While the print media continue in their apparently inexorable decline, news websites — whether tied to existing newspapers or magazines or, more frequently,  digital only — seem, surprisingly, to be prospering. The rise (and occasional fall) of such En …

Gary Herman

While the print media continue in their apparently inexorable decline, news websites — whether tied to existing newspapers or magazines or, more frequently,  digital only — seem, surprisingly, to be prospering. The rise (and occasional fall) of such English language sites as Huffington Post, Gawker, Vice, Buzzfeed, theguardian.com/us, Common Dreams, NovaraMedia and the Canary is remarkable.  Superficially such sites have little in common, apart from a strategy of seamlessly combining serious reportage and tongue-in-cheek  gimmickry — such as the ‘listicles’, or humorous lists, pioneered by Buzzfeed — that only helps to explain how the traditional barrier between information and entertainment has become porous, creating fertile ground for the growth of fake news.

Many of the people creating news sites on the web are politically motivated, in a very broad sense of that phrase. There’s nothing remarkable about this; politics have never been far from the media. But now the profit-driven tendency for online media to play much of their content for laughs has undermined the credibility of their news, and so we live with rightwing and far-right websites like the Mail Online, Fox News Online and Breitbart which use questionable or plainly false stories to promote their political agendas. And that is without considering the murky world of fake-news trolls on social media or the associated role of online sites belonging to governments, such as Russia Today and Al Jazeera, currently involved in high-profile accusations of political news manipulation.

Professional journalists are usually committed to following ethical codes policed by journalism unions and independent or industry-led standards bodies. The digital landscape presents many problems for these people. In times like ours, journalists tend to welcome the hundred flowers of new media, concluding that frantic activity launching websites, crowdfunding projects, indicates the rude health of the Fourth Estate. But new entrants into the profession may lack the discrimination and vision of those who have been trained by more experienced journalists or required by their unions to adopt the canons of journalistic ethics: don’t tell lies, don’t intrude into anyone’s privacy, grief or distress unless justified by the public interest, don’t produce material that discriminates against individuals, don’t plagiarise and so on.

The problem is that employers — the media owners — appreciate profit much more than they appreciate ethical standards. Yet ethical standards make great journalism. If you want a world without fake news, journalistic ethics ought to be compulsory and enforceable, together with decent pay and working conditions.

During the successful negotiations in 2016 for a recognition agreement between online news operation Vice and the UK’s National Union of Journalists, an NUJ member working for the company said, “Vice should be leading the industry by setting high standards for employment as well as journalistic integrity”. And in a letter to Vice management, the union said: “The NUJ wishes to establish constructive industrial relations with your company and hope you share that aim for the benefit of the company’s workers and the company.”

Unfortunately, such sentiments are not universally shared by media owners. One recent development in the United States indicates just how little some of them care for the contribution unions can make to the success of news websites.

In early November 2017, Joe Ricketts, the billionaire owner and CEO of DNAinfo — a local news site that covered New York City and Chicago — closed the company down with barely a day’s notice to the workers.

What was Ricketts’ reason for pulling the plug?

DNAinfo, which had been launched in 2009, never made a profit and early in 2017 its bosses began cutting jobs in an attempt to staunch the company’s losses. Yet, as the New York Times has reported, “Mr. Ricketts was happy to invest in it for eight years, praising its work all along”. Ricketts was also in charge when, shortly after DHAinfo embarked on its programme of layoffs, the company bought Gothamist, a profitable network of city-oriented websites launched over ten years ago. Ricketts is a well-known right-wing Republican famous for his tendency to support whoever seems to be top of the Republican heap at any given time. He has swung between attacking and supporting Donald Trump, but has remained consistent in his fierce opposition to unions.

Ricketts’ own explanation of why he trashed the company is a masterpiece of sidestepping the real issue. “DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure,” he wrote in a letter to readers of his online publications on 2 November, 2017, when he shut them down. “And while we made important progress toward building DNAinfo into a successful business, in the end, that progress hasn’t been sufficient to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded.” The profitability of DNAinfo was never an issue during eight years of loss-making with Ricketts at the helm, and the real issue, by common consent, was Ricketts’ extreme antipathy towards unions.

Clearly shaken by the lay-offs at DNAinfo, in April 2017, reporters and editors at the newly merged DNAinfo-Gothamist in New York decided to join the Writers’ Guild of America, East (WGAE). Seeking a measure of assurance from management that they would not be summarily dismissed, the newly unionised workers approached the bosses with a request for recognition. They had gained vocal support from New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, and no doubt thought that Ricketts would be reasonable. “Voluntary recognition is the best way for both workers and the company to move forward,” they wrote in a letter to management, “and decide on a contract that helps to attract and retain quality reporters to continue making DNAinfo and Gothamist the vital neighborhood (sic) resources our readers rely on.”  Ricketts ignored the appeal and instead launched his anti-union campaign.

The Writers’ Guild of America is a small union, but it’s active in recruiting journalists, whether they’re employed by mainstream media companies or work for small newcomers and digital outfits like DNAinfo and Gothamist. The workers at the online scandal-sheet, Gawker, joined in 2015. Since then other major online media titles like Huffington Post, Gizmodo, Vice, Slate and Thrillist, have all reached agreement with the WGAE to represent their workers.  The conventional wisdom within high-tech businesses is that unions are outdated, but online media companies have provided impressive evidence to the contrary. Union organization has produced real benefits for media workers. According to Hamilton Nolan, a senior writer at Gizmodo‘s Splinter title, in the two years since 2015 “unionized ‘new media’ workers have won substantial raises, editorial protections and other improvements that writers at more mature companies take for granted.”

