- On November 12, Hearst Magazine editorial employees at some of the best-known titles including Cosmopolitan and Esquire announced they unionized, joining a throng of other media workers.
- A Hearst union would be a big win for the Writers Guild of America East, with some 500 people across 24 brands represented.
- Many people cited uncertainty around pay raises and career paths as motives to unionize.
- Hearst magazines have also undergone massive restructuring under president Troy Young to modernize the business, and many saw their jobs dramatically change.
- Organizers said they were also inspired by other media outlets’ successfully unionizing.
- Executives have taken a tough stance against the union effort, which some organizers said has only strengthened their resolve.
- Young said the company was navigating industry change better than most, but acknowledged that change was hard.
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Sarah Rense, a digital editor at Esquire, remembers when the magazine’s then-separate print and digital staffs were told they’d be operating as one last year.
“We had to figure out how to do a print magazine and there was no formal structure,” she recalled. “Everyone was told, ‘We’re going to make a magazine, and if you have ideas, pitch them.’ It was a very confusing time.”
For Rense and others, the integration was just the latest frustration of their lives working at Hearst Magazines that include a lack of clear job duties, regular pay raises and reviews, and programs to ensure diversity in hiring. Business Insider talked to 10 current and former Hearst employees of varying seniority and tenure.
On November 12, those frustrations culminated in Hearst editorial employees announcing their unionization under the Writers Guild of America, joining a recent wave of media employees hopping onto the labor movement. The WGA unit would be a giant in editorial unions, with as many as 500 people spanning 24 titles including some of the industry’s biggest, like Cosmopolitan and Elle in addition to Esquire. They’re seeking an election under the National Labor Relations Board; a vote is expected to take place in January. Organizers said they wanted standards around things like salaries and job titles and talk about a union “giving us a seat at the table.”
It’s a jittery time in media. Unions have sprung up at new digital and legacy media companies from Vox Media to Condé Nast where employees are seeking standards in their jobs, if not guarantees in job security, as they see scores of media jobs lost and companies shut down or sold at fire sale prices. The WGA East has prioritized unionizing digital media and says it now represents nearly 6,000 writers in film, television, news and new media. For the cost of dues, around 1.5 percent of pay, members get protections they can’t always bargain for themselves.
Employees complain of opaque pay processes
Many Hearst employees saw a scattershot approach to promotions and raises at the company, and saw unionizing as the answer.
Whereas merit increases were given in the past, there was a pay freeze in 2018. As multiple people say it, there was no formal review process or regular raises given at Hearst. What information people got often came from backdoor channels. It was known that the best way to get a raise was to tell your boss you had an offer to go elsewhere.
Stories about murkiness in pay are common. One editorial staffer said a colleague told them the colleague was making $10,000 a year less despite the two having the same experience and starting at the same time. “It’s unethical. And it’s demoralizing on top of that,” the staffer said.
Brett Williams, an editor at Men’s Health and member of the union’s organizing committee, heard about the 2018 pay freeze, but that he still saw people getting hired and promoted.
“Brand to brand, compensation was wildly different, the way people were told about things,” he said.
The informal, decentralized approach might have worked in the old days when the magazine business was humming along nicely. But newer employees today are jittery about the future. They’ve seen others laid off across the industry and often were laid off themselves, and are more concerned about issues like pay equality and diversity in their ranks.
People felt loss of control when brands were reorganized
Recent upheaval at Hearst didn’t help. Legacy companies like Hearst have struggled to catch up to faster-moving digital competitors while preserving their declining but still sizeable print businesses. To jumpstart its digital business, Hearst Magazines brought in a hard-charging digital media executive, Troy Young, in 2013.
Young had been president of Say Media, a portfolio of niche sites like xoJane and Remodelista, and he initially separated Hearst’s print and digital content teams on the belief that to catch up to faster growing, pure digital players like BuzzFeed and Refinery29, Hearst needed to have people focused on digital without the distraction of print. In his first year, Hearst’s online traffic shot up to 41 million monthly uniques, a 32% increase.
But in 2018, Young was promoted to head of the whole magazine group, and he started reintegrating the teams in an effort to make the print side more efficient. Print staffers were assigned digital duties and vice versa. While some employees’ jobs changed little across the magazines, others’ roles changed as much as half. Employees were told it was “an exciting opportunity,” and that they would be “all part of one big team,” people recalled of the process.
