Months after CNET came under fire for quietly running articles written using artificial intelligence tools, staff at the tech news outlet are forming a union with the Writers Guild of America, East.
“In this time of instability, our diverse content teams need industry-standard job protections, fair compensation, editorial independence and a voice in the decision-making process, especially as automated technology threatens our jobs and reputations,” the union says. “A union will help us adapt to new business strategies while establishing high journalistic standards and practices.”
The bargaining unit will include around 100 staffers ranging from reporters and editors to video production teams. A “solid and dedicated majority” of unit members have signed union cards, and workers are asking Red Ventures, the private equity-backed marketing firm that owns CNET, to voluntarily recognize the union. The CNET union would be the first organized shop under Red Ventures, which also owns digital outlets like The Points Guy, Healthline, ZDNet, and Bankrate. (Disclosure: The Verge’s editorial team is also unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East.)
The effort to unionize CNET had been in the works for months by the time the AI-generated stories came to light in January. Several rounds of layoffs had gutted entire teams, and the details of the AI tools being used by Red Ventures were not widely known even internally. The fallout from the AI article saga, though, has been profound: shortly after Futurism reported on the existence of the stories, Red Ventures paused the publishing of AI-generated articles. After an internal review of the stories, CNET issued corrections on more than half. The union notes there has been a “lack of transparency and accountability from management” around key issues, including the use of AI tools that affect “workloads, bylines and careers.” The CNET Money team, a siloed-off subset that was editing and publishing AI-generated stories, is part of the bargaining unit.
The most recent round of layoffs happened in March, when around 30 staffers lost their jobs, including large portions of the news team. Red Ventures told employees that the cuts were made so the company could focus on coverage areas where it has “a high degree of authority, relevance, [and] differentiation” — in other words, where Red Ventures can monetize its content through SEO-powered marketing. The same day, longtime CNET editor-in-chief Connie Guglielmo stepped down from her position to become Red Ventures’ senior vice president of AI content strategy and editor-at-large.
A major issue cited by the union is a lack of transparency around working conditions, including how performance evaluations are conducted and how the company plans to monetize content. In February, The Verge reported that, under Red Ventures ownership, CNET’s editorial firewalls had repeatedly been breached, and writers were at times pressed to make their work more favorable to advertisers. Former staff also said that the revenue and editorial sides mixed in ways that made journalists uncomfortable and threatened the integrity and trust that staff had built with audiences.
“I do believe that the journalists who are doing the work at CNET are extremely ethical. I think that they have a lot of integrity, I think they work really hard,” a former staffer told The Verge in February. “But I think that they are under a great deal of pressure to make money for Red Ventures. And that’s just never a good situation for journalists.”
Read the CNET union’s statement on why they’re organizing below:
CNET has been a trusted authority for original reporting, helpful explainers and honest advice for nearly 30 years. We – writers, editors, video producers, designers and other content creators – are committed to CNET’s future as a reputable source for tech reviews, news and commerce. That’s why an overwhelming majority of us have formed the CNET Media Workers Union, affiliated with the Writers Guild of America, East. We are confident that our collective efforts will allow us to better serve our audience and make a more collaborative workplace.
The digital media landscape is transforming rapidly. In this time of instability, our diverse content teams need industry-standard job protections, fair compensation, editorial independence and a voice in the decision-making process, especially as automated technology threatens our jobs and reputations. A union will help us adapt to new business strategies while establishing high journalistic standards and practices.
Since Red Ventures acquired CNET in fall 2020, CNET media workers have been subjected to ongoing restructuring, cost-cutting austerity measures, shifting job roles and promotion freezes. In the past year, three major rounds of layoffs have deeply impacted our reporting and our teams. Red Ventures cut senior editorial positions, eliminated the Roadshow cars section, drastically slashed our video team, gutted our news division and shut down science and culture coverage. These unilateral overhauls created low morale and unease, resulting in a wave of resignations and talent attrition. We face a lack of transparency and accountability from management around performance evaluations, sponsored content and plans for artificial intelligence. We are concerned about the blurring of editorial and monetization strategies.
By unionizing, we’re joining our peers at other digital media sites who have won security and benefits through negotiating unit-wide contracts. We feel that a union is the only way to guarantee job protections, defend editorial integrity and ensure standard cost-of-living raises as well as fair severance packages. A union would give us a voice on new AI and marketing initiatives and allow us to safeguard our workloads, bylines and careers. We look forward to bringing together our largely remote and siloed teams in this effort.
We are a passionate and loyal community of hard workers, and our rights should be enshrined and respected. We ask Red Ventures to recognize our union in a timely manner so we can begin the contract negotiation process.
– CNET Media Workers Union
Update May 18th 2023 8:30AM ET: Updated the number of employees who were laid off in March.