Hamilton Nolan is a reporter for Splinter, the news site that is a spiritual successor to Gawker, the trailblazing New York media group that practically invented modern blogging in the early 2000s. Once it was shivved by the Hulk Hogan lawsuit, the company’s sites, minus the flagship Gawker.com, was sold to Univision, where it has been subject to endless management turmoil. Luckily, Nolan led a Gawker unionization campaign before the legal trouble began, ensuring their rights and paychecks throughout the last few years of corporate entropy.
In the years since, Nolan has continued to help organize New York new media outlets, working to bring some stability to what has become an industry defined by splashy entrances and catastrophic collapses. He’s also continued to write about politics and inequality in America, a very busy beat right now. We spoke about unionizing the media, how that might impact the way the industry covers unions and workers’ issues, and what the future of the movement looks like.
Gawker was the first digital outlet I heard of unionizing — how did it happen?
I was writing for Gawker and I wrote a lot about labor stuff and inequality. And every time I wrote about unions, you people in the comments would be like, “why don’t you guys unionize?” I always kind of blew it off because I didn’t think it was that important because we were white collar workers.
Over time I changed my thinking on that and came to the realization that basically everybody should organize, no matter who you are. So we ended up talking to the Writers Guild. The Writer’s Guild was interested in unionizing Vice, actually. And I was talking to one of the organizers there who was interested in organizing Vice and I was just like, why don’t you try organizing us? And it worked, is the short version.
Once people saw one place do it, I think the light bulb just went off everywhere and people were like, wow, that’s obviously a good idea for us. In quote-unquote old media, newspapers were unionized for decades and decades and decades, and that’s one reason why they were nice stable, middle-class jobs. And for new media, I think it’s part of the process of growing up as an industry, because people don’t want to be on that treadmill their whole lives, they just want to be able to have a career.
Another thing about being in the Writers Guild, it has TV writers and Hollywood writers. Working in Hollywood is a great job and the reason it’s a great job is because every last part of Hollywood has been unionized for many, many decades. It’s an industry that’s been forced to share the proceeds fairly among the people who work there because it’s a widely unionized industry and that’s hopefully where we can get to in our industry.
Gawker was still owned by Nick Denton at the time, right?
We actually signed our union contracts just before the Hulk Hogan verdict came down. So we signed a contract and then right after that we got hit with a big verdict that made us go bankrupt. So in that sense it was really good timing for us.
How was he about the union campaign? I imagine it was different than working somewhere like Univision, which owns Gizmodo now.
He was actually very blasé about it. We didn’t know what his reaction was gonna be, but then his reaction ended up being like, you guys do what you want to do. There was no anti-union campaign, he just said have a vote and if you vote for it, then you have a union. Like he was more concerned about getting some good blog posts out of it than running any kind of anti-union campaign. So to his credit, yes, he did not oppose us.
Meanwhile, Joe Ricketts, the owner of Gothamist and DNAinfo, shut those sites down entirely because they wanted to unionize, and Thrillist employees have been struggling for a year to have their union recognized. So the personal politics of employers is often so critical.
The law in America is that the workers get to decide if they have a union or not.The boss can try to scare you out of having a union, but they can’t tell you that you can’t have a union. Obviously the labor laws in America leave a lot to be desired, but fundamentally the workers have that on their side. So when you see a guy like Joe Ricketts, who’s a fucking ideological right-wing billionaire asshole, the only good thing about that is that most of the people who own the outlets in our industry are not Joe Ricketts. He was really the worst the worst-case scenario in terms of owner. Hopefully that won’t be replicated.
But even if they aren’t, they give people a tough time, as with Thrillist.
Our campaign was probably on the easier end of things. And some other places have been very easy, — TPM organized pretty recently. It really depends on how enlightened the boss is. The places that have enlightened bosses will say, “OK, you want to have a union, fine, let’s move ahead and let’s negotiate. “And then the less enlightened places will act like assholes. We’ve had pretty much the whole spectrum in our industry. We haven’t had any official strikes yet, although there’s a couple of places you can look at and say that the possibility on the horizon.
You mentioned Thrillist, they just had a walkout and Thrillist is a place that’s owned by the Lerer family, who are all multimillionaires. Ben Lerer is the son of a multimillionaire who is also a multimillionaire, whose dad gave him the outlet. One thing that unionization does as it moves across the industries is expose people that need to be exposed. At the end of it, the unions are going to win. It’s inevitable that the unions will win and everybody’s going to know exactly where everybody stands, who’s a hypocrite and who’s not.
I think unionization in the media can also change the way unions are seen nationwide, because it’ll change the way reporters and producers understand organized labor. In the debate between Cynthia Nixon and Andrew Cuomo, the moderator asked whether they supported public workers’ right to strike and maybe gum up the infrastructure, and I thought, shouldn’t the question be whether they’re willing to pay workers what they deserve?
I think that over the past several years that more places in the media had been unionizing, I think that a) you see more labor coverage in general. And b), I think that as a sort of side effect of all these media outlets unionizing is that you have all these reporters who are going through this process firsthand and it kind of builds up class consciousness among reporters basically. So it’s not that it’s giving a bias to reporters, but it’s sort of opening the eyes of a lot of people who work in the media and that’s something that will inevitably make their coverage better. Not just of unions specifically, but also all the history that is tied to labor and inequality, economics and all that stuff.
Ben Smith from BuzzFeed [full disclosure: I used to work at BuzzFeed] wrote a story this week about how he thinks it’s time for the end of horse race journalism. How do you think journalists have handled class issues?
It’s definitely been a problem for a long time and all due respect to Ben Smith, he didn’t invent horse race journalism. Horse race coverage of politics has been a problem in the media for a long time and it’s tied to the fact that big-time journalism is not a very diverse field, it’s not racially diverse. It’s not economically diverse. It’s not diverse. Those newsrooms tend to not look like America, right? And that’s a big problem and it affects the coverage. When you have newsrooms that are full of people who are Ivy Leaguers, it’s much easier to cover politics in that horse race style because there’s no personal stake. There’s not a personal stake in politics, so politics doesn’t get covered as something that’s very serious and affects people’s lives in a serious way.
I do think that that having some personal experience with issues like labor organizing is going to help reporters and also think that with every single place in our industry that has organized, you know, if you sit in those meetings and listen to them talk about what the issues are, diversity is an issue at every single place. The staffs want more diversity, all types of diversity. I think in the long-term unions are going to be one of the strongest factors that’s going to drive diversity in the media.
As our industry turns more toward freelance, it also becomes easier to empathize with the economic struggle.
The whole structure of getting a job in journalism is ridiculous. The expectation that people are going to have internships and all that, that stuff forces poor people out of the industry. Paying incredibly low salaries, so that they can’t pay the rent in New York, forces poor people out of journalism because they cannot afford to in the industry. One thing we got in our union contract is a minimum wage for our company. You cannot be paid less than $50k if you work for us. Living wages for these jobs is, is absolutely tied to diversity because people aren’t independently wealthy need to be paid enough to work in this industry.