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labor Record Number of Journalists Unionize During COVID Pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis has triggered a massive uptick in news media unionization efforts.

The COVID-19 crisis has triggered a massive uptick in news media unionization efforts, union leaders tell Axios.

Why it matters: The trend is only going to grow bigger once people head back to work in-person, says Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild. 

More consolidation in the industry via SPACs and local news takeovers will also drive record unionization efforts. 

  • "We have been organizing like crazy since the pandemic," says Lowell Peterson, Executive Director of the Writers Guild of America, East.
  • "It's going to explode," says Schleuss. "This will be a record year for unionization in the industry."

Three key trends have pushed journalists to unionize over the past year, union executives tell Axios.

  1. Financial uncertainty: Journalists rushed to unionize early on in the pandemic following rounds of layoffs that were triggered by ad-industry headwinds. "Whenever there is concern about economic security, that is one of the factors leads people to unionize," says Peterson.
  2. SPACS and consolidation: Later in 2020, media companies began eyeing SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) deals that would allow outlets to go public and merge with other companies. Concerns about consolidation and new leadership have pushed more journalists to seek union protection.
  3. Social justice: A rise in political protests, and movements around racial justice, over the past year, have pushed journalists to seek further safety protections from unions, as well as better representation around diversity and inclusion. 

By the numbers: In 2020, more than 1,800 journalists across unions from the NewsGuild and the Writers Guild (of America) unionized, according to data from the leaders of both groups. That's up from roughly 1,500 the year prior. 

  • In 2020, Schleuss said the NewsGuild saw unionization efforts from more than 30 outlets, compared to 18 in 2019 and 20 in 2019.
  • In 2021, more than 200 journalists have already unionized with the NewsGuild and hundreds more are pending. 
  • Driving the news: Insider became the latest digital media company to organize when its U.S. editorial staff said it was forming a union with the NewsGuild of New York on Monday. 

  • In a video tweeted by the union, journalists at Insider say they've voted to unionize to "secure what we've built and strengthen it."
  • Last week, The New York Times' 650 tech workers also formed a union. Other major outlets to unionize in the past few months include Bustle Digital Group, NowThis and Wired, in addition to dozens of other local outlets. 
  • What to watch: In the past few years, more local newsrooms have pushed to unionize in response to hedge fund and private equity takeover threats.

  • Schleuss says that more than 40 different newsrooms within Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper company, have unionized, as well as more than a dozen from McClatchy, which sold to a hedge fund last year.
  • Tribune Publishing newspapers, whose fate hangs in the balance of billionaires trying to upend a hedge fund takeover, are using unionization to try to protect journalists from the inevitable cuts. 

  • Over the past few years, nearly every outlet within Tribune Publishing has unionized, says Schleuss. 
  • The bottom line: Peterson says news media unionization efforts have increased steadily over the past few years, but "it's been more intense during the pandemic."

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  • "All of these factors have combined to really make this a powerful movement," says Peterson.