Save the News: Campaigning to Preserve Jobs and Democratize Journalism A Conversation with Jon Schleuss
Jon Schleuss, a data reporter and union leader at the Los Angeles Times, defeated a 12-year incumbent to become president of the NewsGuild CWA at the age of 32. His election, in December 2019, largely reflected the anxiety of union members about job security and—more broadly—the state of their union and the future of journalism. Kitty Krupat, who organized workers in the publishing industry throughout the 1970s and 1980s, spoke with Schleuss in July 2020 about the future of journalism and his vision for organizing. Excerpts of their conversation follow.
Kitty Krupat: You assumed leadership of the NewsGuild at a time of crisis for the profession— when the future of print journalism is in jeopardy and the role of journalists is being reexamined. It looks like the union is facing some very big challenges.
Jon Schleuss: The future of the industry is going to be more digital, and of course our members are very concerned about job security. But let’s put all that in historical perspective. The way we report news or tell stories is always changing. And that goes back thousands of years to the cave paintings that were discovered in Lascaux, France. For the last 150 years, printed newspapers have been the bedrock of journalism. But all that while, news media were changing, and journalists were adapting to new roles. At some point, radio came along. And then TV. Now we have podcasts, Twitter threads, Instagram stories, virtual reality. There are ways to leverage technology that give us more freedom to be creative—to dig out the stories and tell them in new and meaningful ways. As a union, we have to embrace—even push— change, but we have to make sure that we’re helping to lead innovation and make sure that our members are trained and ready for whatever comes next.
KK: Since the Covid-19 surge, there have been layoffs or furloughs affecting more than thirtysix thousand workers. How is the NewsGuild responding?
JS: We’ve developed a “Save the News” campaign, lobbying Congress directly for government aid for news workers, especially for Senate Bill 3718, which would expand the paycheck protection program to news organizations. Right now, the campaign is an effort to save the jobs we currently have; but in the longer term, it’s to try and envision a future where we’re building a news industry that is accountable to the American people and represents them, no matter where they are in the country—and that works for them before it works for shareholders.
KK: You’ve introduced the idea of publicly funded journalism. What would public funding mean for the health of the news industry and the security of the workers you represent?
JS: It’s really about what type of government do we want. Do we want fascism or democracy? Our founders realized that you can’t have a free people and a free country without a free press. They believed it was important to make sure that information flowed freely, that it wasn’t available just to the rich. So, they established government incentives to guarantee that. The Post Office was subsidizing the mailing of magazines and newspapers. Even now, the government subsidizes public broadcast media, though to a very small extent. In other democracies, including Canada and the United Kingdom, media is heavily subsidized by public funding. But the media still holds the government accountable, no matter what political party is in charge.
. . . I believe we have to think about how to build publicly financed institutions so that Americans everywhere have news sources.
In the last few decades, newspapers have been financially dependent on advertising, which means that they rely on car dealerships, home sales, grocery stores, and local community businesses to buy advertisements in a physical newspaper. That model is slowly shifting to a reliance on subscriptions, specifically digital subscriptions, which are a substantial part of the revenue for most publications. This means that the news companies have to be more accountable to subscribers because the readers are chipping in to pay for more of their operating costs. You see that in public media, too. But the economics of that model don’t work in every single location. In a small community where there aren’t a lot of businesses and where maybe there’s only 20,000 or 30,000 people, it may be impossible to sustain local media journalists based on advertising or subscriptions. So, I believe we have to think about how to build publicly financed institutions so that Americans everywhere have news sources.
If all politics is local, so is news. There are good studies to show that losing local public media has a negative effect. For one thing, corruption goes up because no one’s watching what’s happening at the Water Board or the City Council meeting. So, it’s a critically important part of democracy to have really good reporters, all across the country at every level.
KK: What are the demographics of union membership right now?
JS: If you were to chart demographics across the industry, you would find that the membership skews younger. This is largely because journalism has been hollowed out over the past fifteen years by vulture hedge funds—these private equity groups that have taken over the big news organizations. This includes Gannett, the largest news organization in the country with 250 papers, including USA Today. Groups like Alden Global Capital are cutting pay and benefits across the industry. So, a new generation of journalists comes in that may be willing to accept less. One of the big crimes in our industry is that we have conditioned journalism students to accept less. It’s like conditioning worthlessness. Right out of journalism school, we’re told, “You’re just lucky to have a job—or an unpaid internship.” So, young journalists walk in, thinking that they’re worth less than they really are. As a union, we have to change that narrative. You are worth something, you deserve a raise, you deserve benefits. You deserve not to be forced to work more than forty hours a week, without overtime. Top executives are raking in large bonuses and pay, and they have their own contracts. It’s time for companies to share.
. . . [J]ournalism has been hollowed out over the past fifteen years by vulture hedge funds—these private equity groups that have taken over the big news organizations.
KK: This rings a bell. My first job out of college was at Esquire magazine in 1961. It was a fabulous place to work—all the great writers came through Esquire in those days—but the conditions were not very different from what you’re describing today. I made $55 a week, without benefits. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Eventually, though, I became a union organizer—like you.
