OLD Media Moves

Labor beat dropped at LA Times

January 6, 2006

According to this post on Take Back the Times:

“Also, we hear that Nancy Cleeland, who shared in a Pulitzer Prize for the series about Wal-Mart, no longer has her labor beat, and the Times will not have a replacement soon, according to Russ Stanton, the section editor. In short, the Times, going back to the anti-labor positions of years ago, will not have a labor beat.”

I have long argued against this trend. Labor is an important beat that too many business sections are ignoring, and that’s a shame. They’re basically telling a sizeable percentage of their audience that they don’t care about them. I thought newspapers were worried about losing readership. Well, it’s decisions like this that cause them to lose readership.

For those of you looking to improve your labor coverage, here’s a great resource from Cornell University.

Professor Christopher Martin at Northern Iowa argues that the media today frame labor issues in a way in which the actual concerns of organized workers are ignored. Labor stories are written from a consumer’s perspective, Martin states, trivializing the concerns of the workers while emphasizing the effect of strikes on consumers who want to purchase the goods and services produced by the workers.

As labor reporting stands today, it is a minor part of business journalism despite the fact that 12.9 percent of all working people in the United States belong to a union, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor. That number is down from a high in the 1950s, when approximately one-third of all workers belonged to some union. The decline in overall union membership has led to the closure of hundreds of labor publications, including the 2002 demise of the Racine Labor, a newspaper in Wisconsin that existed for 60 years and provided an alternative to the local newspaper.

And while the mainstream media have been criticized for ignoring good labor stories, there hasn’t been any movement to add coverage. Labor writer Michael Hoyt argues that “a lot of good labor stories are simply ignored. A rich harvest goes to waste.� Daily newspapers, weekly news magazines and nightly news broadcasts regularly cover strikes, but without strikes, coverage of labor issues is scant.

One notable exception has been the movement to unionize Wal-Mart stores. William Serrin, a former labor reporter at The New York Times, argues that most editors don’t know or care about labor reporting. “It was just something you had to have in the paper, like obits.� Even when labor is covered, unions defending worker rights is called “troublemaking,� while the media like to tell workers to learn to live with layoffs and that treaties such as NAFTA will help them.

There is perhaps no part of business journalism that needs to be re-examined more than labor reporting. In the early 21st century, BusinessWeek and The Wall Street Journal are the only media outlets that cover labor extensively. Open any other printed media or watch the nightly news, and you’ll rarely see a story about labor. With more than 15 million potential readers belonging to unions, the media needs to revisit their past – primarily the past of labor newspapers – and look at how labor was once covered and consider adding more stories.

There are plenty of interesting and informative labor stories to cover that would give society a better picture of why unions are declining in membership and what many union leaders are doing to combat newly aggressive corporations and industries, but there are few media that want them, believes Serrin.

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