditions, and greater transparency from their management.

Journalists at the Huffington Post in the US are the latest in talks to unionise, and the company’s founder says she is fine with it. Arianna Huffington, who sold her media outlet to AOL in 2011, supports unionisation of the HuffPo workforce. In a statement to CNNMoney she said:

“we fully support our newsroom employees’ right to discuss unionising and will embrace whatever decision they make on this issue.”

Not all the media bosses are as supportive. For example, BuzzFeed’s management is less keen to see its workers get organised. Chief executive Jonah Peretti has warned the company’s workers to stay out of labour unions, arguing workers are not working “on an assembly line” and therefore don’t need the protection provided by unions. Peretti believes unions are not right for such “a flexible, dynamic company” as BuzzFeed.

Al Jazeera America’s management has also been less keen to see its workers get organised, and it is contesting the rights of nine of its editors and team leaders to have union representation. However, the rest of the company’s news workers have opted to join NewsGuild of New York. Al Jazeera America’s journalists say they “deserve an environment that exemplifies the best practices of a modern, humane workplace and values diversity, equality and fairness”.

HuffPo is expected to follow the example set by AJAM, Gawker, The Guardian America, Salon and Vice. According to The Washington Post, The Newspaper Guild has 26,000 members in the US, and The Communications Workers of America 600,000 members.

The committee organising The HuffPo workers has pencilled a list of reasons to join The Newspaper Guild, and these include pay, job responsibilities, and editorial decisions. The committee says the “dramatic changes to employees’ workload and responsibilities, made without employee input, hinder our ability to produce our best work”.

New digital news outlets have produced “almost 5,000 full-time jobs,” according to the State of the News Media 2014 report. It says as these media outlets are innovating, they’re “hiring people with skills and voices ‘being nurtured online’”. This means younger, digitally native news workers.

Business model based on exploitation

When the Huffington Post launched in Australia in partnership with Fairfax in August, it was immediately thrown into controversy for assembling “a team of bloggers, who somewhat controversially agree to write unpaid in return for exposure to the site’s vast global audience”.

Australian media commentator Dee Madigan, asked to write for the site for free, said:

“if you don’t value your work and you don’t say no, you will get exploited. They just seem to think you can scribble out words and it doesn’t take time.”

HuffPo has “more than 100,000 bloggers around the world who contribute to the site for free”. Joining unions may aid workers in digital newsrooms, but what about these free contributors?

HuffPo’s business model is based on free labour, or rather exploitation, as author Christian Fuchs puts it. Fuchs argues media companies such as HuffPo and Facebook exploit their users which produce free content and data for their sites. However, they do so on a voluntary basis. Fuchs call these content providers “prosumers” who are exploited for profit, with their content commodified by being sold to third parties such as advertisers.

Editorial freedom

Journalists are also joining unions as they feel their editorial independence is compromised. As the HuffPo organising committee put it, journalists want a formal commitment from their management for editorial freedom, so that “institutions can’t use their influence to dictate our coverage or squash stories that are unflattering”.

Gawker is another media outlet where issues of editorial freedom have caused staff problems, with two editors resigning after the company’s management decided to pull a controversial story from its website.

In their resignation letter, the editors said “non-editorial business executives were given a vote in the decision to remove it,” and therefore editorial independence was compromised. The episode turned “Gawker’s claim to be the world’s largest independent media company into, essentially, a joke,” they said.

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