OLD Media Moves

The demise of labor reporting

January 14, 2011


William Serrin is a journalism professor at New York University, but before he entered academia he covered the labor beat for the New York Times, which nominated him for a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for coverage of the American industrial decline.

Serrin is the author of “Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town,” a book on the collapse of the U.S. steel industry and the effects on mill towns, and “The Company and the Union: The Civilized Relationship of the General Motors Corporation and The United Automobile Workers.”

Serrin also reported for The Detroit Free Press and Newsweek and has been published in The Atlantic Monthly, American Heritage, The Nation, Columbia Journalism Review and The Village Voice.

He was a member the Detroit Free Press team of reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1967 Detroit riots. In addition, Serrin was a recipient of the George Polk Award for reporting on the Kent State killings in 1970, the Sidney Hillman Award, and an Alicia Patterson Fellowship.

Serrin talked to Talking Biz News recently about the decline of labor reporting in business journalism. What follows is an edited transcript.

What were the major labor stories that you covered during your stint on the beat?

I covered Lane Kirkland (and later his death), the air controllers strike, the death of a lady cowboys. farmers the GM-UAW strike, the Massey/United Mine Workers strike, numerous labor/management negotiations, farms and farmers, food workers, a big copper strike in Arizona, the death of the first woman underground coal miner, labor artists, mountain top removal and other stories in Appalachia, The Teamsters, the coal miners union, the UAW, etc.

But let me say that a good labor writer, to do good work, should try as best he or she can not to cover what by normal measurements are traditional labor stories and other matters — strikes and the like. The job of a good labor writer, as opposed to the traditional labor writer, is, first up, not to write so much about labor as it is to write about work, working class people, and working class communities. One should not be defined by old definitions.

That is one of the things that is wrong with labor writhing — labor writing as it exists today. If one writes — and writes well — about work and working class people, the other stuff will take care of itself. My view at The Times was that I could write about anything I wanted to as long as I could get the word “work” no later than the third or fourth paragraph.

There was a time in business journalism where every major paper had a labor reporter. I can remember a labor reporter on the business desk of the Atlanta paper when I worked there in the mid-1990s. What happened?

To borrow a line from Jimmy Breslin, only in those old newsroom movies are reporters important on newspapers (I will sub “labor reporters” for “reporters.”) Many labor reporters are second-rate or are regarded as second-rate in newsrooms and/or by their editors or themselves. Most labor news — as it is practiced — is not considered important unless there is a strike and someone or the economy is being injured. There have been some exceptions of course over the years and decades.

But when labor news falls upon hard times, labor reporting falls on hard times. Also, the paths to higher positions in Americans do not, for the most part, include labor reporting. Rather, as you no doubt know, the paths are politics, government, economics, good feature writing and the like.

Labor stories — and working class stories — will almost always get held or spiked in favor of politics and business stories. You may wish in this regard to see in “Homestead” the material on the steel worker who committed suicide. I also wrote about these subjects some years ago for In These Times.

We still have roughly 12 percent of the population who belong to a union. Why does the media pretty much ignore their story?

Actually, the number may now be down to about 9 percent to 10 percent. I haven’t looked it up for a while. But a problems is that there is a real disconnect between college-educated journalists asked to cover labor and, in a few cases, the working class.

One, the modern, well-educated and well-paid journalists often do not understand or have empathy toward the working class, and, in addition, labor writing however it is practiced is generally not a way to get ahead, not a ticket to, say, the Washington bureau or to some foreign bureau, and then perhaps to some editor’s desk or magazine or book writing.

Also, having empathy for working class people is not welcome in American newsrooms. I was told more than once at The Times that I was pro-labor. And I knew that the labor establishment wanted me out, the views and the feelings/goals of the labor establishment being, ironically, often much closer to that of the business establishment to that of work and working class people.

Who were some of the best labor reporters?

The 1920s and 1930s and 1940s produced some great labor reporters and reportage, such as Eddie Levinson and Mary Heaton Vorse. Pat Owens of the Detroit Free Press and Newsday was also an excellent labor reporter. James Warren of The Chicago Tribune and David Moberg of In These Times also did good stories.

Aaron Bernstein at BusinessWeek was one of my favorites, and of course he followed in the footsteps of his father, Harry Bernstein. Is the issue that few people want to cover labor today?

The Bernsteins, pere and son, were good. But as Pat Owens used to say of Harry, if he ever writes what he knows, we all are in trouble.

When labor does enter the media today, is it covered accurately? It seems the only thing covered is a strike.

You are right: The one big labor stories that gets done is strikes — especially strikes that interfere with or annoy important people. For example, airline strikes always get a lot of coverage because they interfere with reporters desire to go traveling and those of other people with money or some money who also travel a lot.

We all would be a lot better off if some good reporters and writers would go out and hang around working class towns or assembly lines or coal mines or copper mines or big holes being dug and simply report and write what they see and hear. But of course that would take a revolution on the part of reporters and editors. Still, I was always taught to put people’s names in the paper, one reason being it sells papers.

Do you think that one of the issues is the consolidation in the media industry?

Downsizing and consolidations in the newsroom have meant even less interest on work, workers, working class towns and unions than ever Even in the ’80s and ’90s and the first years of this century there were a few — a very few — good labor reporters. Now there are almost none, which is ironic, seeing that now there should be even more so-called labor stories, given the demise of so many industries, especially industries based upon working people and working class towns. Those who doubt this should go to, say, Detroit and its working class suburbs.

A key to all this — and I owe this to Dave Jones — is to stop calling it labor reporting and start calling it work and workplace or working class reporting and convincing editors that this and this kind of reporting is important — and might sell newspapers or magazines or web sites.

It really is all tragic.

Do you see a place for aggressive labor reporting in the media today? What stories could be done?

The opportunities are there — in number and with fine detail. But who will go do the work and what newsroom budgets will allow this.

Also, good labor journalism, as outlined above, takes good newsroom budgets and a lot of air and train travel and renting of cars and lonesome driving on two-lane road and crummy hotels in bad weather and the like.Try spending one week after another in, say, a sleazy meal at some interstate highway junction in, say, February, in a snowy western Pennsylvania. It is hard to keep that up with families and home and stories getting dumped inside. It is much easier to be, say, a big politics reporter and go on nice planes and stay nice hotels and get mimosas served for you with breakfast, as, I am informed, on Air Force One.

Many media outlets claim that they cover labor issues today by focusing on workplace issues. Is that the same thing?

Someone please tell me what good labor reporting is being done today. By whom? Where?

Should the business section of papers be retitled the work section, or should there be an “employee” section to counteract the preponderance of “business”-oriented news?

It will never happen. But if an important paper or web sites began doing good work and workplace journalism, it would spread.

Dave Jones, then the national editor at The New York Times and who was my editor at The Times was good in assigning or accepting, mostly accepting, good labor stories and getting them not only in the paper, but played upon in the paper. Try, for example, trying to get a workplace story in The Times Magazine.

Jones believed in hiring good reporters and accepting their ideas and then letting them go off and do their work. I think, as I think about it, that it would be best to place — or assign — work and working class and working communities to all sections. This would spread it out, and labor reporting would not be some bleak journalism ghetto inside the business section. Besides, business editors don’t care about workplace reporting.

If union membership rose, do you think that would force the media to pay attention again?

Probably, but it is not going to rise. Besides, many stories on the 90 percent of U.S. workers who are not organized represent many of the best labor stories that could be done. The woes of the working class, organized or unorganized, are the worst than at any time since the Great Depression.

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