On Monday, the day incoming New York Times CEO Mark Thompson was supposed to be welcomed with an awkward class photo at the newspaper’s headquarters, memo leaker extraordinaire Jim Romenesko published an email from the Newspaper Guild of New York’s ‘Mobilization Committee’ affirming that hundreds of The Times’ staffers had quietly pledged to “withhold their bylines, photo credits, and producing credits” (aka to hold a 'byline strike') and to “work strictly to the terms of the contract” if necessary.
This email came well over a year into contract negotiations between the Guild and The Times' management. It argued that the newspaper’s negotiators are seeking to implement “what amount to the most radical pay cuts for the New York Times staff in modern history” and spread the word on ways in which irate staffers could get their voices heard, the byline strike and working to contract ideas being two such suggestions. Its sender was Grant Glickson, Chairperson of The Times unit of the Newspaper Guild of New York.
“We don’t know yet if we will have to go down this road, but it is vital that we be prepared,” wrote Glickson.
In response to Romenesko’s post, some commentators mocked the threat of a byline strike. “Those NYT writers are martial arts pundits. Byline strike threat strikes fear in hearts of at least 2 people,” tweeted @TheUSReport.
Others offered encouragement. “Dear @DouthatNYT I don't care if you go on byline strike. I'll always know it's you!” tweeted Jonah Goldberg to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who devilishly replied, “@JonahNRO Actually, Tom Friedman and I have been writing each other's column for the last six months, and you never even noticed.”
Mostly, though, people asked themselves and each other some version of, ‘what’s the point?’ (This piece by Slate from 2004 gives a good general answer).
“Does anyone notice other than journalists?” Mathew Ingram wondered aloud.
I was curious about the thinking behind such a tactic, so I asked Grant Glickson. He sent his reply by email this afternoon (morning in New York):
“Byline strikes have been a common labor tactic in journalism for decades,” Glickson wrote.
“It is one of the ultimate sacrifices for journalists to withhold their bylines from stories concerning the presidential campaign, World Series coverage, theater and movie reviews, investigative pieces that have taken months to complete, or in war zones where reporters actually put their lives on the line to achieve a newsworthy article,” he continued.
“So this truly is the strongest message – short of a strike – that reporters can deliver to their publisher that they are unhappy with contract talks."
"Our mobilization committee is still hopeful that Arthur Sulzberger Jr. will hear the strong message his journalists are sending him and will care enough to address their concern about achieving a fair financial package.”
I was also curious about what consequences might ensue were journalists to work strictly to the terms of their contracts.
“The Guild believes that such an action would cost The New York Times tens of thousands of dollars since journalists, especially in the Washington bureau, regularly donate hours of their service while pursuing stories,” Glickson replied.
Finally, I wanted to know how much leverage The Times' employees could expect to gain from such tactics (or the threats thereof).
"That is a question only NYT management can answer," he replied.
I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
Image courtesy of Davide Dattoli
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the email had come after a week of contract negotiations. In fact they had been going on for well over a year.