“We Are Going to Drag Our Editors Into This”: The New York Times’ Labor Fight Is Demoralizing the Newsroom
The New York Times has never had more paying subscribers, and yet coming to terms on paying employees has never been a bigger problem for the paper—just ask the person running the newsroom. During a meeting with the National desk last Tuesday, executive editor Joe Kahn, a 20-year-plus veteran, acknowledged the current labor standoff was a unique moment at the Times, according to two reporters in attendance, and agreed it was concerning how negotiations had been protracted. Union members’ outrage over stalled contract negotiations has increasingly spilled out into public view as the New York Times Guild has turned up the organizing pressure, with Times staffers tweeting their frustration and more than 300 of them sending emails to leadership about the effects of stagnant wages, as well as making headlines with a refusal to return to office. The company should be paying staff more money, Kahn said, according to the two attendees; but, he added, he’s the editor, not the CEO. “There are a lot of things in this world that are true that you don’t say,” one reporter said of the comment. “A sharp editor might have struck that line.”
That same day, the head of the Times’ Business desk was asked by her staff what she planned to do about the fact that they were up in arms. “Nothing,” Ellen Pollock replied, according to two staffers. Asked by her team whether she’d help them advocate for better pay, Pollock said she didn’t feel it was appropriate to have any role in the contract negotiations; that she wasn’t particularly plugged in and didn’t plan to be. Staff were so rattled by her dispassionate response that they began to draft an open letter asking Pollock, who is known for being blunt and fearless with the brass, to communicate to the people above her that the company’s approach is getting in the way of her staff’s ability to do their jobs. The letter was delivered Friday, according to a Times staffer. (“Ellen has responded to the letter and has passed along the concerns of her team to senior editors,” according to Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha. Asked about what Kahn conveyed to members of the National desk, Rhoades Ha said more context was needed. “Joe was noting that while he is the editor not the CEO, he is confident that the full company leadership is aligned and wants a deal that will provide a better contract for our journalists.”)
Managers understandably may feel constrained when it comes to union issues, and traditionally stay out of them. So the fact that staff are clearly looking to them for help indicates the gravity of the situation. “We’re not stupid; we understand how power dynamics work and how capitalism works,” said finance reporter Stacy Cowley, the unit secretary and a member of the bargaining committee. To “say that this happens at the bargaining table, that we, your managers and newsroom editor in chief, have nothing to do with it—that’s just a moating strategy intending to wall things off,” Cowley added. “We’ve been at the table for a year and a half. And it doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked, so now we’re at the stage of saying we are going to drag our editors into this.”
The Times Guild, which represents about 1,300 employees, has been in drawn-out contract negotiations since their last one expired in March 2021, but a confluence of factors have activated a new level of involvement. Whereas past newsroom disputes often broke along ideological, generational, or job-specific lines, pay inequity has become an internal movement, getting even veterans and big names off the sidelines. “This is the first time that I feel a lot more invested and outraged, and I am not the only one,” one Times reporter told me. The biggest factor is that staffers haven’t gotten a contractual raise in more than two years and inflation is eroding their salaries. “That really affects people financially. I have a daughter in college,” said Tom Coffey, a longtime editor who is on the union’s contract action committee. “So you have all these expenses that are just going up and you have a paycheck that’s buying less and less every week.” (Rhoades Ha noted the Times “consistently go[es] above and beyond what our contract requires to compensate our staff. Last year, we also gave members millions in non-contractual raises and bonuses.”)
Meanwhile, the Times earlier this year shelled out $550 million in cash for a sports news site, The Athletic, as part of its effort to vault from eight million to 10 million subscribers by 2025. Then, hitting that goal a few years early, the company announced a new aim: at least 15 million subscribers by the end of 2027. The Times, in expansion mode, also scooped up Wordle for an undisclosed price—in “the low seven figures,” according to the Times—earlier this year.
The financial reality for staff has been reason for some to pay closer attention to what’s happening at the bargaining table, meetings that used to be a chore to attend, but that Zoom has provided a new window into. “Now you can pop in on your lunch break or while you’re waiting for a call. It’s just very easy to see what’s going on, and what’s going on has surprised a lot of people,” said one Times reporter. It’s not just that the company, despite how well it’s doing financially, is proposing paltry wages, smaller contributions to the medical plan, and pension cuts, as members of the Guild say. (Rhoades Ha claimed the company’s proposal “would provide greater medical benefits than employees enjoy today” and that their proposal to shift unit members to the company’s 401k plan from the Guild’s adjustable pension plan is “about offering a better plan with higher returns and more flexibility to employees, not cost-cutting.”)
“There’s a feeling among the staff who have paid attention to the negotiations that the company’s negotiating team is disrespectful and does not value journalism in a way that other parts of the company at least claim to,” the reporter said. (“This is demonstrably false,” Rhoades Ha said. “Throughout negotiations we’ve stressed how central our journalistic colleagues are to the success of The Times and our mission.” Rhoades Ha pointed out that the Times has “strengthened our commitment to journalism and journalists with an unmatched level of investment” as their competitors have cut newsroom costs.)
Several reporters said it was demoralizing to see the company’s hired guns talk down to their colleagues. “People don’t expect The New York Times that they know to act that way,” said one. “The financial piece of it is genuinely affecting people in a very real way,” said another, “and the dismissive tone from management is really affecting people’s ability to do their jobs well.” Whether or not it leads to a strike, as New York magazine suggested earlier this month was a possibility—two staffers I spoke to suggested that talk of a strike was overblown at this stage, and the union hasn’t sought to organize one—the conflict inside the Times is coming to a head. I’m told some reporters and newsroom veterans have privately reached out to the company’s most senior leaders in the hopes of persuading them to shift the Times’ bargaining stance.
According to sports reporter and unit member Kevin Draper, the Guild’s current proposal is an 8% annual raise over four years, which, along with a cost-of-living adjustment, they say amounts to about a 40% increase. The Guild argues this isn’t a lot to ask from a company that reported an adjusted operating profit of more than $76 million in the last fiscal quarter alone, increased its dividend payout to shareholders this year, and has increased compensation for some top officers. “If top executives and shareholders are partaking in The New York Times’ financial success, the 1,400-plus workers who produce the paper daily should share in it as well,” said Draper. The NewsGuild’s proposal “would amount to well over $200 million in additional costs over the life of the contract” and “make it difficult to sustain our investment in journalism,” Rhoades Ha said. “We’re offering a 10% wage increase: 4% upon ratification of a new contract, and 3% increases both in 2023 and 2024,” she said, as well as a “2.5% retroactive bonus to recognize the time in which employees have been working since the old contract expired in March 2021.” Under the old contract, which was ratified in December 2017, members of the union received a 2% annual increase. And because the Times is a place where people sometimes spend their whole career, there are reporters who, during this round of bargaining, are remembering sacrifices they’ve made in the past for the company, such as furloughs and pay cuts taken during the financial crisis to help the Times get through the painful period. Last year, the Times generated a total revenue of $2.1 billion. Rhoades Ha noted the company’s entire net income last year was $220 million.