Diversity Essay: Fifty Years of Newsroom Organizing

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Marama Whyte

In March 2022, employees at Condé Nast made headlines when they announced that they were unionizing.[i] The proposed Condé Union will cover over 500 workers at a range of influential magazines including Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Bon Appétit, and Architectural Digest, and advocate for job security, improved wages, and sustainable hours.[ii]

This is far from the first time that media employees have united to advocate for improved workplace opportunities and conditions. Throughout the 1970s, women and minority journalists turned to the legal system to address the institutional inequality they faced in the workplace. Using Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbade discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or religion, workers at newspapers, magazines, and wire services across the United States filed complaints and lawsuits against their employers. They sought redress in the form of back pay, affirmative action programs with goals and timetables, and more representation in senior editorial and management positions.

In the 1970s, news workers were supported in their efforts by the Newspaper Guild, the national union for news professionals and other media workers. Formed in 1933, the Guild took a varied approach toward discrimination complaints and activism, but one which built on a long rhetorical commitment to antidiscrimination. Equal pay for equal work was enshrined in the Guild bargaining goals in 1935, and in 1947 the Guild called for “full employment of all groups, regardless of race religion, sex or cultural background.”[iii] Given this history, it is unsurprising that the local Guild units which operated in many major cities were prepared to support discrimination claims across the country, the majority of which were class action complaints organized around either sex or race discrimination.

Gender, Race Organize Separately

Despite having the Guild’s support in common, these complaints were often organized differently. Sex discrimination cases tended to be organized by white women journalists, who had, by the 1970s, made it to the newsroom only to find themselves restricted to the women’s pages, passed over for editorial positions, or making substantially less money than their male peers. Race discrimination cases, in comparison, often originated outside the newsroom with other workers at the company, including in the sales and classified departments. This was in part due to lack of numbers, as discriminatory hiring practices meant journalists from racial and ethnic minorities were still a tiny minority. But there were other difficulties in uniting workers from across a media company. As Black New York Times journalist Roger Wilkins observed about the 1970s news landscape, “Newspapers, like other institutions, have their class systems.”[iv]

There have been some improvements in this area over the past 50 years. In their recent efforts, the Condé Union has made a point of noting that it would include workers beyond writers and editors, namely the array of producers, analysts, audience developers, production managers, researchers, social media managers, and video creators who make up the modern media landscape. In doing so, they demonstrate a recognition that all of these workers are facing the same workplace issues, as well as the strategic value of uniting in one broad church.

In the 1970s, media activism was more noticeably divided, as demonstrated by the parallel sex and race discrimination lawsuits which were filed against the New York Times in 1974. A race discrimination lawsuit organized by the Times’ Minority Caucus had four lead plaintiffs who were all from outside the newsroom: a Black Puerto Rican female classified employee, two Black male sales employees (one was later replaced with a Black female classified employee), and a male Chinese-American payroll clerk.[v] Journalists of color were late to get behind the class action, as Wilkins, a supporter of the Minority Caucus suit, explained: “Writers rarely spend time with classified-ad takers, so the writers were slow to understand that they too had interests at stake.”[vi] Minority women employed at the Times faced an additional pressure, no matter which department they worked in. Because both sex and race discrimination lawsuits were organized and filed simultaneously but separately, they were forced to choose which lawsuit to align themselves with.

In comparison, the Women’s Caucus sex discrimination suit was helmed by white women journalists. The initial lead plaintiffs were a white editor and two white reporters (a third white reporter was later added). The decision to seek out non-white plaintiffs who were not reporters was one of legal strategy, as historian Katherine Turk has demonstrated. Expanding the class required the mostly-white and mostly-middle class newswomen to wrestle with class and race identities that were not represented in the newsroom, which they did not always deem strategically pertinent.[vii] Newswomen at different outlets made different strategic decisions, but at the Times the Women’s Caucus decided to add three lead plaintiffs to expand their class: a white accounts and benefit administration clerk, a white classified department worker, and a Black news clerk from the Sunday magazine fashion section.[viii]

Both lawsuits—which settled out of court—were supported by the Newspaper Guild in different ways, but there was no talk of bringing them together into one joint complaint. This was not unusual; there are only a few examples of combined sex and race discrimination media lawsuits during this period. Instead, the Guild assisted the two caucuses by sharing salary and employment data with organizers, providing office space for meetings, and—in the case of the Minority Caucus lawsuit—finding and hiring lawyers.