JS: Yes, it’s been going on for a long time. And the capitalist forces—all the global capital that has decimated newsrooms across the country—they don’t value people. So, they take advantage of the system. And, of course, the impact falls more heavily on people of color and women—especially women of color—than on white males. The result is our industry doesn’t reflect the communities that we report on. That is a huge issue for the union right now.
KK: What’s the breakdown, along the lines of race and gender?
JS: The News Leaders Association (formerly the American Society of News Editors) does a census almost every year, showing the gender split and the percentage of white, Black, Hispanic, and Asian workers. In 2018, the Chicago Tribune was 87 percent white; the Wall Street Journal was 84 percent white; and the L.A. Times was 64 percent white—that’s in a community where whites are a minority. The percentage of women is less than half at each of these publications. The pay equity studies that we’ve done at different publications consistently show that women and workers of color make less than their white male counterparts. We have to use our strength as a union to change that—not only at the bargaining table but through lawsuits and legislation.
The pay equity studies that we’ve done at different publications consistently show that women and workers of color make less than their white male counterparts.
KK: I know NewsGuild has been organizing—and winning.
JS: Yes. In fact, our membership numbers are a little hard to calculate right now because we have a fair number of units working toward first contracts. We’re probably about 24,000 total in the United States and Canada—about 16,000 in the United States. We started to ramp up our organizing efforts in 2015, and it’s been a wave ever since. In 2016, Canada organized about two hundred people, including a big win at VICE magazine. Then in 2016, the New York local organized about 170 people at Law360, a digital newsletter for legal professionals. Then we organized two small publications in Florida. In 2018, we added about 1,400 people in the United States. We beat that record in 2019, bringing in another 1,500 members. So far this year, we’ve brought in more than 831 new members through elections and/or voluntary recognition. That includes elections at The Palm Beach Post and the Palm Beach Daily News, where we won a unanimous 55-0 vote. We’d never had a shop of that size go unanimous. Then we won unanimously again at papers in Idaho and Montana.
KK: Are there any organizing techniques that are particularly suited to the journalism industry?
JS: In the end, all organizing is the same, right? It really starts with one-on-one conversations about what the problems are; how do we fix them? Of course, social and digital media have provided great opportunities, especially during the pandemic. We’ve successfully organized places pretty much start-to-finish online. We can’t have face-to-face-conversations or group meetings, with lots of pizza. But we can’t just rely on Facebook or Twitter posts or mass emails either. Organizing is about the one-to-one connection. So, if we can’t do it in person, we have to do it another way. That involves a lot of Zoom meetings; encrypted chat, where workers are sharing information with each other; and one-on-one phone calls to check in.
The NewsGuild-CWA has. . . successfully organized places pretty much start-to-finish online.
KK: In the 1970s and 1980s, when I and my coworkers were trying to organize the publishing industry, editorial workers were considered difficult to organize. We really had to fight against elitism—you know, “unions may be fine for factory workers, but not for us.” What about journalists today?
JS: I imagine a lot of Americans think of labor unions as stodgy and maybe they only exist in Detroit or something. I’m not sure how many Americans even know they have a right to organize. But the NewsGuild is seeing massive support for organizing, even in places that are not politically aligned with the labor movement. We haven’t lost a newsroom election in years. That said, journalists are interesting creatures. We have a lot of questions. We don’t believe you on your first go around. We need alternative sources—and not just the union pamphlet. We want the case law. We’re sort of persnickety and curmudgeonly. That, though, makes us smarter at the bargaining table and in external and internal communications.
. . . [T]he NewsGuild is seeing massive support for organizing, even in places that are not politically aligned with the labor movement.
KK: My one experience organizing newspaper workers certainly bears that out. When the writers and staff of the Village Voice decided to unionize in 1977—right after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper—they signed up the whole shop over a weekend. After that, every meeting was a test of the union’s integrity. In the end, though, the Voice workers won a pathbreaking first contract that covered freelance writers in the same unit as full-time editorial and administrative staff. They won medical coverage for domestic partners when that was almost unheard of and established one of the first workplace LGBTQ+ caucuses.
JS: If you think about the ethical principles that journalists follow—starting with seeking truth and reporting it—you see that these principles actually align well with organizing a strong union. Another ethical consideration for journalists is to minimize harm. So, when a journalist looks around the newsroom or shop, they’re like, “Well, I don’t want other people to be paid less because they’re a woman or a person of color. I don’t want someone to be fired or disciplined without cause.” Media workers are only a tiny part of the overall labor movement, but our influence is amplified because—as journalists—we have an audience. So, looking ahead, I’m excited. I’m nervous, too, about job loss and the economics of our industry. But I’m pretty positive.
KK: Next steps?
JS: Our overall goal is simply to organize all the remaining journalists and media workers—especially in the United States—and, from there, to use the power we’re building in parts of the country where the labor movement is not necessarily very active. One way we’re doing that is through caucuses. For instance, Gannett has around 20,000 employees; we represent about 1,500 of them. Once we organize a Gannett shop, the workers immediately join the Gannett Caucus, which is developing strategic plans to expand our reach into the organization—things like coordinated actions and other contract strategies.
