The day The New Yorker staff announced its decision to unionize with the NewsGuild of New York, I sat in the good summer sun drinking an iced coffee with my best friend, whom I’d met five years ago at the magazine when he was a fact-checker and I was an assistant. Both of us had recently left the publication for new work after spending much of our twenties together at 4 Times Square, then at 1 World Trade Center, wandering city blocks, consoling each other, talking about everything from romantic relationships to universal basic income, before slipping back to our desks to file changes to copy, schedule lunches for our bosses at The Odeon, or whatever it was that our jobs required that moment.
We used to complain all the time about being “support staff,” scrambling late at night to do the heavy lifting required so that essays by the magazine’s star writers made it to the page both cleanly and factually. We felt as though we didn’t get much recognition for our grunt work, besides being issued paychecks that hardly covered our livelihoods. But we felt just as much pride as aggravation. This was, after all, what many consider to be the best magazine in the world, and at the very least one that we’d both grown up admiring, setting our values and ambitions by the stories we read in its pages.
“People say it must be so incredible to work at The New Yorker and to say anything else but yes actually does feel like taking something for granted, because it’s an incredible experience, and you work with these amazing people, and you put out this piece of magic every week,” my friend said recently, when I asked him to reflect on his experience at the publication. “But you’re not mentioning the kind of nagging inane things, that it’s not all roses.”
There was, for one, the pervasive feeling that part of your compensation was just the honor of being there — my starting salary was on par for what editorial assistants earned at the time, in New York City, in the mid $30,000s. But raises and promotions were rare, and it was hard to imagine that anyone could really stay in such jobs without having additional means of support: another gig, money from family, a partner with whom you shared living costs. (And I was, for what it’s worth, a full-time employee, with benefits and with the security of knowing I couldn’t be fired without cause, unlike the many subcontractors who often worked harder and later than I did.)
With few opportunities to move up, chances to write, edit, or train for new skills were treated like alternate forms of compensation. It was easy to burn out, difficult to leave, and worse, I convinced myself it was worth prioritizing my tasks above spending time with family, friends, or pursuing my own work as a writer.
Before my friend and I both left, we worked on a burgeoning organizing campaign at the magazine, secretly meeting our colleagues each week to express our mutual grievances about the workplace, slowly devising a careful strategy to protect the livelihoods of our colleagues. It took more than a year for the campaign to go public, even though there had been rumblings of unionization for years, inspired by the successful efforts at publications like MTV News, Vice Media, Gawker, and The Huffington Post.
This work, more than reporting or networking or protesting or succeeding, was what returned my humanity to me after the realities of working in media had all but snuffed it out.
These private meetings were tiny miracles in themselves, especially in the early days when creating a union felt like a distant and unlikely dream. Much has been written about the pristine, quiet hallways of The New Yorker and the staff’s meticulous devotion to the tiniest editorial detail in its pages, but it’s harder to express the ways in which ambition and prestige stifled collegiality around the office. By the end of my time there, I’d learned it was simpler to stare solemnly at the ground when passing someone in the hallway than to say hello and risk being shot down by an effortful or bemused glance.
Without a community with whom to speak frankly about my experience, I blamed myself for keeping my head down. Through organizing, however, I learned not only the names of colleagues I had never met, but also what these they liked to drink, what made them laugh, and more importantly, that we shared similar experiences and grievances about our workplace. I learned that I wasn’t alone.
So you can imagine how sentimental my friend and I were that day, reading the letter announcing the union, which spoke plainly about all the facets of working at the magazine, and urged for change. “We believe that the publication must work harder for its employees,” it read. “The values that run through its pages should be better reflected in the culture of its workplace.” There was the validation of seeing what was previously unspeakable made open and non-negotiable — the low wages, the subcontracted employees, the unpaid overtime — but I also felt the resentments of my nearly five years there dissipate. What made me finally break down and cry, however, was receiving a text message from an old colleague, who told me that the halls that day were filled with conversation and laughter.
There’s a long road ahead for members of The New Yorker union — who are now in the process of bargaining with management — and I am in awe of their spirit and activism in continuing to better the workplace and the industry. The sheer fact of a union there was both a historic and symbolic win for the labor movement and for journalism. If organizing a nearly century-old publication famous for being resistant to unionizing is possible, then perhaps there is hope for us all.
I’d wager that my organizing experience at The New Yorker resonates with many media workers in this day and age, and certainly with those who’ve spent any amount of time at prestige publications. But the joy and optimism that comes with the hard work of unionizing has been necessarily blunted by the persistent news of cuts, layoffs, and worker abuses that seems to be omnipresent in media. In November, Mic fired all its editorial employees ahead of a sale to Bustle; Conde Nast’s budget cuts provoked ongoing layoffs; Vice, BuzzFeed, and Vox Media have all tightened their belts after failing to hit revenue targets.
This publication, for which I have written several times, laid off a number of staff members earlier this year. In response, 120 members of Study Hall, a community of freelance writers, signed a letter to boycott publishing articles here as a way of signaling their solidarity with those who had been laid off. The gesture was sincere and came from a good place, though as a member of Study Hall, I felt conflicted. If freelance writers stopped working for all publications that laid off workers, there would be none left for which to write.
It is very hard for me to feel optimistic about the future of media. Until I left The New Yorker to freelance and work on a memoir, I had become more robotic, nastier, and increasingly forgetful that others are more like myself, not less. An increasing reliance on social media nudged me into habitually scrutinizing people by their cultural and political affiliations and even and their perceived “popularity,” as if any of that truly speaks to who anyone is. If my job, as an editor and as a journalist, was to be a sharp observer, it felt both easy and necessary to turn that exacting eye on my fellow colleagues, and to see them as generalizations or threats rather than as complicated human beings.
Participating in the magazine’s unionization effort encouraged me to believe that beyond work and ambition, there was life. Having tough, ongoing conversations with people with whom I spent most of my waking hours proved just how much I had to learn about those I’d previously assumed everything. This work, more than reporting or networking or protesting or succeeding, was what returned my humanity to me after the realities of working in media had all but snuffed it out.
One of the first organized meetings I can recall among the junior staff of The New Yorker — before the word “union” had even been uttered — occured at a cocktail bar that had agreed to host us before they opened up shop for the night. We sat in the very back on plush leather banquettes with the lights dimmed; the bar manager graciously came by with highball glasses and pitchers of water while we unwrapped sandwiches and tupperwares of salad. I remember how we openly shared grievances and ideas and stories for what felt like the first time, writing up notes on an enormous easel pad.
Not long ago, I ran into the bar manager who had helped us arrange that meeting. We caught up on our respective years — writing was going okay for me, bartending oka, for him. “Did I ever tell you that that first meeting we had — it eventually turned into The New Yorker forming a union?” I asked him. He flashed a huge smile and we high-fived. Then he told me of his own news, as transformative as mine: he was moving out to sunny L.A., at last, to pursue his dream of acting.