In Memory of Brett Norman as POLITICO Moves Towards Unionizing

Brett Norman in his staff photo at the Pensacola News Journal in 2004 (Pensacola News Journal)

PITTSBURGH, PA. – When I saw a tweet last week from Axios that announced POLITICO’s staff was close to pushing for union recognition, I had been sick and bedridden for days and immediately found myself shouting “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Immediately, I found myself thinking of my friend Brett Norman, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2018, and how Brett accurately predicted that POLITICO would go union someday. 

Brett was one of the few friends and allies I had when I advocated on behalf of POLITICO’s union in the early days of the digital media unionization in the winter of 2015. 

Thinking about those days brought me back in time, remembering the excitement and fear we felt in those early days of the unionization movement. 

Six years ago today, I was illegally fired as POLITICO’s senior labor reporter for pro-union advocacy and won a $70,000 National Labor Relations Board settlement. Since 2015, I’ve had nothing to do with the current union drive at POLITICO. The news has caught me by surprise. 

From conversations with journalists, I have gathered news leaked by anti-union voices within the newsroom. The leak has surely startled and caught many pro-union POLITICO staffers off guard as POLITICO’s billionaire owner Robert Allbritton has already begun his anti-union persuasion campaign, subtly hinting that he may be tempted to change POLITICO’s ownership structure and put the privately owned family company public on the stock markets if workers there choose to unionize. 

But when I had heard the leak, I felt so excited. It took me back to advocating for the union on the newsroom floor at POLITICO and thinking about Brett. 

In 2018, Brett passed away of pancreatic cancer at 43 years old, leaving behind his wife and two kids. A seven-year veteran of POLITICO, Brett had an award named after him in recognition of his role in helping to build POLITICO’s highly respected Healthcare desk. 

Brett was also committed to unionizing POLITICO when it wasn’t popular. I hope that the memory of him serves as a blessing for POLITICO reporters in the days ahead as they roll out their anti-union campaign.

I first got to know Brett when POLITICO hired me in the summer of 2014. Like many POLITICO reporters, I showed up there as a “layoff refugee” after a grant got cut at the left-wing, Chicago-based In These Times magazine. 

That summer, Susan Glasser (now at the New Yorker) had recently taken over as Editor-in-Chief of POLITICO as they sought to rebrand. One of her priorities was to start a labor desk. While POLITICO found an editor and two other reporters to work on the desk, she struggled to find a veteran labor reporter to help guide the new labor desk along. 

Eventually, desperate in their search for a veteran labor reporter, they cold-called me and finally offered me the position. Equally, I was desperate to pay my rent, so I accepted the job at the unimaginable salary to me of $75,000 a year, which was more than my Dad made as a union rep at United Electrical Workers in Pittsburgh. 

I found myself, a veteran of the alternative lefty press, getting into frequent ethical arguments with my corporate-minded colleagues at POLITICO. I was an oddball lefty in a newsroom full of very straight-laced D.C. media types. 

I had no real friends at POLITICO, but then one day I got assigned to do a story with Brett on how nurses’ unions were responding to Ebola.  Brett and I got to shooting the shit and discovered that Brett lived just two blocks away from my group house in the leafy, bohemian enclave of Mount Pleasant, D.C. 

We started grabbing beers after work at Marx Cafe in Mount Pleasant. We became friends as we shared our frustration over some of the editorial decisions being made by POLITICO. 

Brett, like me, had been a refugee at POLITICO after years at his hometown newspaper, the Pensacola News Journal (where he got his start), and after stints in academia as a science writer. He had been at POLITICO for three years and helped guide me through the weird and complex multi-layered world of POLITICO. Our most significant source of frustration was how POLITICO kept good stories behind their high-end subscription service, POLITICO Pro. 

POLITICO is a very profitable publication because of POLITICO Pro, their high-end subscription service, where lobbyists, P.R. people, government officials, and other news agencies spend thousands of dollars for a yearly subscription. 

When I was recruited to POLITICO in 2014, their editors told me that half of my work would only be under the subscription service, while stories of public interest would be available on POLITICO’s high-traffic public website for anyone to read.

However, POLITICO started changing the formula, and it became more like 80 to 85% of all stories were behind that paywall — something that, as a labor reporter, upset me greatly. I thought it was important that workers could read my reporting and use it in their fights. From an ethical standpoint, I struggled with only giving affluent consumers access to my labor reporting. 

