As media organizations continue to navigate the choppy waters brought on by Covid-19, employees who have unionized in recent years are turning to their representatives to advocate for them more than ever.
The pandemic took hold of the industry at a time when many digital newsrooms began unionizing. The crisis has put an even greater strain on the news businesses, by siphoning off ad dollars and decimating their events businesses.
Media execs have had to make staff adjustments that have resulted in widespread layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs.
In light of the pandemic, the NewsGuild-CWA executive council has called for a stimulus package to fund what it calls life-saving news as it relates to the pandemic.
To get a sense of those discussions, Adweek spoke with Susan DeCarava, the president of the NewsGuild of New York, which represents employees at news organizations like The Daily Beast, BuzzFeed News, Fortune magazine, Law360, New York magazine, The New York Times and The New Yorker.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Adweek: What has this been like, from your perspective, working with news organizations to give employees as much protection as you possibly can?
Susan DeCarava: It’s been a bit of a roller coaster for our members. And for everyone involved. It’s a situation where no one wants to be having these conversations.
In some instances, we’ve had a lot of room to negotiate. And other instances it’s a lot tighter, and it’s more difficult because it’s an operation that exists on a margin to begin with. We view the value of being united, of having a conversation, is not so much a guarantee about the outcome, but a guarantee that we will put media workers’ concerns front and center, that the employer has to acknowledge them and take them into consideration in their planning.
How has the pandemic shaped the kinds of conversations you’re having?
Most of the media companies don’t want to be in this situation. That’s first and foremost, and they’re pretty clear about that. For the most part, we are able to accept that at face value.
It’s been incredibly empowering for our members to be in a difficult situation, to know that there are clear things they need to address. Some of them are the kinds of things that you don’t typically think of as being “union issues.” Things like how managers address employees in a difficult time, what are the expectations of productivity, how can a business continue to function and still be empathetic to its employees and address their concerns? Those are things that are very hard to legislate within contract language, but because we have people who have come together and are sharing information and are determined to make their workplace reflect the values that they have, we have been able to turn around and say to employers, “There’s this discussion about compensation and benefits during this difficult time that needs to happen.” But there’s also discussion about what are the daily interactions that your supervisors are having with their reports? What are the expectations for productivity that need to be addressed because of the mental strain and concerns that working in this environment puts on individuals? And that needs to be part of your equation as well.
How do you approach talking with media companies about furloughs versus layoffs versus pay cuts?
Every workplace is different; every newsroom is different; every unit is different. And the things that we fight for and focus on vary from shop to shop. But in each case, the conversation is driven by our members.
This is not a situation where an employer can, or think that they should be able to, act with impunity, and just dictate what happens to people. It has to be a mutual conversation. And that’s why we’re here.
You’re on the front lines of having these conversations every day. What’s your gut on the state of the financial health of the media industry right now?
It’s pretty dire. I say that looking not just at what’s happening in New York, because many of the media outlets we represent here have national or even international reach.
There are a lot of industries that are hurting right now. And the media industry is one of them. In an odd way, this crisis has allowed us to put a spotlight on how essential news is locally, regionally, nationally. And it’s part of our job to make sure that everyone has access to real information, to facts and to also the sense of connection and understanding about what’s happening outside of where we are right now at this moment, which tightens the social fabric and creates a broader national community.
What has this pandemic exposed that you think the media industry can learn from whenever we get to the end of this?
News is vital. It’s essential and vital for our social structures, for our community, for our understanding of each other’s citizens. And the human community that we create, endlessly in the thousand small ways we interact with each other and the big ways in which we do.
That is completely dependent upon the information of knowing that other people are suffering, and other people are working incredibly hard, that other people are finding joy and success in an environment where those seem few and far between in which we need and want to have those stories as examples to inspire us to continue to soldier on.
What we are working to come out of this is a greater investment and new recognition that the work of journalists is essential and critical and vital to the functioning of our society on every level.
It sounds exhausting.
It’s not. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but when you’re engaged in a good fight, when you’re standing with people who you are simpatico with, who share your values, it’s like a shot in the arm—the equivalent of a vitamin D shot.
What’s exhausting is trying to figure it out on your own. What’s exhausting is sitting there going “God, I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills. I don’t know how I’m going to do this. I don’t know how I’m going to take care of my kids and work at the same time.”
That’s the exhausting part. The demands that are put on us, by employers, by circumstances, by the pandemic, by the ways in which work life is structured in the United States. We all try to figure it out on our own, because that’s the default.
But you can actually lean on other people and they can lean on you, and, collectively, you can come up with some alternatives, and maybe even accomplish them. That’s the thing that makes us less isolated and less alone and less exhausted.