The Economics at the Heart of the Times Union Standoff

Last Thursday, hundreds of Times employees gathered outside of 620 Eighth Avenue, the newspaper’s headquarters, to take part in a daylong strike. A little more than a decade ago, the Times had used the building to help pay down its debts after taking out a two-hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar loan to stay afloat; today, the company occupies an enviable position in the hard-up world of media. It has acquired the Athletic, Wordle, and Wirecutter, made expansions to life-style products, such as the Cooking section, and generally benefitted from being the former President Donald Trump’s mainstream-media “enemy.” And yet employee morale at the Times is at a nadir. After two years of union negotiations, seventy-seven per cent of the bargaining unit signed on for a walkout—the longest work stoppage since 1978, when Times workers were off the job for eighty-eight days. “I think they were testing to see if we had the power to pull this off,” Bill Baker, the unit chair of the Times, which is represented by the NewsGuild of New York, said on Thursday, of management. The showing, he said, should put pressure on management to “come to the table with sincere proposals.”

The major sticking point between the Times Guild—which comprises not just journalists but other workers, such as security guards and I.T. staff—and management is wages. “Under management’s proposal, most of us would make far less money, in inflation-adjusted terms, in 2023 than we did in 2020,” a guild representative wrote to members, in a December 7th e-mail. Danielle Rhoades Ha, a Times spokesperson, countered that under its proposal the “majority” of guild members would make “50 percent or more in additional earnings over the life of the new contract than they would have if the old contract had continued.” A NewsGuild representative said in response, “The management math is calling a change from 2 to 3 percent a ‘50 percent raise.’ What is clear is this offer amounts to a wage cut given soaring inflation.” The guild’s current proposal would increase wages an average of 5.5 per cent per year over four years, whereas the company’s would increase wages by an average of 2.875 per cent over the same period.

The Times’ profits have increased significantly since its guild members signed their previous contract, in 2016. Back then, adjusted operating profit was $240.9 million; according to a November filing, the company expects to have an operating profit this year north of three hundred and twenty million dollars. In that same filing, Meredith Kopit Levien, the Times’ C.E.O. (who, in various roles, has helped shepherd the company through its expansion over the past few years) trumpeted growth via “the bundle”: a digital subscription to the newspaper, the Athletic, Cooking, Games, and Wirecutter. Talk of bundles is buzzy in the media business, most notably at streaming services, which are game to consolidate various digital products to meet their bottom line. That the Times is part of that conversation says a lot. It’s more than a newspaper these days; rather, it’s a growing digital media company. And that transition from paper of record to something more seems part of the notable friction between management and the guild.

The company’s hundred and fifty million dollars in stock buybacks this year—a way to return money to shareholders—have become a favorite guild talking point; they say that all their contract demands would be covered by that expenditure. And their argument that none of the company’s expansion, built on its sterling journalistic reputation, would have been possible but for the work of Times reporters and editors is a compelling one. The New York Times, after all, isn’t a normal company. The Sulzberger family, which owns a controlling interest, treats it as a public trust. The mission of the Times isn’t profit alone but civic duty. A. G. Sulzberger, a forty-two-year-old former Times reporter and guild member, is the latest family member to serve as publisher. His interests and those of Kopit Levien aren’t quite aligned, one Times reporter told me. Although headlines about Times management taking a tough line on negotiations might look good for Kopit Levien, the reporter said—casting her, in the eyes of investors, as fighting for better profits and sound business fundamentals as the company heads into a likely recession—Sulzberger has to think about the paper’s long-term reputation.

“I fear that NYT publisher AG Sulzberger is getting very bad advice from the NYT’s high-priced lawyers at Proskauer,” the former Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse tweeted. “It’s hurting his image, the Times’ image & worker morale.” Another Times reporter said that Sulzberger was a bit of a cipher when it came to the contract morass: “We have guesses, but I don’t think a single union member actually understands where he stands, besides generally that he’s the boss and so all management positions are by default in his name.” Kopit Levien sent out an e-mail to employees the night before the walkout, but Sulzberger has largely been silent.

“We face a persistently difficult environment for businesses that produce quality journalism, and must protect against unpredictable but serious risks like recession,” Rhoades Ha wrote, in an e-mail. “We have all seen what has happened to many of our traditional competitors, where stagnation quickly led to spiraling cycles of decline, as well as to many of our newer ones, where high levels of spending proved unsustainable.” One digital-media executive told me that although the Times has indeed grown considerably, it has also spent quite a bit. The company purchased the Athletic for five hundred and fifty million dollars earlier this year, has made considerable investments in technology, and maintains a relatively expensive workforce, with many of its journalists earning more than a hundred thousand dollars a year. Ad sales are down industry-wide, and, in the event of a recession, the executive said, readers are likely to spend less on subscription products. “When times get tight in the media business, your costs are people, and that’s why you see so many painful layoffs,” he said. “She’s probably trying to avoid that situation.”

Although layoffs are a reality in this media moment—BuzzFeed, CNN, Gannett, and the Washington Post all recently made staff cuts—many Times journalists are less than sympathetic to management’s arguments. “Meredith and A.G. must pay the bill that’s due,” one speaker at Thursday’s walkout rally shouted into a microphone, referring to Kopit Levien and Sulzberger. “They got paid; you should get paid.” Sulzberger made $3.6 million in 2021, up from $2.4 million in 2020, and Kopit Levien made $5.8 million in 2021, up from $4.4 million in 2020. One of the union’s marquee demands is that a base salary of sixty-five thousand dollars be set for guild members.

Now that the walkout is through, the question is whether a more open-ended strike could happen. Both sides would seem eager to avoid that. Clyde Haberman, who’d taken part in the 1978 strike—which saw the Times miss the elections of not just one but two Popes—said that it brought on an era of hard feelings, even after the strike had passed. Some employees who hadn’t walked out were labelled internally as scabs, and the paper saw an exodus of talent. “There were a lot of bruised feelings,” Haberman said. “Some people worked, others didn’t, and some people kicked ass and took names over it.” Already, division seems to be brewing in the paper’s Washington bureau, where two prominent reporters, Peter Baker and Michael Shear, refused to participate in Thursday’s walkout. (Both declined to comment.) Negotiations between the two sides are set to resume Tuesday. ♦

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *