How Will a Union Push Transform Print Media?


Ronn Torossian, CEO, 5WPR

These are challenging times for the print media industry. What was once the touchstone and foundation of all media is in the process of a titanic shift, thanks in large part to the popularity and ubiquity of the internet. Newspapers, while still valuable, are closing or reducing their staff and delivery dates. And many magazines are changing hands, shifting editorial direction, reducing staff, or shutting down entirely.

Given this, it was interesting to see recently that there has been a successful “massive union drive” at one of the largest periodical publishing companies in the world, Hearst Magazines. According to media reports, staffers voted 241 to 83 to unionize through the Writers Guild of America, East. What happens next is unclear, but proponents are celebrating this as a victory, even as their employer tries to figure out a way to navigate not only the transforming industry but also the stresses caused by the global coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking about the vote, Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East, said, “Hearst is not just about a storied brand… It’s about the hard work of the people who are involved with writing, editing, and producing the stories that educate and inspire and delight readers and viewers… These employees have voted overwhelmingly to join with the Writers Guild of America, East to bargain collectively over the terms and conditions of their employment, to make their voices heard in the workplace, to ensure that their needs and interests and priorities are addressed.”

Clearly, that’s a very positive position statement from a group that won the day at the vote, but market watchers and some inside Hearst likely have a more pressing question: “How will this affect the bottom line.”

Revenue is a problem right now for print media because huge numbers of their core customers are moving to online or mobile viewing and reading, leading to significant revenue losses, as advertisers look elsewhere to make connections with their target audiences. This harsh economic reality has led to many companies choosing layoffs or furloughs, especially as COVID shutdowns linger.

Hearst, at least as of this writing, has avoided making these difficult decisions, and the New York Post reported that Hearst CEO Steve Swartz says his company is “in stronger financial shape than many companies…”

If that is the case, then Hearst may have some capacity to shift its leadership focus to PR issues, including the recent resignation of Hearst Magazines President Troy Young, who left amid accusations of “inappropriate workplace behavior.”

Young has denied or dismissed many of the specific allegations, calling them “untrue” and “greatly exaggerated,” however the headlines related to the story caused Hearst executives to take public action. This also placed Hearst in a precarious PR position: more financially successful than the competition, in the headlines dealing with internal issues, and facing a public unionizing effort by what has become one of the largest unions in the media industry.

Now, the union members have a public victory; and it’s a short hop from that celebration to pushing for some of their other demands, which include changes in diversity hiring, compensation, and editorial standards. These demands may lead to increased public pressure on the company, which Hearst appears to be trying to get out in front of. The company released a statement which said, in part:

“We’ve been listening to our editorial teams’ aspirations for the company and will continue to address and act on them… Now, it’s time to forge a path forward together.”

What happens next will reflect how well these messages are received as well as what “together” will look like for one of the biggest players in print media.

About the Author: Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading PR agency.