Vox Media merger with New York Media leaves staffers worried

Vox Media merger with New York Media leaves staffers worried
Vox Media Union via CNN
More than 300 Vox Media employees staged a walkout on Thursday as staffers and management failed to come to an agreement for a union contract after more than a year of negotiations.

Tuesday night, employees at Vox Media and New York Media learned about their merger along with the rest of the media industry — by reading about it in the New York Times.

Wednesday, they had meetings.

12pm at New York Media. 2pm at Vox Media. 5:30 pm again at New York Media. A call for some Vox staffers who had to miss the 2pm due to news.

The meetings were necessary not just because this is what companies do when they come together. They were also needed because of the confusion caused by the way the announcement was made and the questions staffers now had about the acquisition of New York Media, which owns the namesake print magazine and the websites The Cut, Grub Street, Intelligencer and Vulture, by Vox Media, owner of a family of websites that include Vox, The Verge and Recode.

The news about the merger has rattled staffers at both companies, who used these meetings to express their anxiety about the impact the merger would have on their jobs.

From a business perspective, a combined Vox Media and New York Media makes sense. Media mergers have become more frequently discussed as companies compete with tech giants like Facebook and Google for digital advertising dollars. One way for media companies to win advertisers’ budgets is through scale.

But within both newsrooms, staffers were uneasy.

“The mood is somewhere between annoyed and confused,” a New York Media writer told CNN Business. “Management is being very cagey about the wording, as they have with talks about everything else, union negotiations, the mag’s upcoming office relocation and plenty else.”

One cause of initial distress was how the majority of employees at both companies learned of the merger. Prior to any internal communication, the Times published a story on the deal, featuring a photo of Bankoff and New York Media CEO Pamela Wasserstein, both smiling. Many staffers at the merging companies discovered the story on Twitter, after one of its authors, Edmund Lee, now of the Times but formerly managing editor of Recode, tweeted it at 8:53 p.m. ET.

Shortly thereafter, some Vox Media staffers in the union that represents them convened in their internal Slack group. They wondered when management was going to alert them; what this meant for the current bargaining group at New York Media, where staffers have been organizing a union through NewsGuild; and how it made sense for the combined company to have both Vox Media’s Eater and New York Media’s GrubStreet, each of which write about food and dining.

Over the next hour, employees at New York Media received an email from Wasserstein and another email from Haskell. Bankoff sent one to Vox Media employees and some on the leadership team received another from Bell. Those emails reiterated what was in the Times’ story: there would be no editorial layoffs.

But media executives have made the same promises after mergers between other companies only to renege later and cut staff.

Lowell Peterson, executive director of Writers Guild East, which represents Vox Media, told CNN Business his staff was in communication with Vox’s leadership about such concerns.

“We have been assured that there will be no negative impact on the employees we represent — no layoffs, no change in editorial structure, policy, or control. So that’s all good. We have a solid collective bargaining agreement at Vox Media and we are very proud of it,” Peterson said.

But while newsroom staffers in Vox Media have the protection of their union, New York Media’s union is still in the bargaining stage, after securing voluntary recognition in February. Wasserstein’s email said the contract negotiation between the executive leadership and the New York Mag Union were “in the early stages.”

In an all-hands meeting with Bankoff at Vox’s headquarters, staffers asked him to defend the existence of brands that could potentially overlap under one umbrella. Bankoff described the differences between sites like Vox’s Polygon and New York’s Vulture, with the former focused on entertainment and the latter on culture and both with distinct voices.

But that editorial distinction doesn’t protect employees on the business side, such as those in engineering, sales and administration.

On a podcast interview with Recode’s Peter Kafka that was published on Wednesday, Bankoff said, “The newsrooms will not be merged. They’ll continue to operate independently. Of course, we’ll look to service our advertisers’ better by combining forces on the revenue side, to produce better technology by looking for ways to work together there.”

The merger does help strengthen the combined company’s pitch to advertisers, said Noah Mallin, head of experience, content and sponsorship for Wavemaker North America, an ad agency that has worked with both companies.

“It’s hard to be a minnow when there are so many big fish out there. It doesn’t matter how great the brand is for the publisher. It’s about how you’re able to scale to get noticed these days,” Mallin said.

Mallin said he wasn’t concerned, as an advertiser, by any overlap of the brands.

“They have complementary audiences. There’s definitely overlap and that’s not a bad thing,” Mallin said. “[Sales] can talk about the depth to reach a more affluent, urban audience.”

After having Bankoff over for the all-hands meeting at New York Media, Wasserstein said she felt the company understood their position of strength.

“The news was a lot for people to take in, but I think they were encouraged by what they heard from Jim Bankoff at our all-hands meeting,” Wasserstein told CNN Business. “He and I share a vision for what a modern media company can be that is grounded in editorial excellence, the merger’s about growth, and I believe that came across.”

One Vox Media writer expressed optimism around the merger.

“While Vox can be annoying and easily mocked (explainers!) they’re really earnest and open, and I think that’s a super helpful way to approach the news,” the writer told CNN Business. “They have like no pretension, which is refreshing and maybe others could learn.”