Where We Work

Keeping Up With 'The Times': How the NewsGuild Organized the First Digital Newsroom

05/01/2017

The NewsGuild Made History With New York Times Digital Workers 20 Years Ago

Photos by Earl Wilson

BY VINCENT M. MALLOZZI

Twenty years ago in a Times Square building not so far away, “Web People” invaded a newspaper world long-inhabited by “Print People.”

Suddenly enveloped in a digital atmosphere at The New York Times, “The Print People built a wall between themselves and the Web People,” said Erik Piepenburg, an overnight producer with the website staff in those early years.

While that sounds a lot like “The X-Files,” it is in the Guild’s files where a search for the arrival of the first wave of website personnel turned up a memorandum of understanding regarding what was then known as The New York Times’s Electronic Media Corporation.

That understanding, which was reached by The Newspaper Guild of New York and the New York Times Company in August 1997, marked the first digital news organization to be unionized in the country. (The E.M.C., which originally operated in a different building, at 1120 Sixth Ave., was formed a year earlier).

This successful organizing effort meant that, though the age of digital journalism had barely begun, the Guild understood the value and necessity of protecting these journalists. The Guild also recognized a critical new shift in the industry.

“Back then, most people really didn’t understand how print and the website were integrated,” said Mr. Piepenburg, now a senior staff editor in the Culture section of The Times.

“I have memories of calling over to the print side and having people say to me ‘Who is this?' One editor even hung up on me.” he said. “To be honest, we were considered a nuisance; it was always print first and digital last.”

Eric Owles, who was a member of that first web group that the Times hired in ’97, said web producers and the like “had a hard time getting to the table in those days.”

At the time, Mr. Owles, like Mr. Piepenburg, was one of about 10 overnight producers, working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift and making sure that everything that appeared in the paper during the day had been transferred to the website the next morning, a process that was often slow and cumbersome.

Mr. Owles, now a senior staff editor in business, pointed to the 2000 Presidential Election as “the event that forced the integration to happen on a much quicker scale.

“It definitely sped things up,” he said.

Indeed, with each press of the publish button, web production began moving at a quicker pace, though the overall acceptance of web personnel across the newsroom was not nearly as rapid.

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Since that time, everything about The New York Times website has become faster, sleeker, more organized and much more informative, according to both men.

“Where it used to take a couple of minutes for a section front or an article to actually appear on the Times site in terms of publishing, now it’s instantaneous,” Mr. Piepenburg said.

“Of course, one of the biggest things that stands out today is the attention paid to social media,” he added. “When I first started, the idea that we would be on social media in the way that we are today was just completely foreign, and that certainly has changed. Twitter and Facebook are now so much a part of what I do every day.”

When asked how the web producer’s role has changed over the years, Mr. Piepenburg used himself as a prime example.

“The biggest change for me is being asked to do multimedia on our own, in terms of Facebook Live, in terms of producing video and in terms of being the person who coordinates with our multimedia staff to get things done.

“I think there is more of an understanding that to be the digital producer you need to do more than just be the robot who pushes the publish button, you have to come up with ideas that are very visually driven.” 

In October 2012, the traditional newspaper side of The Times and the company’s digital operation were merged into one unified Guild contract, which significantly elevated E.M.C. employees on par in pay and other rights of their colleagues.

“That was much more than a symbolic gesture,’’ said Jim Luttrell, who made the jump from the newspaper to digital back in 2010. “It wasn’t lip service from management. We were really one team now, all New York Times journalists. Getting equal pay for our contributions to a great news organization. It was a necessary first step to take us where we are today as far as producing a multi-platform report. There are obviously still many steps to take.’’

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Steve Bell, a senior staff editor working on both the Metro and Society News Desks, pointed out that throughout the history of The Times, there has always been change, and reporters and editors have always made the proper adjustments to meet those changes.

“Some people are not comfortable with change, but remember, there were so many changes made before the web ever came into being,” Mr. Bell said.

“This is going back a few years, but there was a switch from the composing room to pagination, then the development of the ever-improving page-layout systems, and new computer and operating systems stretching back decades,” he said. “So anybody who was ever stuck with one way of doing things probably didn’t last too long, which is the same now as it was back then.”

According to Mr. Piepenburg and Mr. Owles, the pendulum has swung hardest the past three years in the direction of the web, to the point where almost every editor and reporter has now been sent for special training, in the company of web-savvy editors, to receive training on everything from writing digital headlines to writing stories for mobile readers to sending out tweets.

Twenty years ago, in a Times Square building not so far away, Print People didn’t much like the company of Web people.

These days, however, Print People aspire to be Web People, who, let’s face it, have just about taken over the newspaper world.

“There is much more of an understanding that being a part of the digital world is just not an option anymore,” Mr. Piepenburg said. “Whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to be someone who is digitally savvy to take on tasks that reporters back when I first started would have been insulted to do - like adding a photo to your story, or writing a tweet.”

Or as Mr. Owles put it: “For us, it’s no longer about trying to get a seat at the table to attend meetings, now it’s about us getting a seat at the table from which we can lead these meetings.”