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Updated Jun 6, 2024, 10:34pm EDT
mediaNorth America

New York Times, Reuters journalists clash with news union

New York Times printer
REUTERS/Stephani Spindel
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The Scoop

A top news union’s organizing costs and some of its leaders’ outspoken left-leaning criticism of journalism are drawing a backlash from some unionized journalists at the New York Times, Reuters, and other newsrooms.

The journalists have “effectively lost our voice, or any power, in our own union, the NewsGuild of New York,” the Reuters NewsGuild unit chair, Tim McLaughlin, wrote to Reuters union members earlier this month in a message shared with Semafor. He suggested a check on dues increases, and said that the union had spent millions organizing newsrooms that weren’t paying dues or no longer existed.

“The fiscally irresponsible and political activist arm of our union is now firmly in control of how our dues are spent,” McLaughlin said, writing that the Guild’s leaders “have forgotten that we are a union for journalists, not activists.”

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The media labor conflict comes after NewsGuild has claimed organizing victories both at news media companies like the Times and Conde Nast, and at left-leaning non-profits like the Roosevelt Institute.

Part of the dispute focuses on meat-and-potatoes labor questions — Guild members are currently voting whether to make permanent an increase to the share of their salaries that union members pay each year, slightly under 2%. But the recent fight over dues has also rekindled a monthslong debate within the Guild over how the union, its members, and its staff tackle political topics, specifically the war in Gaza.

Since the war began last year, at least three NewsGuild staff members have repeatedly retweeted posts criticizing The New York Times’ coverage of the war in Gaza. This has become a primary point of conflict between Guild supporters and members of the union’s Independent Caucus, a coalition of reporters from the Times, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, and Politico formed last year that has expressed displeasure with some of the Guild’s political speech and what it sees as criticism of some of its members’ own reporting.

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“We believe the Guild’s professional staff should not publicly attack the journalism of the members they work for or encourage others to do so. We are confident that Guild leadership is working to address this important issue,” the Independent Caucus told Semafor in a statement.

Earlier this week, Nastaran Mohit, a high-profile Guild organizer, wrote a post on X: “All these Zionist butchers know how to kill. Children. Families. The next generation. Depraved monsters who will meet their fate one day,” she wrote. Mohit took down the tweet and made her account private. But not before it was screenshot by some critics of the Guild, and reported on by the New York Post. In a post in the Times’ Guild Slack, education reporter Jeremy Peters singled out the tweet, arguing that it would damage the Time’s own credibility.

“When we pay dues, they go toward salaries of Guild organizers. They represent you. This is one of them,” he wrote.

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Members of the Independence Caucus have attempted to address some of this structurally with the Guild. A person familiar with the discussions told Semafor that members met in recent months with NewsGuild president Jon Schleuss to note their opposition to the union putting out statements about issues in the news.

In an email to Semafor, a spokesperson for the Guild said that the NewsGuild of NY staffers are union employees, not journalists working in a newsroom, and the Guild did not restrict what its organizers said on social media.

“Their social media accounts are personal ones that reflect their own views and not those of the NewsGuild of New York. Our staff is made up of people who come from different cultural, racial, religious and economic backgrounds with opinions that may conflict with some of our members but we take our jobs serving our members seriously and work hard to do so,” a spokesperson for the NewsGuild’s New York chapter told Semafor.

“Our Guild’s administrative committee is going to schedule a meeting in the near future to address concerns our members have on this issue,” Anthony Napoli, treasurer for the NewsGuild of New York, said in a statement.

Supportive union members have also pushed back strongly against complaints about making the Guild dues increase permanent. In an internal Times Guild Slack message shared with Semafor this week, New York Times opinion editor Parker Richards wrote that McLaughlin’s note was “disgusting.”

“We are part of a Guild of journalists to advocate for journalists,” he said. “I am happy and proud that some of my dues money, or perhaps a lot of it, is going to fight for colleagues whose jobs are in jeopardy.”

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Know More

Recent internal turmoil represents the latest flare up in two parallel yearslong internal debates among Guild members.

The first is whether the union should wade into political speech and issues, and if so, how much. Last November, Semafor reported that there was strong pushback by some members at publications like the Wall Street Journal and the Times over whether to release a statement supporting a ceasefire in Gaza. The Guild ultimately did not release a draft proposed statement which called for a ceasefire and said that many unionized members were “working in environments where perspectives normalizing the Israeli assault are endorsed as objectivity, and reporting on the collective punishment is marginalized, dismissed, or penalized as bias.” But some members felt that the sheer number of deaths by journalists covering the conflict warranted a strong statement from the Guild calling for an end to the violence.

The second is a more strategic fight about cost. In 2021, I reported on how members at the New York Times delayed and attempted to scuttle the union’s plans to raise dues. As the Guild considers making permanent the dues increase that members voted to temporarily implement three years ago, similar fissures have emerged. Skeptics have grumbled about costs, and accused the Guild of wasteful spending. But Guild supporters say the union has secured major recent contract victories, including strong contracts at places like the Times and Conde Nast. The Guild points out that all three separate unions within the Times and other unions within the Guild have voted to support a dues increase, and said that contrary to complaints about wasteful organizing, the Guild has increased dues-paying membership by 43% since 2021.

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Max’s view

The internal tensions among members of the NewsGuild feel like another aspect of a recent shift in which newsroom activism is being rebuffed by emboldened management that seems to be less sensitive to newsroom concern and criticism.

In recent years, management at publications grumbled about Guild tactics and outspoken employees privately, but rarely showed much of an appetite to take on their staff publicly. But new leadership at publications including the Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have shown a greater willingness to speak out against younger or more outspoken staff, ignoring some of the complaints and protestations of staff around major moves. New York Times executive editor Joe Kahn has complained about the challenges of hiring younger journalists, who he said are not “fully prepared for what we are asking our people to do, which is to commit themselves to the idea of independent journalism.” This week when pressed about recent top level editorial moves moves, Washington Post CEO Will Lewis got testy with employees, saying “We are losing large amounts of money. Your audience has halved in recent years. People are not reading your stuff. I can’t sugarcoat it anymore.”

One of the Guild’s strongest tools in recent years has been its ability to publicly embarrass and pressure newsroom leaders in order to extract contract concessions. But in a moment where management is increasingly asserting its authority despite newsroom morale and optics, will union skeptics feel emboldened to criticize the union?

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