Modern Unionization Efforts

While a desire for greater diversity was implicit in the sex- or race-based framing of these cases, it is an explicit and key concern for many modern-day unionization efforts. At the Condé Union, tackling discrimination and improving workplace diversity are central to their aims. In their Mission Statement, organizers wrote that their wish is “to create a more just and functional workplace, where diversity is truly valued.”[ix] They hope to implement the kinds of goals and timetables which lawsuit settlements introduced during the 1970s, including a diversity committee to review salary and hiring data, and hiring goals for candidates from underrepresented groups.[x]

There are other continuities between recent unionization efforts and the longer history of newsroom organizing. Fifty years later, the Guild remains crucial in efforts to diversify the media. In 2015, the union rebranded as the NewsGuild, and this modern iteration has supported recent unionization pushes at numerous outlets—including at Condé Nast. But present-day media workers face a significant and additional barrier to organizing, due to the decline of the labor movement over the twentieth century. In the 1970s, the majority of journalists at mainstream print news outlets were automatically covered by Newspaper Guild contracts. Now, media workers must first battle to form a union and have it recognized before they can tackle other workplace concerns.

This additional hurdle has not dissuaded workers in the complicated modern media landscape. The Condé Union is only the latest in a recent surge of unionization efforts across digital and print media. Since 2015, the headlines have been filled with these announcements—at digital media companies like Gawker Media and Slate, podcast companies like Gimlet Media and The Ringer, newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, and even legacy magazines like The New Yorker and New York. In total, Steven Greenhouse recently reported, over 100 news organizations have unionized in the past few years, which has swelled the number of new NewsGuild members by over 6,000.[xi]

Whether they are aware or not, news workers at Condé Nast and elsewhere are drawing on a longer history of media activism and the grassroots efforts of workers over the past 50 years. This latest round of labor organizing represents an opportunity to make further and necessary gains for marginalized news workers. The current president of The NewsGuild of New York said recently, “This is an opportunity for Condé Nast management to work more collaboratively with employees and be held accountable in addressing long-standing concerns about equity, inclusion, fairness and diversity.”[xii] Long-standing indeed—over 50 years, and counting.

About the author: Marama Whyte completed her Ph.D. at The University of Sydney in 2020. She has published her research on 1970s feminist media activism in Modern American History and Women’s History Review.

Featured image: The common lack of diversity is apparent in the New York Times newsroom (1942). Marjory Collins, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes

[i] At the time of writing, the Union is still waiting on voluntary recognition.

[ii] Alex Weprin, “Conde Nast Employees Form Union With NewsGuild,” The Hollywood Reporter, March 29, 2022, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/digital/conde-nast-union-newsguild-1235121474/.

[iii] Charles A. Perlik, Jr., “Official Call to the ANG Conference on Sex Discrimination And Women’s Rights In the Industry,” Box 75, Folder 22, Newspaper Guild of New York Records, WAG 125, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University, New York, NY; “Drafting Committee Statement,” January 6, 1971, Box 74, Folder 5, Newspaper Guild of New York Records.

[iv] David W. Dunlap, “At The Times, Roger Wilkins Fought Injustice. And The Times,” New York Times, March 30, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/30/insider/at-the-times-roger-wilkins-fought-injustice-and-the-times.html.

[v] “Guild Suit Hits NY Times,” New York Amsterdam News, October 26, 1974, A12; “File Bias Suit Against N.Y. Times,” New York Amsterdam News, November 3, 1973, A1, A3.

[vi] Dunlap, “Roger Wilkins Fought Injustice.”

[vii] Katherine Turk, Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), Chapter 2.

[viii] Nan Robertson, The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and the New York Times (New York: Random House, 1992), 168, 174.

[ix] “Condé Nast Union Mission Statement,” Condé Nast Union, accessed May 10, 2022, https://www.condeunion.org/mission-statements.

[x] Elahe Izadi, “Vogue, Bon Appétit and other Condé Nast staffers form union,” Washington Post, March 29, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/media/2022/03/29/conde-nast-union/.

[xi] Steven Greenhouse, “Newsrooms Are Unionizing Pretty Much ‘Nonstop.’ Here’s Why,” Nieman Reports, January 19, 2022, https://niemanreports.org/articles/newsrooms-labor-unions/.

[xii] Weprin, “Conde Nast Employees Form Union”.

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