Power in numbers
Unionizing the newsroom at NBC News Digital
Members of the NBC Digital NewsGuild
On Oct. 30, NBC News Digital staffers announced they were forming a union. Now the network’s digital reporters, editors, designers and video journalists want recognition. Organizing with the NewsGuild of New York, employees of the media conglomerate’s digital news division are fighting for equity, transparency and more. We talked to NBC News Digital video editor and Oklahoma native Tate James about ongoing developments as well as the challenges and rewards of organizing the workplace.
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TTV Staff: What are your union’s demands?
Tate James: First, we want a seat at the table. A lot of people are talking about NBC News lately, and we want to be able to speak for ourselves rather than waiting on managers or on-screen personalities to do it for us. Of course we want job security and clear severance policies and all the things in a union contract that are quickly becoming industry standard, but we also want a new way to stand up for ourselves, independent of current company systems. Our situation isn’t unique to NBC—the people at the top are going to vouch for each other and HR is going to protect the company, and that leaves us to fight for each other.
TTV Staff: What does a more equitable news-media industry look like for workers?
James: Most folks don’t get into this business for the money, and a lot of young people end up here after unpaid or severely underpaid internships, and then they have to fight their way up from a really low salary. The PA who is doing all this work and then has to grab a coffee for the big names in the room who might be abusing their power in any number of ways—that PA needs someone to fight for them. Journalists should be holding power to account, in the newsroom and outside of it.
TTV Staff: Have you been in contact with anyone at the LA Times Guild or other news-media unions? If so, what have you learned from them?
James: There’s a cute little community of union folks on Twitter who like each other’s work and a few Brooklyn happy hours with friendly faces from other NY shops, but it’s hard to be public about organizing. We were incredibly inspired by the work LA Times Guild folks did to expose pay gaps in their newsroom, and every new union campaign that went public set off a flurry of texts and emojis around NBC, but we did our best to keep the circle small before we announced. The massive amount of support we’ve seen over the past few days has really been amazing. Each newsroom that stands up to protect their jobs is making it a little easier for the next.
TTV Staff: What unique challenges do workers in the digital news-media industry face that the general public might not know about?
James: I think we are starting to see a lot more of what happens behind-the-scenes lately—which stories get published and which ones get roadblocks thrown at them until they end up wasting away somewhere in a forgotten Google doc. A union provides another level of protection for journalists who challenge the status quo, who might have a strict social media policy and a non-compete clause that prevents them from taking a story somewhere else. When you know you can’t be sidelined for pissing off a rich dude somewhere, you just might be able to do better, more meaningful work.
TTV Staff: What advice do you have for other journalists who want to form a union?
James: Map out your workplace! The thought of unionizing NBC News Digital was totally intimidating until we broke it down into five or six teams with 10 to 50 people on each and started building relationships across those silos. Then it became, ‘Oh, OK. I can talk to these two people this week, and those two next week, and I know there’s someone on the other teams who is doing the same thing. Find a good coffee shop or bar and get people talking about what they like about work and what they don’t. After you compare notes, you’ll realize there are some systemic issues that cross over multiple teams, and there are some teams who are just randomly working 12 hour shifts when everyone else is working eight. If you can start to build a community that’s based on respect and solidarity, you’ve got a union.
TTV Staff: Thanks for talking to us. Solidarity from Tulsa.
James: Thank you so much! Someone please go eat at Ri-Le’s for me.
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