By:
August 1, 2022

“When we fight, we win,” is a common rallying cry in union circles — and in the case of the NewsGuild, it’s almost always true.

Since 2012, the NewsGuild has successfully unionized just about every newsroom it announced a drive for. While the success rate for National Labor Relations Board union elections generally hovers between 61% and 72%, the NewsGuild has been batting a thousand, and it has organized more than 100 newsrooms over the past decade.

That streak of success broke earlier this year when the editorial staff at Outside Magazine attempted to unionize. On Jan. 4, 15 of 17 eligible unit members signed a statement announcing they were organizing with the Denver Newspaper Guild, a NewsGuild local that also represents The Denver Post and the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune. But just six weeks later, the staff unanimously decided to abandon their efforts.

It was the first time in years that a media union campaign with the NewsGuild had gone public and then failed.

In a series of tweets, the Outside Magazine staff explained that they wanted to give the company a chance to address their concerns about the workplace and implement change. But when change finally came, much of it was negative. By the end of May, four of the staff members who had signed the Jan. 4 statement had been laid off, and at least three others had quit. The remaining staff were reassigned to “content pods” to help produce stories for parent company Outside Inc.’s other publications.

To understand why the union drive failed, Poynter spoke with six current and former magazine staff. Almost all of them asked for their identities to be kept anonymous either because they had signed a nondisclosure agreement or because they didn’t want to risk their careers by speaking out.

Immediately after the staff asked Outside to voluntarily recognize the union, the company launched an unusually aggressive anti-union campaign. The Denver Newspaper Guild had prepared the staff for most of the company’s talking points, but one argument caught everyone off guard.

A union, Outside argued, would jeopardize the company’s ability to attract funding from venture capital firms. At stake was not just the jobs of the editorial staff, but the entire company. In addition to Outside Magazine, the company — which is headquartered in Santa Fe, New Mexico — had more than 20 other publications, encompassing roughly 580 employees.

Not wanting to be responsible for the potential loss of hundreds of jobs, the magazine staff withdrew their petition for an NLRB election.

“We attempt to inoculate the folks on what is coming and usually that is effective, but at times, it’s not. A lot of it depends on the culture of the organization,” Denver Newspaper Guild administrative officer Tony Mulligan said. “It was a much more aggressive anti-union campaign put on by Outside than the regular newspaper chains that we’ve been unionizing.”

An anti-union campaign

Though there had been occasional talk of unionizing Outside Magazine over the past couple years, organizing for the most recent union drive didn’t begin in earnest until summer 2021, according to two current and former staff members.

That year, Pocket Outdoor Media acquired the magazine and several other brands and changed its name to Outside. The magazine’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee, which had been formed in 2020, set up a series of meetings with the company’s new leadership to discuss workplace initiatives. One of the things they wanted was pay transparency.

In a meeting between the committee, upper management, and human resources, Outside chief people officer Jade Curtis told the committee that the only workplaces with full pay transparency are those within the government and union shops, according to two people who were present at the meeting. So the staff decided to unionize.

Asked about the meeting, the company wrote in an email, “We have taken many steps since the acquisitions to provide transparency on pay and benefits.” Those steps include publishing pay ranges in job postings and training managers on how pay is set and the company’s salary benchmarking system.

Getting support for the union was not difficult, said four current and former staff members. Among workers’ grievances were a lack of pay transparency, salaries below market rates, inadequate benefits, unclear pathways for professional advancement, a lack of progress towards the DEI committee’s goals and an unstable work environment in which people had little say over their job responsibilities and workload.

The NewsGuild does not publicize its union drives until they receive support from at least 70% of workers. By January, Outside Union had far surpassed this threshold, and the staff went public.

Within a day, the company had denied the union’s request for voluntary recognition, forcing the workers to file an election petition with the NLRB. Outside then hired anti-union consultants and began a campaign to convince the magazine staff to vote against the union. The company sent out emails with misinformation about unionization, according to two current and former staff members, and hosted training sessions for both managers and staff that included common anti-union arguments.

Outside told Poynter that it declined voluntary recognition because it wanted to make sure employees were fully informed about the decision to unionize.

“We don’t believe unionization is the right path for employees at Outside, for promoting one-team culture, for the ability to recognize and reward individual talent, or for the flexibility we all need from time to time to address individual circumstances that come up in life,” Outside wrote in an email.

Direct managers pulled employees into one-on-one meetings in which they made their opposition to the union drive clear, according to four current and former members of the staff. Those conversations could be tense and sometimes took a personal tenor.

Outside also withheld scheduled raises and bonuses. When the magazine staff announced their union drive, they were in the middle of doing annual performance reviews, which the company then decided to delay, along with corresponding promotions and salary increases.

The magazine staff maintain that this was illegal since workplaces enter “status quo” once unions go public. During this period, companies are not supposed to change the workers’ conditions of employment. Because those performance reviews and raises were part of an annual process, the magazine’s staff argue that the company should not have delayed them.

