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ProPublica, lauded journalism nonprofit, is latest newsroom to unionize

By Will Sommer and Lauren Kaori Gurley Washington Post

Reporters at investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica announced Wednesday they are unionizing, bringing an industry wave of labor organizing to a somewhat unexpected corner of the media world.

The announcement, timed to the 15th anniversary of ProPublica, comes as its corporate peers are grappling with layoffs and cutbacks that have stoked employee discontent. By comparison, ProPublica, a donor-supported nonprofit that counted over $57 million in assets on its most recently available tax forms, has been comparatively insulated from the economic challenges of the industry.

In a statement, staffers said a union “is essential to preserving the best parts of working at ProPublica and ensuring our values do not waver regardless of leadership changes or turbulence within the industry.” The campaign could shift labor relations at ProPublica, which is one of few national news outlets of its size and distinction where staffers do not have union representation.

Cassandra Jaramillo, a national reporter for ProPublica, said she was initially surprised when a union organizer approached her about the effort because “a lot of people love working at ProPublica.” But now, she and other ProPublica staffers who have joined the union said they hope it provides them with more of a voice in how ProPublica runs.

In a memo to the staff Wednesday morning, ProPublica President Robin Sparkman and editor in chief Stephen Engleberg acknowledged the notice it had received from the new union and that “once the details are worked out, we plan to recognize the union.”

The managers noted that Sparkman told the staff two years ago that they are welcome to seek union representation if they wish. “ProPublica has a long history of productive collaboration on core issues notably diversity, equity, inclusion and retention,” they wrote. “We share the union’s desire to ensure that the ProPublica of tomorrow is as strong, if not stronger, as it is today.” The union said it has received support from nearly 90% of the business and editorial sides of the newsroom.

ProPublica, which has won six Pulitzer Prizes since its launch, has lately enjoyed a rapid expansion and a string of scoops, including a bombshell April series on gifts that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas received from billionaire Harlan Crow.

Late Tuesday, it published another major story detailing an Alaskan fishing trip that Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. took as a guest of billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer. When asked for comment about the journalist’s revelations, Alito instead published a blistering rebuttal on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday evening, hours before the ProPublica story published.

Staffers in the newly formed ProPublica Guild, including investigative, audience and data reporters, said they are unionizing to preserve newsroom standards and values while it expands across the country, including the launch of a regional hub in the Pacific Northwest. They also want to establish guidelines around staffing levels and workloads on big investigative projects that often ramp up in the final months of the year, a time when many newsrooms are under pressure to finish projects to qualify for major journalism awards.

Paul Kiel, a reporter who covers the tax system and was hired when the publication launched in 2008, said productivity crunches leading up to the publication of major investigations have been a concern among ProPublica reporters since the early days of the newsroom. ProPublica staffers work “insane hours October through December,” Kiel said. “Enough hours that burnout becomes a concern.”

Kiel noted that management has spoken directly to reporters about these issues but said that a union contract could outline clear expectations. Kiel also said staffers have looked on as the rest of the media industry has endured enormous upheaval and dozens media outlets across the country have unionized. “I don’t know many larger newsrooms that aren’t unionized at this point,” Kiel said. “The question is not so much, ‘why unionize,’ but ‘why not?’”

Media union membership has grown rapidly in the past decade. In September, staffers at Condé Nast won recognition for a union. Newsroom unions at outlets like the New York Times, digital news site Insider, and the Gannett newspaper chain have also engaged in a series of strikes or walkouts.

Sophia Kovatch, who was hired last August as an audience editor at ProPublica to oversee its Google and online search strategies, said she has been deeply impressed by the level of collaboration among different teams throughout the newsroom on ambitious projects.

Kovatch has no gripes about her experience or bread-and-butter concerns like pay and benefits. Still, she felt the news organization would benefit from having a union. “There is a lot of really amazing things about working at ProPublica and we want to keep those,” Kovatch said. “No matter how big we grow.”