Business Outsider? Strike publications offer a glimpse of worker-owned media

Amid a resurgence of union activism within digital media companies, striking workers at Business Insider and the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette are starting their own publications to showcase their value.
Strikeworkers at Business Insider march during their June strike.

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This piece is part of “Reclaiming Democracy,” a project of The Objective taking a critical look at how democracy and journalism co-exist in the U.S.

Surging labor activism within the media industry has prompted some observers to declare this season the “summer of strikes,” with workers throughout American news organizations walking off the job to protest poor wages and working conditions. 

But beyond traditional picket lines and social media callouts, some workers are embracing a decades-old tactic to force management to the bargaining table: strike publications.

During their recent strikes, journalists at Business Insider and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette continued writing – just for not for their own publications. Instead, they launched new sites, circumventing the traditional publication bureaucracy to take their messages directly to readers. 

According to interviews with reporters and editors from multiple such efforts, strike publications can serve a number of different purposes. Some see them as negotiating tools to temporarily poach subscribers and advertisers from their companies, raising the stakes for contract negotiations. Others see them as an interim replacement for their employers’ publications, ensuring communities continue to receive crucial news while labor disputes persist. Others still see them as a little more than a means to stay busy during the incredible stress that work stoppage brings.

But regardless of the motives behind them, strike publications are clearly seeing a resurgence in the digital era — something media labor advocates say is long overdue.

“To see journalists who are willing to put in so much time and effort without much monetary reward coming back, that’s very heartening and very inspirational,” Linda Foley, the former president of the Newspaper Guild who now serves in the Maryland House of Delegates, told The Objective. “Believe you me, that wasn’t always the case when I was involved in the Guild.”

Digital tools empower worker-led movements

The concept of strike publications, whereby journalists who are withholding their labor from their employers establish rival publications to draw attention to the strike and showcase their reporting, is far from new.

Indeed, during Foley’s tenure — around which time the Newspaper Guild merged with the Communications Workers of America to become the modern-day NewsGuild-CWA — she oversaw several media strikes that featured worker-led publications, among them the Detroit Sunday Journal (run by striking Detroit News and Detroit Free Press staff in the mid-1990s) and the Seattle Union Record (run by striking Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer workers in 2000).

But in the era of print journalism, the logistical and financial barriers to establishing such publications— sourcing a printing press, managing deliveries, and recruiting advertisers, for example — often proved insurmountable. 

“There [were] a lot of logistics that went along with that, that made it really difficult to make a success of it,” Foley recalled of her involvement with strike papers. 

Today, journalists involved in digital strike publications have launched such efforts in a matter of days or even hours. 

When workers at Insider went on strike a few weeks ago, parenting editor Rosemary Donahue was looking for a way to utilize their writing and editing skills for the cause. They joined the union’s communications Slack channel, where conversations were underway to launch a strike publication. Soon enough, they found themself in charge of it.

“There was clearly a dance with people not wanting to be too, I guess, bossy about it or take the reins,” Donahue said. “We kind of just needed someone to make a workflow.” 

Drawing on their skills as a former freelancer, and with the help of entertainment reporter turned publication co-editor Palmer Haasch, Donahue built a new page for the publication on the union’s Squarespace site, organized a Google spreadsheet to track story edits, and mocked up a workflow strategy. Within a few days, the “Business Outsider” publication was up and running.

Though the publication was only in operation for about a week during employees’ 13-day action, the longest digital media strike in U.S. history, it gained significant traction. Beyond the explanations of strikers’ demands, photo-collages of picket signs, and first-person reflections on a striking worker’s financial planning, Business Outsider managed to nab some exclusives, including an interview with Semafor co-founder and former Buzzfeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith.

“I think I’ll let you make up your own mind about taking shots at your boss,” Smith told reporter Jack Newsham, when asked if he thought it was wise for Insider editor-in-chief Nicholas Carlson to attend a media conference in Jackson Hole while employees were protesting outside the office.

