NBC News' Digital Editorial Staff Unionizes in New York Amid Farrow Fallout

NBC News Studios at Rockefeller Plaza - Getty 3- H 2019
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Staff presented a letter to management announcing their decision Wednesday and asked for voluntary recognition of the NewsGuild of New York as their bargaining representative.

Amid reports of internal conflict about NBC News' handling of sexual misconduct, the editorial staff of NBC News Digital said Wednesday that it was unionizing with NewsGuild of New York.

Staff presented a letter to management announcing their decision Wednesday and asked for voluntary recognition of the NewsGuild as their bargaining representative. About 75 percent of the editorial staff of nbcnews.com, today.com, StayTuned, Left Field, msnbc.com, and NBC News Now voted to join NewsGuild, the organization stated.

In a letter to staff sent Wednesday responding to the unionization letter, evp of digital for NBC News Group Chris Berend said that management " welcome[s] this dialogue from within our digital organization" and "We will address this request quickly, and will keep you updated every step of the way."

While the union has been in the works for at least a year, in a mission statement for the union provided in the announcement, NBC staffers reference recent office turmoil over the handling of reports about Harvey Weinstein's alleged sexual misconduct, the so-called Access Hollywood tape, a #MeToo story about Russell Simmons and A.J. Calloway and allegations of sexual misconduct against former Today co-host Matt Lauer as pushing their hand on moving to unionize.

"Recent weeks have highlighted serious questions as to how NBC News has handled incidents of sexual misconduct in the workplace as well as the opaque processes and procedures for reporting on and exposing powerful predators," the statement reads. These open questions undermine the newsroom's "credibility as journalists," the statement argues.

In his October book Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, former MSNBC host and NBC correspondent Ronan Farrow accused NBC News higher-ups of blocking his reporting on Harvey Weinstein before he moved the story to The New Yorker, for which he later won a Pulitzer Prize. According to Farrow, Weinstein leveraged information The National Enquirer had amassed on Lauer's misconduct to kill the burgeoning story at NBC. Farrow also uncovered seven previously unreported allegations of workplace misconduct and seven settlements that seemed to contradict NBC management's claim that it did not know about Lauer's alleged misconduct prior to November 2017. NBC News denies that it was ever threatened with information on Lauer by The National Enquirer and that it knew beforehand about Lauer's alleged behavior.

On Friday, MSNBC's highest-rated host, Rachel Maddow, reported on her confirmation of several arguments in Ronan's book and added, "The amount of consternation this has caused among the rank-and-file people who work here would be almost impossible for me to overstate." She also broke the news that NBC had decided to release employees from non-disclosure agreements related to alleged sexual misconduct in the wake of Farrow's reports.

Besides its reference to recent events, the statement for the union argues that there has been an "exodus" of women and people of color on staff, that the staff has been given extra responsibilities without pay increases and that staff members have felt that they had to leave the company to advance in their careers.

“NBC News is a storied name in journalism and we all feel proud to be a part of it,” data journalist Nigel Chiwaya said in the union's mission statement. “Forming the NBC News Guild is our way of protecting the legacy for everyone here now and for those who will come after us. We are organizing to make our newsroom stronger and safer for all.”

The mission statement for the NBC News Digital News Union follows:

For nearly a century, the National Broadcasting Company has played an important role in shaping the media landscape. NBC News has built a devoted television audience, and our digital newsroom has expanded that relationship with high-impact original reporting, exclusive stories, and groundbreaking video journalism.

At NBC, we’re told “the future of digital media is the future of media.” We — the reporters, editors, designers, video journalists, copy editors, animators, social media strategists, and editorial staff of NBC News Digital — couldn’t agree more. That is why we have decided to form a union with the NewsGuild of New York. Our mission is to uphold the legacy of NBC News while empowering and protecting those who will build its future.

We love working at NBC News Digital. But no organization is perfect, and there are serious issues that keep the company from being as great as it can be. A company with such incredible resources can and should do more to close gender and race wage gaps, address chronic understaffing, meaningfully prioritize diversity, promote transparency, and offer job protections. Management has indicated they are committed to addressing some of these issues — ending nine-hour working shifts, adjusting weekend staffing, increasing standard vacation time, and implementing select pay raises. While we strongly welcome any steps forward, we want to cement these positive benefits into an enforceable contract.

The company boasts of diversity in hiring, but falls short of the inclusive culture that retains and promotes a truly diverse newsroom. We have seen a steady exodus of women and people of color in recent years, which limits our perspective and lessens the quality of our journalism. Our teams are understaffed, with responsibilities added onto existing roles without commensurate pay increases. Staff members often feel the best way to grow in their careers is to leave the company.

NBC News has mishandled serious incidents of sexual misconduct and racism without the transparency and sensitivity such issues require. We have seen the company repeatedly invest in on-air talent and PR management, while mental health support, digital and physical security, and individual professional development remain underemphasized and underfunded.

Recent weeks have highlighted serious questions as to how NBC News has handled incidents of sexual misconduct in the workplace as well as the opaque processes and procedures for reporting on and exposing powerful predators. NBC News repeatedly refused calls for an independent review on both counts despite numerous such requests from staff. This lack of transparency and NBC News' troubling trend of passing on stories which investigate the powerful ultimately harm our credibility as journalists.

We can address these issues, but only if management works with us. We seek to build a more equitable workplace in order to enhance the quality and breadth of our journalism and continue to work in the newsroom that we love. Forming a union will afford us a collective voice in decisions that will benefit the entire company, providing much-needed transparency and ensuring a safer workplace.

We are excited to unionize with the NewsGuild, an organization that defends the rights of our peers in top-tier publications, digital-first companies, and local newsrooms alike. We’re inspired by journalists fighting to protect newsrooms around the country, and we encourage others who have not yet organized to join us.