Some amount of flexibility is expected in a modern newsroom, and some were excited about the chance to learn new skills. They emphasized that they enjoyed their work and their colleagues and were proud to work for their magazines, some of which are more than 100 years old.
But some also said the integration process wasn’t explained well and that the new tasks were imposed on them without any change in job title or pay increase. Some said they were overwhelmed, stressed, and bitter. A union, they hoped, would help by standardizing job titles and responsibilities.
Other issues motivated staffers to unionize. Media companies like Hearst, to diversify their revenue, enlist editorial staffers to write shopping posts and branded content for advertisers — practices that can compromise a publication’s editorial integrity. Union supporters say they want to ensure standards are maintained. They want to see more diversity in Hearst’s executive suite, and are inspired by seeing other unions like Vox Media’s diversity requirements in hiring.
Hearst execs have taken a hard line against the union effort
It’s common for management to oppose unions out of concerns that they’ll introduce adversity between supervisors and subordinates and introduce processes that make it hard to be nimble. Contracts can make it hard to fire underperformers, some warn. Even liberal news outlets like HuffPost and BuzzFeed didn’t wholeheartedly embrace their employees’ unions.
Hearst fought back against a union. Young and chief content officer Kate Lewis, whom he brought over from Say Media, called meetings with magazine staffs where he argued that a union would divide the company and slow its progress. New York magazine wrote that Hearst “adopted an especially hostile posture toward staff.” The company threw up an information-style website that warned that a union could make members go on strike without pay and doesn’t guarantee protection against layoffs, among other things.
“We deeply believe that a union will divide our company and culture, as it has in the last week, and will surely slow us down at a critical time in our evolution without guaranteeing any tangible benefits,” Young wrote in a November 21 email viewed by Business Insider. “We simply do not need an outside third party involved to do our best work.”
Suddenly, employees who felt they never got much information from the company started getting a lot of emails. In the November 21 memo, Young said the company shared many of the union’s goals, and was already at work addressing many of them, including putting in place a new parental leave program, salary planning, and “refocused” diversity efforts.
On November 25, employees received an email from Hearst’s head of human resources that was viewed by Business Insider. The memo announced there would be merit pay increases, a formal review process, and a diversity and inclusion program — all issues that the union listed as priorities. Hearst has had women’s and other affinity groups as early as two years ago and management had begun looking at the mix of diversity in staff, for example.
The corporate response to the union has left some employees feeling angry and patronized. The appearance of the anti-union site in particular “fueled the fire,” one organizer said. While the company insisted the initiatives like raises and reviews had been in the works for a while, some people suspected they were just being done to keep the union at bay. And not everyone ended up actually getting raises anyway, which added to the confusion.
Were leaders caught by surprise?
Some veterans saw the union movement as an expression of young people expecting more from their employers these days. They expressed surprise that leadership seemed caught off guard by the union’s announcement and that its response wasn’t more deft. After all, the parent company has a long history of dealing with unions at its vast newspaper group, and its former CEO Frank Bennack preached everyday cultural practices like meetings and direct communication as keys to the company’s success. And unions have been forming all across the media industry.
Some vets also voiced concern that a union will cause divisiveness and undermine the company’s progress at a precarious time, as Young has also warned. Print magazines are facing headwinds. Hearst has been part of the industry consolidation; it acquired health and fitness publisher Rodale in 2017 and laid off 150 as part of the deal. It’s also cut the print frequency of Esquire in the UK and Seventeen in recent years and said goodbye to longtime famous editors like Joanna Coles and David Granger.
“This is a black eye for Troy,” said one. “Didn’t they know they had disgruntled employees? This should not have been a surprise.”
“For the past year we have been working to modernize all aspects of the employee experience at Hearst,” Young told Business Insider. “There are a lot of amazing people who love being here. We are navigating the challenges of the industry better than most, but change can be hard.”
As to the view that the union is being driven by generational differences, Julie Kosin, an editor at Elle and one of the union’s organizers, pointed out that organizing committee members represent a cross section of ages. “It’s not fair to put us in the boat of whining millennials. It does a disservice to the workforce.”
Many people who were behind the union’s formation have since left the company. Some are reluctant to speak on the record for fear of retaliation.
But now that people are getting back to work after the holidays and as the election looms, some remaining union supporters say the executive opposition has only sharpened their resolve.
“It just feels like the company is desperate to get us to stop,” another staffer said. “I think it’s had the opposite effect.”