And this is the key to understanding Ricketts’ action. Without a voluntary agreement, there had to be a formal vote by the workers at DNAinfo-Gothamist to agree to WGAE representing them. In late October, not long after the request for voluntary recognition had been rebuffed and management started to threaten that Joe Ricketts would close the company if the staff unionized, the 27 journalists working for DNAinfo-Gothamist in New York voted for the WGAE to represent them.

Ricketts closed the company the next day.

There are plenty of ways of shutting down a media outlet and — even without the challenges of digitalisation and economic uncertainty — court cases for defamation, breach of copyright or invasion of privacy can do it by themselves. Individuals and companies will happily use the courts to silence critics or suppress embarrassing news, regardless of the impact of such actions on workers, democratic debate or the principle of free speech.

Recently we’ve seen Peter Thiel, the right wing tech billionaire who launched PayPal, funding wrestler Hulk Hogan’s sex-tape lawsuit against Gawker, which bankrupted the online scandal-sheet. On an altogether larger scale, the Saudis have been leading a blockade of Qatar designed, it’s believed, to force the shutdown of the Al Jazeera news operation, based in the Gulf state. In Turkey, the state has simply jailed journalists and shut down newspapers and other media in response to a perceived threat from liberals and the left. Sometimes owners like Richard Desmond of the UK’s Express Newspapers may choose to sell up in the knowledge that any successor is likely to close unprofitable titles if not simply strip the company of all its assets.

These may be seen as the acts of cowards or bullies, but only rarely does a media outlet close because its owner doesn’t like something the workers do. Owners have certainly been known to foment industrial disputes which may allow them to sell or shut down an outlet, but taking umbrage because workers want to join a union is pretty well the least rational and possibly the most worrying reason for pulling up the shutters and sacking the staff.

But that is exactly what Ricketts did. He shut down the company, making 115 workers redundant, because 27 workers in New York had voted, 25 to 2, for the WGAE to represent them. He took down the DNAinfo-Gothamist archive, so that the redundant journalists could no longer access their own material, and then he told the world he was doing this because the company was losing money.

When I came across this story, I thought it was probably an isolated case of a self-regarding, megalomaniac right winger, of the sort you find increasingly in the US.  But recently I came across a story in the Guardian newspaper which suggests that the move to close down independent newspapers is widespread and overtly political. The story was titled “Politics and money put double squeeze on free press” in the printed version of the paper, but “‘Local media are simply disappearing’: how financial pressures are killing independent media” in the online version.  Examples from Hungary, Poland, the Balkans, Malawi, Argentina, Hong Kong and Cambodia set out in the story reveal how owners are increasingly reshaping independent news media to create a press that is “friendly” to their political agendas, while politicians lean on owners to persuade them, if necessary, to shut down their operations or reshape them to become more friendly.

“Ownership is also a critical issue,” says the Guardian‘s online report, “as business enterprises take advantage of the financial weakness of the sector to roll out a number of takeovers. A 2016 RSF report entitled ‘When Oligarchs go shopping’ traced the ‘Berlusconi model’, where media owners have strong ties with politics and found it popping up all over the world.”

The hapless journalists are perhaps the first victims of these processes, by which as the Guardian report suggests, a combination of state action and falling ad sales are threatening the very existence of independent newspapers and, no doubt, websites. The World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) calculates that global newspaper revenues have declined by nearly eight percent since 2012; a figure which is much worse in many individual countries, particularly in the light of circulations in some parts of the world which are booming — China and Indonesia more than 25 percent up, India more than 70 percent up.

The point is that it is increasingly easy to starve independent news sources of advertising and political or commercial patronage and this is something that must concern global media unions like UNI-MEI, the IFJ and their regional organizations.

Tara Susman-Peña of IREX, a global development and education organization, believes that “the old media model is not the future, and that is exacerbating the problems.” But this might not be as gloomy a prospect as it sometimes seems. Vincent Peyregne, the CEO of WAN-IFRA, agrees that the news media are going through a cataclysm, but the outcome might not be catastrophic.

“We have entered a user-centric era,” he says “where our business models now depend on the value we provide to our communities and end users, rather than the value to advertisers. This is leading to changes throughout the industry towards subscription models or membership. It’s all about the readers now, and in the end that can be a powerful force to improve journalism.” If he’s right, media unions will need increasingly to direct their energies  towards promoting quality and ethics. That would represent a major shift from protecting the pay and conditions of workers, but it would of a piece with the changes that the labour movement as a whole needs to consider in a world which challenges all our old assumptions about economic growth, consumption and competition. Meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter continue to edge out everyone else as people’s preferred news sources, even when the news they purvey is fraudulent and dangerous.


More details

Listicles.

Steven Poole, “Top nine things you need to know about ‘listicles’“,  Guardian, 12 November 2013.

NUJ Code of Conduct

Hamilton Nolan, “A Billionaire Destroyed His Newsrooms Out of Spite“, New York Times, 3 November 2017.

Hamilton Nolan, “Hypocrisy, Greed, And the DNAinfo-Gothamist Union“, Splinter, 24 July 2017.

When Oligarchs go shopping“, RSF (Reporters Without Borders), 28 July 2016.

Andrew MacDowall and Bib van der Zee, “‘Local media are simply disappearing’: how financial pressures are killing independent media“, Guardian, 1 December 20.

WAN, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publisher.

IREX, the International Research & Exchanges Board.


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Gary Herman