KK: In 2001, my colleague Patrick McCreery and I edited an anthology called Out at Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance. We thought that, if class were better understood as a factor of LGBTQ+ identity, the labor movement would find a basis for collaboration with LGBTQ+ movements, and both movements would be enriched. You were a gay rights activist in Arkansas before you became a journalist and union organizer at the L.A. Times. What was your experience?
JS: You know, it’s funny, when we started organizing the L.A. Times, the first people involved—myself included—were two gay men and a lesbian. We looked around and said, “We need to get the straights involved.” To this day, several of our amazing union leaders are queer. I think the queer community understands the need for equality and fair treatment. Many of us are de facto activists because we’ve had to fight for basic things like the right to marry, and we’ve had to defend ourselves against discrimination in the workplace. Concern for a larger community—which comes from being in the gay rights movement—does translate into labor activism.
KK: In the wake of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, the institution of journalism seems to be reflecting on its role in society and questioning some of its long-held assumptions, including the principle of objectivity.
JS: Our profession is the only one that is explicitly protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. But you don’t need a license to be a journalist. Anyone can be a journalist. It’s a kind of freedom and core American principle that we often overlook. It’s all about reporting news and telling the stories of people in their communities. So, a twelve-year-old girl on a bicycle, filming a cop who is harassing a neighbor, is a journalist. And, by the way, not all professional journalists are objective by definition—you have opinion writers and reporters who work for publications that have a particular political bent. Nevertheless, it’s incumbent on journalists of every type to navigate the ethical terrain of our society.
Our role as journalists and the very concept of objectivity has been dictated by generations of privileged white men. Women didn’t even break into the industry in any significant way until the 1970s and 1980s. That has crippled our ability to tell a story from the vantage point of marginalized people, communities of color, in particular. There is still a lot of racism, sexism, and gender baggage. But we’re seeing a reckoning right now in a lot of newsrooms, where staffers are beginning to question editorial decisions and take collective action, especially in light of civil unrest. Concern for a larger community—which comes from being in the gay rights movement—does translate into labor activism. Look at what happened when the New York Times published an Op Ed by Senator Tom Cotton, advocating the use of military force against protesters. According to the editors, it was published as a gesture of even-handedness in opinion reporting. But newsroom workers began tweeting immediately, saying that publication of the Cotton piece put Black staffers at the Times in danger—hundreds of people were doing that at the same time, in a coordinated fashion. They got a thousand signatures on a letter to management. This kind of collective action is a protected activity under labor law. It shows our capacity as workers to change things. Ultimately, the Times publicly acknowledged poor judgment and a top editor resigned.
KK: Does the union as an institution have a role to play in debates like this? In my experience, management—especially in white collar industries fought very hard to limit the union’s influence on policymaking.
JS: The union can provide a platform to discuss issues and find ways collectively to address them—whether you’re arguing about paid parental leave, flawed editorial decisions, or censoring Black journalists for speaking up from their own vantage point. Just recently, the New York Times decided to start capitalizing Black when they talk about Black people and their communities. That didn’t happen spontaneously. A decision like that comes about through agitation. Something like that is not a mandatory subject of bargaining, but we can push it through internal discussions and agitation.
KK: Our country has been embroiled in crisis for many months now—the pandemic, the unmasking of a deep strain of racism. Unfortunately, leadership has failed us, everywhere from the White House to the halls of our police unions. Do you have a vision of leadership that guides you at the NewsGuild?
JS: I want to remind our members that the power of our union rests with them and that when we do things collectively, we amplify and expand that power. So, my goal is to try to bring us together to collectively address the issues our members face in their shops. From the shops, we can amplify our union power nationally and internationally. At the same time, I want us to develop a pathway to leadership from the rank and file. I want to find ways to make our union constantly better. Because it can always be better. And being present, constantly being connected with our members, working out issues, providing a platform or a space for discussion of critical issues—that’s important to me, even if I have to recede so other people can have candid discussions about the union. Those conversations are really crucial right now.* I think it’s very important to acknowledge the shortcomings of our own institutions and leaders and deal forthrightly with our problems. The coolest thing is having so many smart people all around who have the ideas, who have intelligence far beyond my own, to affect permanent change. So, my role is to motivate them and find ways to help them get the things they want and do the things they want to do. That’s my hope, that we inspire our members and we provide a platform for change; that we remind them the power exists with them—and then get them to use that power.
KK: Thank you. You give me faith in the future of our movement.
*In June 2020, the NewsGuild held a virtual Town Hall meeting for members in the United States and Canada to discuss racial injustice in the newsroom. It can be viewed here: https://newsguild.org/town-hall-fighting-racial-injustice-in-our-newsrooms/
Kitty Weiss Krupat is a long-time union organizer and an associate editor of New Labor Forum. She is a former Associate Director of the Murphy Institute, now the CUNY School for Labor and Urban Studies.