Even BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, who has refused to recognize BuzzFeed News’s union, sees the value of collective action—one of his big ideas to, yes, “save” media is for individual companies to merge into a single entity to negotiate better terms with tech platforms. “If BuzzFeed and five of the other biggest companies were combined into a bigger digital media company, you would probably be able to get paid more money,” Peretti told The New York Times last year. 

“Clearly [Peretti] understands the importance of unionization if he thinks it’s critical for his own industry,” said Dominic Holden, politics reporter and member of BuzzFeed News’s organizing committee. Still, it’s far from clear, in Peretti’s call for a new consortium of collaboration-minded media properties, just who would get paid for establishing new revenue streams. Peretti would presumably continue to extract profit from the people who are actually producing the content that he’s selling without granting them basic labor rights. And what about the tech companies themselves? Would Peretti continue to criticize them if BuzzFeed got a bigger cut? It’s far from certain that Peretti, who has enormously benefited from BuzzFeed’s symbiotic attachment to Silicon Valley’s monopoly model of profit extraction even as he has called for reform, is interested in the kinds of radical systemic changes that will be necessary to stave off the Google-pocalypse. 

To reclaim the foundations of a free press in America, media workers need to get serious about dismantling tech monopolies and implementing policies that would reverse our new Gilded Age. It seems to be no coincidence that countries that operate the freest press regimes, such as Norway, Sweden, and Finland, also have comparatively low income inequality. The Jonah Perettis of the world think that they can solve the media crisis in isolation, without acknowledging that they are integral to and have benefited from the system that gave rise to this crisis in the first place. 

Alex Pareene, now a staff writer at The New Republic, has noted in Columbia Journalism Review that, “The solution, if we want to have a lot of media companies creating varied journalism, will probably have to come not from the entrepreneurs or consultants—who have shown no ability at all to create sustainable media businesses, nationally or locally—but through policy.” He argued for the regulation of platforms—the type of policy that will likely only be made possible if workers gain enough power to advocate for it. 

What’s more, union activism can help bridge the yawning power dynamic that now separates tech monopolies from the flailing media sector. Tech companies will have to feel threatened if they’re going to implement reforms and meet media companies more than halfway—and the companies themselves clearly pose no threat at all. The way the media business works now is that Facebook and Google and Apple News reap the bulk of the profits produced by the labor of journalists—either by leapfrogging the ownership structure entirely or enlisting short-sighted owners, who mostly compete with one another, to give away their content for a pittance. The Vox walkout, which for hours deprived Big Tech’s customers of the content they enjoy, should be a red flag for Silicon Valley—in much the same way that a four-hour walkout by BuzzFeed workers over a week later should have caused tech barons to squirm uncomfortably in their boardrooms. Just imagine what journalists could do if they could organize, informally or otherwise, across the industry.

At the very least, unionization has raised awareness that industry-wide issues can be addressed via industry-wide organizing. Perhaps Peretti and other bosses can also take a cue from their workers in how they see their own overlords—not as “partners” or “clients” but as a self-interested class that must be fought. And while there are no easy fixes for the media industry’s declining fortunes, unionization can at least put media workers on a provisionally more secure footing, as members of a greater labor movement seeking to bring exploitative capitalist forces to heel. 

“This is not something that is dependent on the whims of billionaires and media conglomerates,” said Mlotek. “We have so much power as long as we work together and see it as such.”

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