Similarly, Brett found himself frustrated by seeing more and more of his articles behind the paywall. Brett and I would brainstorm ways to come up with “flashy” enough stories that POLITICO would put on their main website for folks to read. 

At the time, I was 29, and Brett was in his late 30s, and Brett became somewhat of a mentor to me. During that time, many younger female reporters had also begun telling me stories about being sexually harassed, and they were looking for help. It was a new experience to me, and Brett explained the steps he took to help protect younger reporters from all the all-too-common sexual harassment that, unfortunately, women in journalism encounter from sources suggesting meetups. Brett was a damn good guy. 

We became friends and hung out frequently as neighbors. We stayed up late smoking pot in my house, sharing funny stories, and listening to Sun Ra. I can still hear his laugh and Southern drawl of his self-described “Floribamian” from growing up in Pensacola right next to the Alabama State Line. 

I had spent a lot of time as a labor reporter in Chattanooga, and I shared Brett’s views on misunderstandings of Southern culture, particularly “Southern hippie culture,” of which we had both partaken. 

We went on double dates together. My wonderful then-girlfriend used to babysit their kid sometimes and take his kid to the zoo (man, what a handful). We became friends, real friends in the newsroom, not the fake kind. Our politics or views of journalism weren’t always on the same pages, but we were actually friends in a newsroom where I had none. 

Brett didn’t always understand my militancy about unions. He was open-minded to the idea but not entirely sold. Previously, I had led a successful union drive at In These Times magazine in 2013, and I would answer Brett’s very genuine questions about how union organizing works. Gradually Brett warmed up to the idea of a union at POLITICO. 

Back then, in the winter of 2014, it seemed impossible that any digital media institutions would ever unionize. 

The leadership of the Washington Baltimore NewsGuild believed that the likelihood of unionizing POLITICO was extremely unlikely at the time, as it had a turnover rate of 25% per year in 2014, according to The Washington Post.

In January of 2015, when I launched my “Curt Flood style” protest calling for a union at POLITICO, The Washington Post did an entire feature story saying that millennial digital media journalists were “SO unprepared for anything like union organizing.” 

As the senior labor reporter at POLITICO, I was able to leverage my high-profile position to help up an industry-wide conversation about the need to unionize in the months leading up to Gawker announcing their union drive. 

But at the time, many folks at POLITICO really loved it there and saw POLITICO as a startup that was making money by challenging the rules of old media. With many folks happy being at POLITICO, layoffs were unheard of there, and interest in unionizing was dramatically less than at less financially sustainable startups like Gawker or HuffPost. 

In fact, I told people not to speak up publicly about their support for their union because the Washington Baltimore NewsGuild suspected that the likelihood of success of winning a union at POLITICO in 2015 was low. 

I warned folks that they likely would be fired if they spoke up and encouraged folks to organize secretly in private. The union always felt that it would take multiple years to unionize at a place like POLITICO, where turnover was high, and folks weren’t as ideologically inclined to unionize. 

Given POLITICO’s refusal to grant me an ADA accommodation as an autistic former war reporter, I also feared POLITICO would use my disabilities to smear me, which they later did, and I didn’t want other folks to get targeted.  

(For more on the complexities of my “Curt Flood style” protest for unionization against POLITICO in 2015, read my 8,000-word story “Woody High and the Black Union Reps that Made me an Autistic Fighter.”)

Amazingly, POLITICO didn’t fire me right away. They let me keep talking union talk union…for a while. People at POLITICO just sort of wrote it off as the amusing antics of their eccentric yinzer labor reporter. Other people at other outlets started doing the same that winter and spring. 

In the spring of 2015, people from other non-union shops began talking on Twitter about how they wished they could unionize. Nothing happened to anyone. Gradually, we learned that we had more power than we realized and that there was far more interest.

I began hearing from reporters at Vice, The Guardian, ThinkProgress, HuffPost, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere that folks were meeting on their own and talking about organizing. It was still a pipedream of digital media unionization in those days. Still, the dreams seemed every day more and more realistic as we talked to more and more journalists who were spread out across the industry and interested in starting a movement. 

