By:
July 30, 2021

The Writers Guild of America, East, one of the largest unions representing journalists, has “put a pause” on organizing new digital newsrooms, according to an email sent to members Thursday morning.

The message was sent by the Guild Council, an elected body of 21 members who review and set the union’s priorities. In the email, the council argued that the union needed to conduct a “thorough assessment” of its overall membership to determine its future plans for organizing. In the meantime, the union would not be organizing new digital shops.

“To be clear, the Executive Director has indeed put a pause on new digital targets pending the results of an assessment of the membership,” the email reads. “This decision was informed by the following: Over the past five years, digital organizing has resulted in such rapid growth that it has significantly changed the news-to-freelance ratio among the membership; it has also taken up a substantial portion of the annual budget.”

The Writers Guild represents more than 4,700 writers and media professionals working in film, television, radio, podcasts and journalism. In 2015, the union made headlines when it organized Gawker Media, which became the first major online media company to unionize. Since then, it has organized more than two dozen newsrooms including Vox, HuffPost and Hearst Magazines as part of a larger labor movement in journalism, which now includes many local newsrooms.

The current pause in organizing does not affect non-newsroom shops, such as podcasts or nonfiction film and television. It also does not affect the union’s pre-existing commitments to newsrooms that have already begun to unionize. For example, the Writers Guild is currently organizing MSNBC, which went public with its union drive in June.

Shortly after the email was sent, eight members of the council released their own statement, denouncing the official council stance. They had voted against sending the email due to “its factual inaccuracy and distortions.”

It was not the executive director’s decision to pause digital organizing, according to the counterstatement, but the council’s. The conflict did not originate from budgetary issues, but concerns over the union’s identity.

“It (the pause on digital organizing) is a result of political and philosophical disagreements among elected Council members about the value of organizing,” the counterstatement reads. “More to the point: This issue is not a budgetary one, but a conflict between Council members over who belongs in the WGAE and who does not. The WGAE’s successful media organizing over the past six years is just one of many union actions that has taken up a ‘substantial portion’ of our budget.”

Writers Guild spokesperson Jason Gordon has yet to provide Poynter with comment. Messages sent to the council’s general email went unanswered.

Council members who signed the counterstatement said the conflict stems from questions over which kinds of workers the union should represent. Though the Writers Guild has attracted attention in recent years for organizing newsrooms, screenwriters make up the majority of its membership.

“The majority cohort on council seems to think there is some inherent value in ensuring that a majority of the union consists of film or television writers,” journalist Ashley Feinberg told Poynter in an email. Feinberg was one of the council members who signed the counterstatement. “That sort (of) elitism and exclusivity is entirely antithetical to the labor movement, and only serves to limit the power this union has to protect all of its members.”

These issues have existed for years, said Hamilton Nolan, a journalist who signed the counterstatement. But recently they’ve reached the point where they can’t be ignored.

Earlier this year, a newsroom approached the union asking to be organized. The Writers Guild declined after the council voted not to help the unit. Nolan, who has served on the council for four years, said it was the first time he’d seen the council vote not to organize a unit. In the past, the union has generally tried to organize as many new shops as it could.

Because the council sets the union’s priorities, that vote essentially sent a message to the executive director that the council would no longer support digital organizing, leading to the current pause, said Nolan.

The council members who signed the counterstatement argue that everyone deserves union benefits. Organizing more shops can lead to industry-wide changes. They also contend that it does not make sense to draw such deep divisions since the media landscape is constantly evolving.

“The digital writers joining our guild in increasing numbers do not pose a threat, they’re our siblings in the movement,” screenwriter Kaitlin Fontana told Poynter in an email. Fontana is a council member who also signed the counterstatement. “They will change the face of our guild for the better, and given the nature of our work they are likely to move from digital media to film, TV, and beyond. They will contribute to the betterment and survival of our industry.”

The Writers Guild is not the only media union that has faced backlash for its rapid organizing. The NewsGuild of New York, which represents publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker and Reuters, has drawn criticism from some of its members after it proposed raising dues. The NewsGuild local has run a deficit since 2017 due to its own organizing spree. In May, more than 100 New York Times reporters signed an email urging “transparency” and “careful budgeting.”

But the Writers Guild’s situation is different in that the union is not facing financial difficulties, Nolan said.

“We don’t have to raise dues. We’re fine,” Nolan said. “The Writers Guild is financially strong. Period. This is not a money issue. This is an identity issue, and an issue of whether or not people believe in the labor movement.”

Some of the council members who signed the counterstatement point out that adding more shops will help the union financially. After all, new shops will bring more members who pay dues.

It is unclear when the pause on organizing digital newsrooms will end. The council has created an “Outreach Subcommittee” to develop an “assessment” of the union’s membership and their thoughts on how the Writers Guild should proceed.

The union’s future approach to organizing will likely take center stage at the council elections next month. Several of the council members who signed the counterstatement are using this issue to urge members to vote for their slate of candidates.

On social media, some Writers Guild members have criticized the pause, and several of the council members who signed the counterstatement reported hearing confusion and dismay from the general membership.

Dru Johnston, a writer and comedian who signed the counterstatement, said that he thinks the union should be more transparent with its members. When he first joined the union, he didn’t have much awareness of how digital shops functioned within the Guild — an attitude he thinks is reflective of many members. Additional transparency would help non-journalist union members understand why digital news shops are important, he said.

“It wasn’t until I got more actively involved in the Guild, that I kind of understood that these (digital news shops) are a vital part of our union and an important part of our union, and everyone deserves to have the protection that we can offer.”

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Angela Fu is a reporter for Poynter. She can be reached at afu@poynter.org or on Twitter @angelanfu.
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