The Labor Beat Is Dead — Long Live the Labor Beat

When the labor movement collapsed, labor journalism collapsed with it. Today labor journalism is making a curious comeback. But without a truly revived labor movement, the labor beat will remain marginal to big media.

Striking workers picket outside the John Deere Davenport Works facility in Iowa, October 15, 2021. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

In his latest column, the New York Times’ Ben Smith looks into “Why the Media Loves Labor Now.” There’s been a lot of talk like this lately, and Smith includes labor reporters’ views on the uptick in labor-friendly coverage. (It must be mentioned that Smith himself was a labor story not so long ago, when, in his role as editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed News, he resisted an organizing effort, including no-showing at a scheduled meeting with the union.)

Said journalists have mixed feelings. It is true that Steven Greenhouse, who was the Times’ sole full-time labor reporter in the early 2000s, is no longer quite as alone as he was in that era. Back then, declining advertising revenue led to newsroom layoffs, with labor reporters first on the chopping block, their beat perceived as stodgy, outdated, and ideologically in conflict with newspapers’ higher ups and advertisers.

Today, there are labor journalists at a range of publications, especially digital outlets, though daily papers still lag: Noam Scheiber has taken Greenhouse’s mantle at the Times, but other dailies still lack full-timers — many of those who cover the subject do so as part of economy or lifestyle or tech beats, with labor not considered a terrain of its own. As for television news: the less that is said the better.

As Jon Schleuss, the president of my union, the NewsGuild, tells Smith, the effect is “not necessarily sympathy, but a deeper understanding.” Longtime labor journalist Sarah Jaffe notes the frequency of “rookie mistakes” by those newly tackling the beat when it comes to describing labor law or basic details about organized labor.

This can also look like shallowness: cheerleading union efforts rather than situating a fight in the balance of forces, historical precedents, and the knowledge of a particular union that is hard to come by — and it’s inevitable when a handful of writers are tasked with covering a movement of millions, with few resources to draw upon in doing so (I include myself here). The counter to this problem will only come when we have a fighting labor movement. Despite the hopeful signs of the past few months — Striketober and the like — we are not even close to there yet.

It is true, as freelance labor journalist Kim Kelly tells Smith, that the wave of unionization in media partially explains the growing interest in the beat among journalists themselves. Kelly herself is one such case, having gone from covering music to covering labor following unionization at Vice, where she previously worked. I’ve seen the dynamic countless times: writers, some of whom may have previously accepted the standard story of labor as staid and boring and vaguely unseemly, go through the organizing process themselves and realize it’s a world of drama and high stakes and real news going under-covered, and they shift their focus accordingly. This is the add-on benefit of journalists unionizing: it leads to better labor coverage.

But just as it’s important to situate current talk of a strike wave in the historical context of previous strike waves — whereas today we speak of a rise in private-sector strikes, with tens of thousands of workers manning picket lines, in the wave of 1946, the number was millions — so too is it worth considering what the labor press once looked like.

In the late 1800s, nearly every daily paper in New York City had its own labor reporter, and independent local weekly labor papers proliferated. By 1925, there were seventy-two newspapers and magazines publishing on labor topics in Chicago alone, with many of those outlets published in languages other than English. These publications were often directly connected to the labor movement: the Industrial Workers of the World had a printing press, and unions published their own papers, which were distributed to stewards and local union officers. The Federated Press labor news service launched in 1919, and labor radio programs spread across the country in the 1930s and 1940s.

Much of this coverage was produced by workers themselves, with some of them trained in workers’ schools established by trade unions and radicals. As one organizing manual put it, “nothing that happens to the worker is unimportant.” Training workers to tell their own stories, reporting from contract negotiations and picket lines, was key to countering the bias of the capitalist rags.

There are few such projects today, because organized labor has not just been in decline but has effectively bottomed out — it is on the floor. I teach a writing workshop for organizers through The Forge, and there is talk in the labor movement of what expansive workers’ schools would look like today, but the infrastructure remains lacking, and it is what’s required if we’re to scale the growing interest in the broadly defined labor movement into a healthy labor press.

Smith rightly mentions Labor Notes in his column; that’s the stalwart of such efforts, a media project that is an organizing project too. All media takes a side, but Labor Notes has long been the rare outlet in the United States that not only sides with rank-and-file workers but is largely of and by those workers, publishing dispatches from their workplaces and cohering networks across unions. Jacobin, too, runs a lot of workers’ accounts — for obvious reasons, we have a close relationship with Labor Notes. We can do so, though, because these are political projects; Labor Notes was created by socialists, a milieu of militants within the labor movement.

As for corporate media, it has a ways to go before it can proclaim to be anything close to pro-labor.

As Christopher Martin writes in No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class, mainstream media outlets imagine their audience as upper-middle-class consumers rather than workers, and their coverage follows from there. This is a product of publications’ pivot toward a wealthier readership, dropping working-class readers in what some experts called “rationed circulation,” a shift that was underway by the 1960s.

As Martin details, in that era, the Washington Post cut distribution to black neighborhoods “in order to upgrade the quality of its demographic audience profile for demographic purposes. The Los Angeles Times gave up on “working-class sections of [the] city.” As one New York Times ad in Editor & Publisher put it in 1970, the paper’s valued readership was the “New York Smarties.” “Two-thirds of them have attended college. More than 500,000 hold post-graduate degrees. They’re the people who read the New York Times,” notes the ad copy.

“The mainstream news media refocused their target audience in the late 1960s and early 1970s and began to make stoking middle-class grievances against the working class a fundamental element of their coverage,” writes Martin. In labor coverage, “it became normal to present middle-class consumers as the disgruntled victims of working-class demands. It is not that many of the news audience members were not also part of the same broadly defined US ‘working class.’ It is that the mainstream news media began to address their audience as either aspirational or true upwardly mobile consumers, somehow different from unionized workers.”

Martin uses the New York Times to illustrate the shift in coverage. In a 1941 article on a Transport Workers Union strike, “no riders were quoted; none were identified in photos.” Instead, the story delved into the contract issues and then mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s response to the strike. By 1983, the paper’s reporting on a strike by train conductors and United Transportation Union workers featured inconvenienced commuters front and center — literally, with the paper running a photo of said white-collar commuters on the front page.

Despite the emergence of friendlier labor coverage as of late, this is still a common framing: think of articles about how adhering to California’s AB5 law would’ve forced Uber and Lyft to raise prices for customers (spoiler: the ridesharing companies raised prices anyway). Such is the model when publications imagine their audience as the moneyed rather than the working class.

When asked about the future of the labor beat a few years ago, Jaffe offered the following prediction: “Labor journalism will be at its best if we have a fighting labor movement and fighting radical social movements and a press that is funded and supported and read by the workers it’s covering, not just a tiny elite in big coastal cities.” There’s been progress, but we aren’t there yet.