The coronavirus crisis is deepening an already dire economic outlook for the nation’s newsrooms as companies launch furloughs, layoffs and pay cuts, union leaders are asserting.
“The news business is in deep trouble,” said Lowell Peterson, executive director of Writers Guild For America East. “The economic crisis has gutted ad revenues.”
Peterson explained that the 3,500 newsroom employees represented by the New York-based WGA East have been fully employed since the pandemic hit in March but warned that steep cuts are coming — “unless the economy turns around in the next three weeks,” he said.
“Because news is essential, newsrooms have not been impacted to the same degree as many other sectors,” Peterson said.
Peterson participated in a news conference Friday, headed by Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Other speakers included Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild – Communications Workers of America; Nadia Taha, campaign lead of NewsGuild-CWA; and Caroline Houck, deputy Washington Editor, Vox.com.
“We are consuming more news than ever,” Shuler said. “When journalists are losing jobs, we all suffer.”
Taha touted union efforts to adjust to fast-changing circumstances, noting that Los Angeles Times union members agreed earlier this month to accept a 20% reduction in pay and hours for its members — while keeping their health benefits. About 440 journalists represented by the Media Guild of the West will have their wages and hours cut for 12 weeks, and work four days each week instead of five days. The reductions are expected to save more than $2 million, according to Taha.
Peterson also expressed the need for union solidarity amid the crisis. He noted that the WGA East had teamed this week with four other entertainment industry unions — SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, the Directors Guild of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — to issue guidelines dubbed “The Five Commandments.”
The guidelines are as follows:
— All work that can be done from home should be done from home if the worker so chooses, with proper tech support.
— When work must be done in the newsroom, control room, studio, or in the field, basic CDC and OSHA guidelines on social distancing and protective measures should be mandated, with each worker supplied with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
— All worksites and field vehicles should be equipped with sufficient disinfectant supplies and disinfected by professional cleaning crews regularly to ensure the best possible hygiene in all work areas.
— Employers should adopt strict contact tracing plans to self-isolate those who may have been exposed to anyone who tests positive or exhibits symptoms consistent with the virus.
— Layoffs, furloughs, and reductions in employees’ hours should only be considered after all other options have been exhausted. Before any reductions in hours/days for freelance and temporary workers or furloughs or layoffs of staff workers, there should be good faith discussions between the union and management (with financial transparency) to settle on the best course of action to ensure high-quality journalism and protect as many jobs as possible during this crisis.
The news conference took place at the same time that Vice Media Group announced it was laying off 155 employees, or approximately 5% of its total worldwide headcount, in response to revenue declines stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.