Journalism, representational image (Image credit : Search Engine Journal)
The legendary tech website CNET, which launched over 30 years ago, is the most recent example of a digital media company whose personnel has decided to organize and demand more. In a letter submitted today, the CNET Media Worker’s Union (CMWU) asked Red Ventures, the private equity firm that acquired CNET in 2020, to recognize a bargaining unit that includes close to 100 employees, including editors, writers, and video producers. A supermajority of those in the unit allegedly signed union authorization cards, according to CMWU.
The employees who make up CMWU are reacting in large part to an increasingly unfriendly financial environment in the sector, just like the vast majority of other organized digital publications. The same turmoil that resulted in the closure of Buzzfeed News and VICE’s decision to file for bankruptcy also affected CNET; the firm recently saw three severe rounds of layoffs, the most recent of which removed about a dozen employees off the masthead. “We lost a lot of really great reporters,” said Laura Michelle Davis, a CNET editor and part of the organizing committee, to Engadget.
The CMWU has also organized in response to what it sees as a “blurring of editorial and monetization strategies” and a lack of transparency about, among other things, the usage of AI. Although it doesn’t seem to have played a major role in the union drive, CNET recently became the center of a fairly significant scandal when Futurism revealed that the site had started publishing content written by AI without any indication of authorship. This information was made public to the general public as well as, allegedly, to the staff. In the end, factual adjustments were included to more than half of those automated stories, and CNET subsequently released a quasi-apology.
The Writer’s Guild of America, East, which has assisted in organizing websites including Vox, HuffPost, and The Onion, is the group’s representative. The Writer’s Guild of America, the union’s sister organization, has screenwriters on strike for the past two weeks over a number of disagreements with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, including the use of AI in content creation. (Disclosure: During my time at Gizmodo Media Group, I was a member of the WGA-E and sat on the bargaining committee.)
While the specifics of any agreement that CMWU may ultimately reach with Red Ventures are still up for discussion, the bargaining unit will be using substantially similar victories in the digital media sector as a benchmark. Red Ventures has been contacted for comment; we will provide an update when we do. The organizing statement of CMWU is provided below:
“CNET has been a trusted authority for original reporting, helpful explainers and honest advice for nearly 30 years. We – writers, editors, video producers, designers and other content creators – are committed to CNET’s future as a reputable source for tech reviews, news and commerce. That’s why an overwhelming majority of us have formed the CNET Media Workers Union, affiliated with the Writers Guild of America, East. We are confident that our collective efforts will allow us to better serve our audience and make a more collaborative workplace.
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“The digital media landscape is transforming rapidly. In this time of instability, our diverse content teams need industry-standard job protections, fair compensation, editorial independence and a voice in the decision-making process, especially as automated technology threatens our jobs and reputations. A union will help us adapt to new business strategies while establishing high journalistic standards and practices.
“Since Red Ventures acquired CNET in fall 2020, CNET media workers have been subjected to ongoing restructuring, cost-cutting austerity measures, shifting job roles and promotion freezes. In the past year, three major rounds of layoffs have deeply impacted our reporting and our teams. Red Ventures cut senior editorial positions, eliminated the Roadshow cars section, drastically slashed our video team, gutted our news division and shut down science and culture coverage.
These unilateral overhauls created low morale and unease, resulting in a wave of resignations and talent attrition. We face a lack of transparency and accountability from management around performance evaluations, sponsored content and plans for artificial intelligence. We are concerned about the blurring of editorial and monetization strategies.
“By unionizing, we’re joining our peers at other digital media sites who have won security and benefits through negotiating unit-wide contracts. We feel that a union is the only way to guarantee job protections, defend editorial integrity and ensure standard cost-of-living raises as well as fair severance packages. A union would give us a voice on new AI and marketing initiatives and allow us to safeguard our workloads, bylines and careers. We look forward to bringing together our largely remote and siloed teams in this effort.
“We are a passionate and loyal community of hard workers, and our rights should be enshrined and respected. We ask Red Ventures to recognize our union in a timely manner so we can begin the contract negotiation process.”
– CNET Media Workers Union