Deez Interviews: Meet the LA Times correspondent who’s got stellar advice for any newsrooms wanting to get ~organized~

Happy Friday, Deezers!

Today’s interview is with the Los Angeles Times’ Matt Pearce, who you may know both as a reporter for the paper as well as one of the leading voices of its newsroom union, the Los Angeles Times Guild. We asked Matt a bunch of questions about what it was like to unionize the newspaper, and what **you** should know if you’re interested in doing the same! This one’s a really great one. Enjoy!


The interviewee: Matt Pearce (follow him @mattdpearce)

The gig: National correspondent

You've been at the Los Angeles Times for more than 6 years — what's your day-to-day like, and how has that routine changed over the years?

When you spend enough time in the same newsroom, you start to realize how much your individual career reflects the really big trends in the media industry. I got hired as a national reporter at the L.A. Times in 2012 when I had barely been out of J-school for a year, which, at the time, was crazy! I shouldn't have had that job. All the people I was working with had been reporters for decades, veterans of several wars and presidential campaigns, who'd all been hired during LAT's glory days as a Pulitzer machine.

But times were changing: The print paper was in decline, and the newsroom was experimenting with quick-fire digital coverage to rack up pageviews from places like Google News and Drudge Report and, later, Facebook. That's why I was hired — to be an aggregator sitting in the newsroom churning out several posts a day, not a classic L.A. Times national correspondent roaming in the field, chasing the big exclusive. Many of those folks sadly ended up taking a buyout in 2015, and our desk suddenly got a lot younger and looked a lot more like me.

And yet, at the same time, ironically, the business model shifted away from digital ads and toward digital subscriptions, which brought a greater emphasis on getting stories that no one else had. So I got converted into a traditional correspondent, sometimes traveling at the drop of a hat to go to places like Ferguson, Mo., when hell really started breaking loose, or heading to Texas to await Hurricane Harvey's landfall, or hitting the campaign trail right before an election, or digging through court records and financial documents to see how I can advance a competitive story that's already been covered to death.

The LA Times voted to unionize at the beginning of 2018. Can you talk to us about the role you played in that?

One day in 2017, a coworker took me out to lunch and asked, what do you think about forming a union? The L.A. Times newsroom had never had one since its founding in 1881; the founding family, the Chandlers, had been ferociously anti-union, and the Times building even got bombed by unionists in 1910, killing about 20 people. So you can imagine why labor organizers, uh, never had much success here.

But to us, that was ancient history. The Chandlers, who famously paid journalists well, were long gone; we were owned by a crazy corporation called Tronc, people had gone a decade without regular raises, and the newsroom was just fed up. So I joined the steering committee for the drive, and we ultimately persuaded 85% of the newsroom to vote to form a union.

Our corporate overlords fought us really hard and tried to stop us, and for good reason -- we later learned they were planning to lay off 20% of the newsroom and restructure the business. Unionizing, legally, froze that process, because they were now required to bargain over all those changes with us, and so they decided it wasn't the trouble and instead put us up for sale.

We got bought by a benevolent billionaire, Patrick Soon-Shiong, who was really interested in preserving the newsroom and the institution while helping us find a sustainable business model. Our newsroom has since grown by more than 25%. It's not an exaggeration to say that the union saved the L.A. Times. Now I'm on the bargaining committee and negotiating directly with our bosses for better pay and working conditions.

I'm super curious about how your work as a reporter who often covers social movements informs what you do as a union member. Is it kind of meta? And do you think the digital media unionizing movement is here to stay?

We figured out pretty quickly that the best way to draw attention to our union drive, and to build power for ourselves, was to make a big stink about it and heighten the controversy on social media — just like the activists we often cover in our news pages.

But the crazy thing about unions, compared to other activist movements, is that you actually do that in your workplace, which is the place where most Americans normally have the least amount of power and agency over their own lives. When you go to work, you're at the mercy of your boss; your ability to pay rent — and your ability to pay for healthcare! — are directly tied to your ability to just go with the flow when you punch in. So it's really scary to stand up for yourself and your coworkers when the boss, or the company, are not holding up their ends of the bargain.

And how is that bargain looking these days? The fact is that newsrooms will keep unionizing because we're just a microcosm of the American economy. You have a bunch of Millennial and Gen Z workers who are buried under student debt, dealing with out-of-control healthcare costs, insane rents, wages that don't keep up with inflation, all in a highly unstable industry that is prone to mass layoffs, but not so unstable that the guys on top don't keep getting their cut. I don't think it's a coincidence that, when I get on conference calls with another newsroom that's thinking about unionizing, all the people on the other side of the line are young. They see the writing on the wall.

For newsrooms/media outlets that aren't unionized, what would you say is the most overlooked but compelling reason to consider getting organized?

Pay inequality is rampant in American workplaces. Across the board, women and people of color just overwhelmingly make less than white men with similar jobs. It's not that they're somehow less qualified, or doing worse work; they just can't get away with the same kind of hard-line negotiating strategies that many men or people of privilege can use when they walk into an office with a manager and start demanding the pay that they deserve. American workers tend to be very secretive about their salaries, which deprives lower-paid workers (usually women and people of color!) powerful information that they can use to make a strong case for better pay.

Because of their power to demand pay data and to set minimum pay standards, unions are a great way to help bring more pay transparency to the workplace -- so that you know exactly what you should be making -- and the process of collective bargaining can also be a buffer against subtle kinds of discrimination you might suffer in one-on-one bargaining. Unions aren't a silver bullet for pay equity, but they're at least a copper bullet.

And finally, for people who are interested in organizing their newsrooms, what's the biggest piece of advice you'd give them? How do they get started?

Just go to a bar or get in a room with some of your coworkers and talk about how things are going at work. When's the last time you got a raise? Do you feel like you're being asked to do more with less? Are there workers in your office who are just struggling to get by?

I think a lot of people think that unions form when organizers suddenly show up at and office and decide to unionize it. But the really crazy stuff actually happens when you just talk to your coworkers about what's going on with your lives. There's nothing more radicalizing than that moment you realize there's somebody around you who needs your help. And once you've got a room full of people who are mad as hell and ready to do something about it, that's the time to pick up the phone to call a union to ask them: How do we do this thing?


Don’t forget to follow Matt on Twitter here, and have a thought-provoking weekend!