August 10, 2015
By Sam Biddle
Upworthy bet millions of venture capital dollars that progressive values are the ultimate viral content. But after being forsaken by Facebook and facing layoffs, we’re told the site’s left-wing leadership has successfully fought off a staff unionization drive.
Over the weekend, I received the following anonymous message, alleging that Upworthy recently laid off six staffers and derailed an attempt by the site’s employees to form a union (Gawker Media’s editorial employees recently voted to unionize with the Writers Guild of America- East):
While Gawker, Guardian, Salon and Vice have made headlines in the media world by allowing their editorial staffs to unionize, Upworthy the feel-good rarara human rights viral website has not. The staff decided to try to unionize after 6 former Upworthy employees were laid off suddenly on a Sunday over the phone. The cofounders of Upworthy, Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, pushed back against the staff that tried to unionize claiming that Upworthy would lose its venture capital money if people tried to unionize.
Upworthy is in big trouble but it’s done a good job of keeping out of the spotlight by saying it’s “shifting its editorial direction.” Fact: After Facebook’s algorithm messed up Upworthy’s monthly uniques, the company could no longer fall back on “We give attention to stuff that matters.” They laid off 6 people without any warning, privately telling them their pageviews weren’t enough while publicly telling the media that the laid-off employees didn’t have the storytelling abilities Upworthy needed. Now the rest of the staff is scared and disillusioned. So they tried to unionize. Upworthy, the media company that says it tries to make the world a better place, said no.
Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser has been part of the left-wing internet vanguard for almost fifteen years. For the same web activist who until June served as board president of MoveOn.org to scuttle a union drive by his own workers in defense of Silicon Valley investors would undermine his image as liberal wunderkind, to say the least. According to a source, Upworthy counts the AFL-CIO among its largest editorial clients.
Over email, Pariser told me he hadn’t “said no,” as the tipster claimed, but acknowledged that he discouraged the effort because capitalists don’t like unions and things are touch-and-go right now for the site:
No, we didn’t say it wouldn’t be allowed at all — Peter [Koechley] and I told our writers we support their right to form a union, and believe unions are an important force for economic equality, but that doing this now at Upworthy could come at a cost to the company in terms of our ability to raise capital.
Upworthy editor-at-large Adam Mordecai echoed Pariser’s account:
Gawker’s unionization drive sparked the idea with our writers, the layoffs were obviously a factor too.
No one said that it wasn’t going to be allowed. Everyone was given the opportunity to weigh the pros and cons, and the writers decided against taking a vote for now, as unlike the other companies that have unionized, we’re still a startup and there was concern that it might affect our ability to raise more money down the road.
The site is admittedly struggling after getting pushed off a traffic cliff by Facebook’s ever-inscrutable newsfeed algorithm: The site’s traffic plummeted 48% between December 2014 and January of this year. Its readership has declined by roughly half since then, according to Quantcast. The realization that you’ve hitched the entire future of your media startup to a third-party algorithm over which you have no control is bad enough—scaring away your Silicon Valley patrons could be fatal. Never mind that Vice, with hundreds of millions in VC cash, just voted to unionize.