Precarious conditions in local news sparks collective action (page 4)

Wins & Improvements

There are three categories of improvements that can — and have been — made from unionization efforts: contract-based protections, industry-wide connection and internal company culture improvements. 

Contract-based protection

CISLM compared publically-available union contracts for local news unions formed during the sample period of Jan. 1, 2017 to Feb. 28, 2022. Not all contracts are public. Though some organizations in the sample are currently using the terms of their second ratified union contract, CISLM only compared the first-ratified contracts for all organizations.

Salary floor Pay increase % HR protections Severance/job protection
Number of unions with contractual term 10 17 15 9
Common terms Minimum floor of $40,000 – $45,000; pay scales introduced Often 2% raise; lower salaries get higher one-time raise percentages Expanded time off benefits, including time-and-a-half overtime; additional vacation time; parental leave policies “Just cause” term; minimum severance and notice for those laid off; adding per diem and temporary workers to union

CISLM analyzed the first successfully negotiated, public contracts from unions that were successfully recognized from January 2017 to February 2022. Above are some key terms and clauses that are frequently included. 

Through bargaining, contracts are able to guarantee union members certain benefits, such as an increase in pay, a guaranteed salary floor, better layoff policies and more. And these contracts provide the ability to sue if these terms aren’t met. Most contracts last for three years before organizers return to bargaining.

Not all union contracts are public. But from those publicly available, CISLM found that successfully negotiated contracts are most often able to achieve a pay increase, and are often able to expand benefits and add better layoff policies for employees.

Organizations are able to set salary floors for organizations, often around the low- to mid-$40,000 range. These salary expectations not only protect the current employees but also raise the bar for journalists entering the field.

Some news unions were able to negotiate “just cause” employment, meaning the employer must provide an explanation for termination rather than terminating an employee at will. 

Some unions have also been able to protect jobs that are often outsourced — ASNE found in 2013 that photojournalists and videographers saw the most job loss, at a 43% reduction.

“For journalists — especially for me as a photojournalist as there are fewer and fewer staff photography positions offered at small-to-midsize newspapers in general — the ability to have a say in the working conditions has been so helpful for us,” said Josh Boucher, a photojournalist for The State in South Carolina and union chair for The State Guild.

Additionally, some guilds have used contract negotiations to push for greater commitment to diverse and inclusive workforces — a noted issue across local news, which tends to skew white, male and straight. 

Some standout examples:

  • The LA Times Guild contract requires the company to interview at least two people from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds for each job. It also established a joint diversity committee with access to hiring and interview data to hold the company accountable.
  • The Blue Ridge Guild contract requires the company to interview at least one candidate from traditionally underrepresented groups for each open job. A newsroom committee will work on a plan to recruit and retain diverse talent.
  • The Montana News Guild requires that the Billings Gazette interview at least one qualified woman and/or member of traditionally underrepresented groups for any job openings.
  • VTDigger Guild requires public reporting, on an annual basis, about the organization’s demographic breakdown, as well as standardized hiring practices that will proactively recruit journalists from underrepresented backgrounds.

An interconnected workforce

The journalism field is a small network with a lot of turnover — as a result, many journalists know each other. And unionization has lent itself to a more interconnected workforce, as it’s common practice for those curious about unionizing to reach out to established unions.

“A lot of my friends from college had gone to newspapers who had already organized,” said Alison Graham, a health and technology reporter at The Roanoake Times and vice chair of the Timesland Guild. “Personally, I was looking at the Arizona Republic (as an inspiration for unionization) — I had a friend out there telling us about how beneficial the union was.” 

The connection means that journalists across the country, across beats and across ownership status, can learn from each other.

Further, that means journalists from across the country can organize with each other.

As recently as March, Alden Capital attempted to acquire Lee Enterprises, which holds 77 papers across the United States. 

In response, 12 guilds representing employees at Lee papers wrote and published a joint letter to the board of Lee Enterprises opposing the sale. According to the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, eight of those unions were formed since 2017.

Employees representing 12 unions published a joint letter to the Lee Enterprise board of directors asking them to intervene in the sale.

“We got that letter together and Lee Enterprises said they really appreciated that letter. They didn’t want to be bought, they thought they were undervalued,” Graham said. “All of the newsrooms — we were very against it.”

Internal company culture improvements

On an organizational level, guild members report that organizing efforts have been able to strengthen camaraderie, especially during a pandemic. 

The members of the State News Guild at its one-year birthday party (courtesy of the state news guild)

“I love being in a newsroom, that organized chaos of a newsroom and overhearing how they do their craft — I mourned that in the pandemic,” Lindstrom said. “For me, it was a way to feel more in touch with my colleagues. … You lose that when it’s all business on the news call.” 

For some, the guild has been a way to get to know coworkers who don’t often interact otherwise. For example, Graham said she didn’t have much contact with the sports desk due to its position across the newsroom, late games and a schedule that was geared more toward night shifts. 

“Now since organizing, we got to know them so much during the organizing process,” she said. “Some of them have been involved in different committees, so I’ve gotten to know some of them really well and become much closer and better friends with them.”

Next chapter

"Precarious conditions in local news sparks collective action" table of contents

  1. Precarious conditions in local news sparks collective action
  2. A state of the unions
  3. Show me the money: Contract negotiations
  4. Wins & Improvements
  5. Challenges ahead
  6. Toward the future