The Ringer Staff Unionizes, Trend Forming Amongst Digital Media Properties
The editorial, video, podcasting and social staff at The Ringer has announced its intent to unionize with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), East – the same organization that supports SB Nation (a subsidiary of Vox) team personnel. Together they’ll work to ensure that every employee receives “necessary support, protection and fair compensation.” Before collective bargaining negotiations can begin, Bill Simmons’ company will need to recognize the union; failure to do so will result in a National Labor Relations Board vote to determine if/when discussions can/will commence. The announcement comes as digital media publishers across the country face increased pressure to “share the wealth” with the “editors, writers, podcasters, producers, fact checkers, copy editors, illustrators, designers, and social media editors” that make up the “foundation of [their] brand.”
Howie Long-Short: Fear is driving the trend of unionization across digital media (see: BuzzFeed, Refinery29, Gimlet Media, Vice and G/O Media). As the industry becomes increasingly more challenging (think: pressure on advertising revenues, amount of competition in marketplace), many feel as if their jobs have become tenuous. The hope is that the strength of a union will secure their future, but it’s formation is more likely to establish a false sense of security in those individuals; a company that is struggling, lays off union employees the same as those working on a part-time or contract basis.
The GM of a high-profile sports media outlet assured JohnWallStreet that there is little in the way of profits to be shared at The Ringer, so it’s worth wondering if unionization was the right decision for those that work for Bill Simmons’ three-year-old digital property. If you consider that “a union makes it harder for a media company to service its customers at a time when those in the industry require the most flexibility” - the example cited was a union in opposition of on-air talent editing their own video - then you can certainly argue the formation of one works against everybody’s best interests.
If The Ringer isn’t particularly profitable and the formation of a union provides little in the way of real security, it’s worth wondering why the company’s employees would proceed down that path. Remember, many within the industry are simply happy to have steady work and the chance remains that the formation of a union could backfire on its members; Vox has moved towards hiring more part-time and contract employees since it's roster aligned with WGA, East, while Joe Rickets decided to shut down DNA Info and The Gothamist after their staffs’ opted to unionize. One industry insider suggested that the formation of The Ringer union is the employees “uprising against Bill.” Considering that the group stated in their letter of intent that they want to be “properly credited for their multimedia work” (Simmons receives much/all the attention associated with the outlet) and that “Bill is making a sh*t ton of money and they’re not”, there may be something to that theory.
Both of the influential sports media executives that we spoke to agreed that employees at a widely profitable company would likely benefit from the formation of a union, so there was a consensus that it's just a matter of time before folks at companies like ESPN - that make real money - follow in the footsteps of their brethren at the digital-first outlets cited.
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