Dylan Matthews covers a bit of everything at the wonkishly inclined five-year-old site Vox.com. His bio lists his interests as, “global development, anti-poverty efforts in the US and abroad, factory farming and animal welfare, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.” He might want to add sleep deprivation.
Matthews is a member of the Vox Media staff union — organized under the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) — that is seeking its first collective bargaining agreement with management. Negotiators stayed on the job until 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 3 a.m. on Thursday. And on Friday, to judge from a Twitter update, the talks went even later:
As digital-media union clashes go, this one is a whopper: Vox Media includes Vox.com, as well as the sports website SB Nation; the self-explanatory Eater; the tech website the Verge; gaming and culture website Polygon; the tech behemoth Recode; and the real estate portal Curbed. There are between 330 and 350 employees in WGAE’s bargaining unit for Vox Media — many of them young, creative and on the low end of the journalistic pay scale.
And while some of the issues complicating the contract negotiations are unique to Vox Media, the fact that the company is in this fight at all is proof of a larger problem. The snazzy new media companies that positioned themselves as best able to solve the problem of how to do journalism online — and make money doing it — have ended up engaged in the same cost-side cannibalism that has hollowed out local and regional media outlets over the past two decades.
On Thursday, Vox Media employees walked off the job en masse, largely freezing the company’s sites in pursuit of a “contract that sets a standard,” as Matthews put it during an interview on Thursday night. Such activism is more about guaranteeing that new media employees have the same protections as their legacy media counterparts than reinventing an industry.
Vox Media does have its own unique set of challenges. The constituent sites came under one roof through different avenues — some by acquisition, some by incubation. As a result, there is nothing remotely standardized about salaries at the company. Some people, Matthews said, are “making well under $15 an hour.” Those are the sorts of numbers more associated with fights over the minimum wage, not a traditionally salaried profession such as journalism.
The union is pushing for an agreement on minimum salaries for various positions, which has been among the sticking points in negotiations that have been going on since April 2018.
Another point of contention is severance, an area in which Vox Media starts to look more familiar. Though digital media, years ago, was looking as though it had dodged the mayhem that had been plaguing newspapers, it turns out we’re all in the same, wretched business. BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Vice and so on — the whole sector is struggling to make money from display ads and subscriptions. An estimated 2,900 journalists have lost their jobs already in 2019. Any bargaining committee that doesn’t lobby hard for maximum severance contingencies should itself be laid off. Severance is particularly pivotal in light of the bind that entangles the employees of these digital start-ups. As Vox’s own Matt Yglesias has written, journalists’ salaries are squarely middle class. But journalists — particularly for outlets such as Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, which are based in New York (as are a number of other Vox Media websites), and Vox, which is based in Washington — are clustered in places where middle-class incomes don’t cut it.
The very outlets that were supposed to make journalism profitable are now seeking to do so by asking young staffers in very expensive cities to live on salaries that may look reasonable to outsiders but don’t keep up with the cost of living in these expensive hubs. And the executives at these companies are using nationwide median wages, including those in less expensive cities, to justify keeping those salaries low. As a memo from Vox Media chief executive Jim Bankoff that was sent to staff this week suggested, “Of course we need to pay people competitively to attract the best and keep them (a.k.a. all of you), but we’ve stopped short of the union’s insistence on levels that far exceed industry norms and averages.” Vox Media is a private, venture-capital-backed company with investors including Accel Partners and Comcast Ventures.
On Thursday, Vox Media employees who participated in the walkout congregated at the Washington offices of the NFL Players Association to fill in coloring books and make signs in the event that further collective action becomes necessary. “Why Vox needs a fair contract, explained in 1 sign,” read one of them. There’s little acrimony in the messaging, in part because Vox is a nice place to work — collegial, flexible and and replete with snacks including avocados, yogurt and bagels.
And the Vox staffers work there because they believe in the progressive values they express through their journalism. Executives such as Bankoff are eager to make money off those values, which have a click-ready audience in Resistanceville. But they’re less interested in expressing them where it matters most to employees: in guarantees of fair wages and severance protections.
“Nourishing the soul is great but, at some point, I would like to nourish my retirement account,” said Byrd Pinkerton, a podcast producer at Vox.
We hear a lot about innovation from the people in sleek digital media companies such as Vox — innovation in how content is distributed, monetized, podcasted, whatever. Along those lines, Vox Media recently purchased a Hollywood production outfit — evidence that it might be able to afford to be a bit flexible on severance. Maybe the real innovation at new media companies such as this isn’t some mythic new business model, though. It could well lie in a labor militancy that makes journalism a sustainable, long-term career where reporters gain wisdom to share with readers, rather than a grinding job that leads to burnout and bitter happy hours. Here’s hoping that Bankoff ends up paying salaries that “far exceed industry norms and averages.” Those norms are nothing to aspire to.