Finally, in April of 2015, Hamilton Nolan broke the dam and announced a bold union drive at Gawker that looked like it had a chance to succeed as Gawker did not actively oppose the campaign. The message was clear to aspiring digital media union activists: brand-sensitive digital media unions were sensitive to not appear like ugly union busters in public. 

However, as union talk intensified, it became more challenging for me to get my stories published. POLITICO would assign me stories, and editors took an unnecessarily long time to edit them. Then when the stories became untimely, the editors at POLITICO would ultimately kill them, leaving me frustrated and my sources feeling completely burned. 

For months this would happen, and Brett offered to help me. I had a great deal of experience covering workplace safety in the healthcare industry, and Brett attempted unsuccessfully to get me transferred. 

Then, after Gawker unionized in April of 2015, the energy was electric. In June 2015, The Guardian U.S., a significant player, agreed to a unionization process where they wouldn’t oppose the union drive either. In July, Salon unionized without management opposing them either. 

Then on August 7, 2015, Vice, a major multi-billion dollar media conglomerate, also agreed to union neutrality. 

“That’s huge,” Brett told me when we met up for beers at Marx Cafe that weekend. “Vice is a massive company. I really feel this is a game changer.”   

The talk was ripe at nearly every major digital media union in the ensuing days in August of 2015. In the subsequent weeks, both HuffPost, ThinkProgress, and Al-Jazeera America would go union in what was dubbed later the original “hot digital media union summer.” That “hot summer” gave us the power to push on and organize over 200 media outlets over a six-year period. 

However, on August 12, POLITICO fired me unexpectedly while I was away on vacation attending my father’s election as the U.E.’s Director of Organization. The day of my father’s acceptance speech, POLITICO leaked to the press that the firing may have been related to my struggle with PTSD as a former autistic war reporter turned workplace specialist, distracting from a joyous family occasion at the U.E. convention. 

Even more startling was the chilling effect that my firing had on union talk at POLITICO. The little pro-union energy that had been built quickly dissipated as the legal and disability issues around my firing soon became divisive within the newsroom. 

However, to be honest, the day I got fired at POLITICO was one of the happiest days of my life. We threw an epic party at the Red Derby the night that I was fired!

 Sure, there was some shittalking and rumormongering but the union knew that we had a strong legal case against POLITICO. Eventually, I won a $70,000 settlement in October of 2015. (Keep in mind folks, the market rate for POLITICO firing a reporter in 2015 was $70,000, so if you get fired, call WBNG’s Bruce Jett — he’ll hook you up.) 

I used my $70,000 settlement and invested it in starting a small newsletter called Payday Report. We are doing quite well for ourselves now, and I have an incredible amount of autonomy and freedom over my work, the type I never had in a massive news machine like POLITICO. 

However, folks like Brett keep going into POLITICO to work for years, talking union in private conservations with their friends. 

A few months after I was fired and right before I moved out of D.C., I met with Brett for beers and he gave me the hard analysis that he didn’t see a union happening at POLITICO anytime soon. 

“It will happen in a couple years, but after a lot of other places go union first,” Brett told me. “POLITICO folks are gonna have to figure out how to do it in their own unique POLITICO kind of way.” 

For years, folks like Brett kicked around the idea of union. They talked about it during happy hours at POLITICO. They kept alive the idea of a union at POLITICO for years when it seemed impossible. 

As yinz at POLITICO face the daunting days of your union push, I wish I could be there with yinz, but to be honest, given past legal controversies, I would be a distraction. 

In the early days of the digital media unionization movement, Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild Organizing Director Bruce Jett fired himself for leading the 1991 New York Daily News strike and was fond of saying, “We stand on the shoulder of giants” who give us the courage to do things. 

In the days ahead, your budding union will be tested as POLITICO rolls out its anti-union persuasion campaign, but rest assured that you stand on the shoulders of giants. You stand on the shoulders of giants like Brett and so many others at POLITICO who kept the dream of a union alive for so many years. 

Good Luck. Stay strong and get each others’ backs in the way that Brett Norman got my back!

May Brett Norman’s memory always be a blessing as POLITICO seeks to unionize. 

Love & Solidarity, 


P.S. Feel free to contact Payday Report here in Pittsburgh if we can help in any way. I’m available on signal at (412) 613-8423. Good Luck! 

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing over 1,800 stories from 46 states, Elk was the only American reporter in the room with Lula on the morning of the election & traveled with him to the Oval Office. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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