The publication’s biggest traffic spike came when politics reporter Bryan Metzger landed quite the scoop: an exclusive statement from White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre apologizing for sharing Insider content during the strike and stating President Joe Biden’s commitment to standing with striking journalists at Insider and other publications.

“Journalists make it possible for ordinary citizens to better understand their world, be active citizens, and question authority — it’s only right that journalists be able to do so in their workplaces without fear of retaliation or intimidation,” Jean-Pierre’s statement read in part. “President Biden stands behind the right to strike and urges media companies and their workers to negotiate in good faith and reach mutually beneficial agreements that ensure striking journalists get the fair benefits, quality of life, and wages that they deserve.”

“It was cool to be a part of an effort where we’ve secured something which was very unusual, which was like a statement from the White House about striking journalists,” Metzger told The Objective. “This isn’t just about us. This is about, like, the broader efforts towards building collective power in media.”

Whether the story and White House statement played a role in pushing management to acquiesce to workers’ demands, Metzger couldn’t say. Representatives for Insider did not respond to a press inquiry about the strike publication or Biden’s statement.

But less than a week after the story ran, Insider’s bosses caved to the union’s demands, reaching a tentative agreement on a contract that included a salary floor, wage increases, and a layoff moratorium.

“The bully pulpit of the presidency is huge,” Foley, who serves as a Democrat, noted. Such a presidential statement in support of striking journalists “never happened in my lifetime,” and its impact “should not be understated in terms of the effect it had on getting a settlement,” said Foley.

A forum for experimentation and community involvement

While Business Outsider earned brief blips of virality reporting on issues relevant to its striking workforce and mirroring the tone of the legacy site, other striking newsrooms have pursued new and different forms of coverage through their strike publications.

This month marked eight months since the launch of Pittsburgh Union Progress, a publication run by striking workers from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. According to interim editor Bob Batz, the site stands as the first strike publication of the digital age, and those involved in creating it were intentional about building a forum for reporting they felt wouldn’t or couldn’t be showcased in the regular paper.

“There were communities and individuals and news out there that weren’t getting covered before by our employer,” Batz alleged. “Because we were newly independent media, we were on strike, we were caught up in this labor awakening that was going on across the country. We just kind of naturally gravitated into unreported-on communities.”

Batz pointed to coverage of drag bingo nights and high school sports leagues as examples of stories that might’ve been overlooked at the Post-Gazette. He also highlighted an ongoing partnership between Union Progress and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle to cover the Tree of Life synagogue shooting trial, something he said his employer would never have pursued.

“When you’re at the big daily in town, you wouldn’t be working with any other outlet. You’d be trying to beat it,” Batz argued. “We see that, you know, whatever size outlet you are, working together can bear some fruit.” 

Another distinction between Union Progress and Business Outsider’s approach to strike publications centered on the role of the NewsGuild. Though the Guild remained supportive of both strikes and publications, officials were much more involved in the day-to-day operations of Business Outsider, providing input or edits on all stories which touched on labor matters. 

Those involved in the Union Progress were much less receptive to the Guild’s input, conversely. “We’re not a press release from the Guild or from the union. We’re not opinions on the strike or even labor. We’re trying to be straight-up, independent, pure local journalism. And that’s even the case when we write about ourselves,” Batz said. 

Officials in the NewsGuild and CWA did not respond to multiple inquiries about their involvement in the launch or operations of contemporary strike publications. But Foley said concerns about editorial involvement of Guild leadership were longstanding. “Our mission here is not to put out a Pulitzer Prize-winning paper,” she said. “Our mission here is to make sure we have a strong strike.”

Still, regardless of their differing tactics, those involved in contemporary strike publications said such efforts ultimately served to elevate the role of workers in media companies over corporate bosses, something everyone agreed was a good thing.

“Journalism is dying, especially on the local level. And it’s not going to get saved by the corporate bosses, it has to be saved by the journalists themselves,” Foley argued.

Working on a strike publication “made me feel even more hopeful for some sort of future worker-owned media,” echoed Donahue, the Business Outsider editor. “It made me feel a little bit more hopeful about the workplace that we’re going back to, with a little bit more power than we had before.”

This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Holly Rosewood.

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