After layoffs and an AI scandal, CNET's staff is unionizing
The tech site's survivors are demanding a seat at the table.
CNET, the venerable tech site which began publication nearly 30 years ago, has become the latest digital media company whose staff have chosen to band together and demand more. The CNET Media Worker's Union (CMWU) today sent a letter to Red Ventures, the private equity concern which purchased CNET in 2020, seeking recognition of a bargaining unit of nearly 100 workers including editors, writers, and video producers. According to CMWU, a supermajority of those in the unit signed union authorization cards.
Like the overwhelming majority of other organized digital publications, the workers who make up CMWU are responding in large part to an increasingly hostile financial climate in the industry. CNET has not been spared the same tumult that has led to the shuttering of Buzzfeed News and VICE's decision to file for bankruptcy: the company went through three brutal rounds of layoffs over recent months, the most recent of which stripped approximately a dozen staffers from the masthead. "We lost a lot of really great reporters," Laura Michelle Davis, an editor with CNET and organizing committee member, told Engadget.
According to Davis, that sense of uncertainty led to a number of voluntary departures, but also to the surviving staff choosing to organize. Despite those cuts, according to the union's statement sent to management today, staff have continue to be "subjected to ongoing restructuring, cost-cutting austerity measures, shifting job roles and promotion freezes."
CMWU has also organized around what it feels is a "blurring of editorial and monetization strategies" and a lack of transparency around, among other things, the use of artificial intelligence. While it was apparently not a key factor in beginning the union drive, CNET was the subject of a fairly public scandal recently, when it was revealed by Futurism, both to the public at large and allegedly to the staff itself, that the site had begun publishing content written by AI without any form of authorship disclosure. Over half of those machine-generated stories were eventually appended with corrections for factual errors, and CNET later issued something like an apology.
The unit is represented by the Writer's Guild of America, East, which has helped organize sites including Vox, HuffPost, and The Onion. Screenwriters from the union's sister organization, the Writer's Guild of America, have now been on strike for two weeks over a variety of disputes with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, among which also has been the use of AI in content production. (Disclosure: I was a member of the WGA-E and served on the bargaining committee for Gizmodo Media Group during my tenure there.)
While the contours of whatever contract CMWU may eventually bargain with Red Ventures are still to be decided, the bargaining unit will be looking to substantially similar wins in digital media as a guide. We've reached out to Red Ventures for comment and will update if we hear back. CMWU's organizing statement follows 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.
"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
Update, 5/18/2023, 1:42 PM ET: According to CMWU, the number of workers it estimates were laid off in March was "closer to 30." We have once again reached out to Red Ventures to confirm.
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