stop the presses

Just What Did the Times Walkout Change?

Photo: Julia Nikhinson/AP/Shutterstock

As they have been threatening to do for months now, the New York Times newsroom went on a one-day strike today.

As a reader, you might not have noticed. The paper got its Brittney Griner–is-free scoop out on a push notification before the Washington Post did. The homepage was well stocked, even if some of the features (“20 Cookie Videos That Will Put You in the Holiday Spirit”) seemed not so urgent. News items, including the paper’s own account of the walkout, appeared mysteriously bylined “By The New York Times.” Unlike the era when a newspaper strike meant there was no physical newspaper, which meant no news, now publishing a story is just a click on the CMS away. And management is trained to click these days. No pressman required.

The website is what matters, and it’s pretty easy to program a Potemkin homepage. Editors can resurface stories from earlier in the week, play them front and center, and readers will click. All week long, editors have instructed their reporters to pre-write stories for today. The bosses are also getting by with help from foreign correspondents and bureau chiefs who aren’t in the union, plus a couple of scabs. The staff is splenetic that two White House reporters, Peter Baker and Michael Shear, never stopped filing. (Tomorrow night’s holiday party for the Washington bureau is shaping up to be an awkward one.) And according to a source familiar with audience numbers, Wordle use did not dip, despite calls from the unionized staff for Wordlers to lay off it for a day in solidarity with the stoppage.

And everyone will be back to work tomorrow. At least for now.

Still, what a spectacle: The management of the nation’s most elite, center-left news organization, which, in its opinion pages, supports unionization at places like Amazon and endorsed Elizabeth Warren for president in part because she would “give workers more ability to bargain collectively,” is now telling its impecunious staff to quit clanking their tin cups. The workers want raises that keep up with inflation, and the company is on track for an annual operating profit of more than $300 million.

Management hasn’t been totally inflexible. They’ve agreed not to axe the company pension plan (yes, they still have a pension plan, not just a 401(k)), dispensed with a longtime byzantine pay scheme that would have unfairly reduced raises for certain employees based on certain salary floors, and proposed meaningful benefits on fertility treatment. Last night, executive editor Joe Kahn sent a note to the newsroom saying, “Strikes typically happen when talks deadlock. That is not where we are today.” But they are far enough apart, and the staff riled up enough, for that not to matter.

The picketing outside the Times’ Renzo Piano–designed headquarters went on for more than an hour this afternoon. Over a hundred people gathered under the scaffolding on West 40th Street, surrounded by a crush of cameras. Nikole Hannah-Jones, their star magazine correspondent and the intellectual force behind “The 1619 Project,” stood next to Scabby the giant inflatable rat and spoke into a microphone: “Let me tell you, I know what it’s like to work at a newspaper and not make enough to pay your bills. I worked two jobs until I was 30 years old. I reported at my local newspaper and then I had to sell mattresses on nights and weekends just to make ends meet. I loved my job, but we shouldn’t have to struggle financially to work at a place like the New York Times, no matter what position we hold.”

Donald McNeil was there, wearing an old union T-shirt and a brown leather coat with a shearling collar. He was ousted from the paper last year, and Hannah-Jones had played a minor role in that, but he’d always been a dedicated union man. He nodded along while she spoke. “I thought she was great,” he told me.

The labor unrest has united all sorts of factions within the paper. But it has exacerbated others. Some employees have said they are ready to vote on a strike authorization as soon as tomorrow. Others worry this has all gone too far and a compromise must be reached.

Of course, if the union really wants to draw blood, they will have to go on a real strike. The 114-day-long one which gripped the city’s nine dailies in 1963 — yes, there were really that many newspapers — was so bad it not only killed the Daily Mirror, but also the publisher of the Times, Orvil Dryfoos. “The death of Orvil Dryfoos was blamed on ‘heart failure,’ but that obviously could not have been the reason,” began his eulogy by Scotty Reston, the ultimate Timesman. “When the strike was over, he finally slipped away to the hospital and never came back.” The strain of the strike, which had crippled the business entrusted to Dryfoos by his father-in-law, proved too much.

That’s how stressful newspaper strikes used to be, back when the typesetters and the truck drivers and the clerks, copyboys, and reporters all used to get on the same page and truly shut it down; back when unions really ran this town, back when the president would have to intercede. A lot has changed since then. Don’t be surprised if Dryfoos’s modern successor, A.G. Sulzberger, doesn’t roll over anytime soon. Given the recessionary headwinds seen coming towards the industry, with many other newsrooms like CNN having already announced layoffs and others expected to, management’s perspective is that giving out what they see as imprudently large raises is not only bad planning for an uncertain future, but also out of step with the rest of the news business’s current norms. Yes, the Times is unusually, even uniquely, well positioned among its peers right now, but they feel like keeping a lid on costs will help them remain so.

So far, the NewsGuild and members of the bargaining committee have refused to negotiate in person. They’ve been doing this all over Zoom with hundreds of colleagues watching. “That dramatically changes how things are done,” says one Times executive. “They are playing to this audience, the whole thing becomes so performative and theatrical in ways that make it hard to get things done.”

Many reporters quietly admitted to me this week that they think it’s lame how their representatives won’t just get in a room to hash it out. “The Guild is sort of like the Democratic Party,” says one reporter who is a member. “There are a bunch of moderates who are like, Yeah, this seems fair, everybody needs a fair contract. And then there are a bunch of Bernie and AOC types who are just like, Let’s burn the goddamn building down. I get those vibes every time I log onto one of those calls.” (Management has said that if the Guild agrees to negotiate in person, they’ll allow a hybrid bargaining session in which members can still beam in to observe the proceedings, and that anyone concerned about COVID can also participate virtually.)

I asked more active Guild members about why their representatives shouldn’t go face the Times lawyers IRL. Their answers basically boil down to, This is how we’ve done it this whole time; why should we change now?

In the old days, strike negotiations at the Times were always smoothed out by the classy hand of Theodore Kheel, the famed labor mediator who was variously described as “the most influential peacemaker in New York City in the last half-century” and “the master locksmith of deadlock bargaining.” Kheel once said, “The essence of mediation is getting information. The dirtiest question you can ask in bargaining is ‘What will you settle for?’ If you ask that question, you ought to resign, but that’s the question you must have an answer to. You get it by asking every question except that. What’s left over is the answer.”

Ultimately, the staff just wants more money, and management has budged very little on that. I went on Brian Lehrer’s radio show earlier this week to discuss this subject and a bunch of them began jamming up the phone lines, calling in to give union talking points. Their rage is metastasizing to find new targets beyond the usual suspects of Sulzberger and his CEO. This week, everyone was fuming at Jacqueline Welch, the human-resources boss who joined the paper last year and was compensated with nearly $1.5 million. It was Welch who notified them all that anyone participating in today’s strike would be docked a day’s pay, as opposed to the company counting it as a sick or vacation day.

At Dryfoos’s wake, Reston declared that “a newspaper is a very special kind of partnership. The main ingredients are not newsprint, ink, and advertising, but the more volatile ingredients of blood, brains, pride, and courage.” But the modern staff doesn’t want to be in a partnership they feel is not equitable. As Hannah-Jones told today’s crowd, “Let’s be real. It will cost this prosperous company very little for all of our employees to make a livable wage.”

Just What Did the Times Walkout Change?