Outside, however, contests this and states that it postponed the performance review process to ensure compliance with the law. The company told Poynter that it eventually paid 100% of bonuses and 4% annual merit increases on average to all employees.

Before the union went public, the Denver Newspaper Guild held “inoculation” training with the workers to prepare them for anti-union rhetoric. But they hadn’t anticipated the company’s argument that a union would pose a threat to investors and prevent Outside from securing funding during the fall. Outside’s funding model was foreign to the guild, which was used to representing newspapers owned by hedge funds.

“The newspapers we represent — they’re chains: Gannett, MediaNews Group, Adams (Publishing Group). Their structure is they own the place, they take the profit. It’s not like seed money for a startup,” Mulligan said. “But it appears that folks at Outside felt that this was more of a startup structure with seed money.”

Some staff members consulted family members who had experience working with venture capital firms and received confirmation that the presence of a union could repel investors. As the date of the election drew closer, support for the union wavered. The magazine staff started to feel as if they had the weight of 600 people’s jobs on their backs. They imagined a worst case scenario in which their union caused Outside to lose funding, resulting in layoffs that affected people who had had zero say in the decision.

Even though the staff was split on whether to unionize, they decided acting collectively was the only way they could hold onto any semblance of power. So on Feb. 16, they unanimously decided to withdraw their election petition. If things didn’t improve in a year, they could try again.

The aftermath

After the workers withdrew their election petition, there was a period of “emotional recovery,” said one former staff member. Management organized a series of meetings with staff to discuss working conditions and any changes employees wanted to see.

The annual performance reviews that had been paused during the union drive resumed, and Outside promoted several staff members. The biggest change was the implementation of a $45,000 salary floor, which had been one of the union’s goals.

But it wasn’t long before things started to go downhill.

In late spring, Outside implemented a hiring freeze, according to five current and former staff members. A few weeks later, on May 18, the company announced it was restructuring and laid off 66 full-time employees.

Outside told Poynter that only two magazine staff members were laid off. But five current and former employees said at least four people were affected, three of whom were people of color. There is only one person of color left from the original editorial staff.

It is impossible to say whether a union would have prevented the layoffs. Unionized newsrooms have not been immune to the shrinking forces within the journalism industry. But if the Outside Magazine staff had unionized, they could have demanded to bargain over the decision and the effects, Mulligan said.

“They may have been able to mitigate the impact or come up with an alternative to layoffs,” Mulligan said. “Is there an alternative to a layoff? Are there other things they could do short of reducing the force that can overcome whatever reason they were contemplating a layoff? And if a layoff goes forward, what would the conditions be? Would there be severance pay or continuation of health insurance?”

In an email, Outside wrote that the company gave laid off employees no less than 6 weeks of severance, 2 months of COBRA and external coaching for finding another job.

“Early in Q2, after completing 20 acquisitions and facing a pending recession, we knew we had to make some tough decisions about reducing our workforce,” the company wrote. “On May 18th, 2022, we conducted a reduction in force and gave the people impacted a generous severance package, accounting for any tenure they had at their acquired company.”

As part of the reorganization, the remaining staff were placed in “content pods” divided by story type. Employees no longer wrote for a single publication. Instead, the company has a group of people who write running stories for all of Outside’s publications, a separate group that writes backpacking stories and so forth. Overnight, people were given different job titles and different managers without being consulted.

Among the current and former staff interviewed, there were feelings of betrayal, anger, resignation. One said that after the layoffs were announced, they heard from multiple people — both staff and managers — who expressed regret for not supporting the union.

Even though the staff did not proceed with an NLRB election, Mulligan said they may be precluded from starting another union for one year after the original petition. Typically, if a union loses an election, they must wait one year before they can file a petition for another election.

Outside has seen high turnover in recent years. In their January statement, the Outside Magazine staff reported that overall turnover in 2021 was more than 35 percent. The constant stream of departing staff has made it difficult for past unionization attempts at the magazine to gain any momentum. Even the most recent union drive saw key organizers leave before the workers could go public.

Turnover, then, could make restarting a union drive at Outside difficult. Of the 15 people who had signed the original statement supporting unionization, roughly half remain.

At the same time, the company’s recent actions have angered some employees. The reorganization has also put magazine staff into contact with other Outside workers, some of whom had expressed interest in unionizing their own brands earlier this year, according to three current and former staff members.

Mulligan said the Denver Newspaper Guild will include arguments about funding as part of future inoculation training when guiding workers through possible anti-union campaigns. While there is no way of knowing the effect a union would have had on Outside’s ability to attract funders, he said the magazine’s status as the company’s largest profitable publication would have likely been a boon for investors.

“If they had talked to me, I would have said, ‘Does that make any sense to you?'” Mulligan said. “Your publication is established. It generates revenue for the owners. So does it really make sense what they’re saying?”

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

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