The rise and fall of the labour beat reporter

| February 27, 2014
photo: flickr/hades2k

I belong in a museum.

At least, that's what Rod Mickleburgh, former labour beat reporter for the Vancouver Sun and Province, says as we begin our interview about a beat he covered for close to 16 years, and that I have been assigned to for the past six months.

"You're actually a paid labour reporter," he said, with a slightly incredulous chuckle.

He's joking, of course, but the joke comes from a place of truth. The labour beat -- the reporters who write about workers, unions and all that it encompasses -- has all but disappeared from newsrooms across North America. And with it, stories about workers' struggles that are now slipping through the cracks.

Through most of the 20th century, it was common for newsrooms to have multiple reporters assigned to the labour beat. When Mickleburgh got his start at the Vancouver Sun in 1973 he was, believe or not, the night labour reporter. He fondly remembers his time there as one where labour leaders could make big news.

"When the president of the B.C. Federation of Labour would make a strong statement on something, it used to be on the front page of the Vancouver Sun," said Mickleburgh. "Now you won't see it anywhere. They've just been shunted right off the news pages."

A potent combination of factors led to the demise of the labour beat. As the century turned and union density rates trended downwards, media organizations began to shift their focus away from labour, and to business, which meant that stories of strikes and factory closures were relegated to the back sections of the newspaper.

Christopher R. Martin is the interim head and professor of Communication Studies at the University of Northern Iowa. A former reporter himself, he's studied the decline of labour beat reporting in the United States, and wrote a book on the relationship between labour and the media called Framed: Labor and the Corporate Media.

"When I first looked at this about ten or 15 years ago you could count 30 or 40 labour beat reporters," he said. "But one by one at major newspapers around the country they've all gone or they've all been fired -- even some that have won Pulitzer prizes."

Some might assume that as the union density rates drop, so would the need for labour beat reporters. In the United States, for example, the private sector unionization rate sits at just 6.6 per cent. But here in Canada, where union density numbers have not declined as rapidly, we have still lost many labour beat reporting positions.

"Unfortunately the same media economics are happening even with having a higher rate of unionization and workers," Martin said.

The New York Times is one of the last major mainstream media outlets to still have a full-time labour beat reporter. Steven Greenhouse, who has covered labour for The New York Times since 1996, offered his own theory as to why other publications no longer cover the beat.

"Unfortunately, many editors myopically don't see it as an important enough or sexy enough beat," he explained via email. "And I believe that some news media have stopped having labor reporters because these reporters often write about topics, like income inequality or labour unions, that some media owners would prefer not being covered."

However, it would be wrong to say that labour reporting itself has disappeared from newspapers. If anything, the growing public consciousness around income inequality has spurred more discussion about topics that traditionally would have been covered by labour reporters, and expanded the scope of coverage for the few labour beat reporters left.

"As unions have grown weaker over the years, I have not lacked for other things to write about," said Greenhouse. "I increasingly see my beat as about labour and workplace matters, and not just labour matters."

But what a beat reporter can bring to the topic is knowledge -- to truly provide context and analysis for readers.

"Hardly anybody out there, when they cover a labour dispute, knows anything about how negotiations work," says Mickleburgh. "Labour isn't as straightforward as people think. You need to know the players and you need to know the way it works."

Martin believes that, had labour reporting not declined as much as it did, much of what we know now about income inequality would have come to light much earlier.

"The press seems to be saying, 'oh my God, look how unequal things are in America right now,'" he said. "That shouldn't have taken us by surprise."

But while labour beat reporting may have slipped out of the mainstream, space still exists to write about these issues in the alternative press and online sources. In the U.S., The Nation and In These Times magazine frequently report on labour -- In These Times actually has a dedicated labour beat reporter, Mike Elk.

In Canada both The Tyee and my employer, rabble.ca, have part-time reporters dedicated to the beat. My position is a 12-hour a week paid internship which was created in partnership with the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW).

Online outlets often get the criticism that they don't reach a broad enough swath of the public. People can choose the websites that they want to visit, and often those will be the ones they find align with their worldviews. Certainly as a writer for rabble, I'm under no illusions that what I write is read regularly by the right of the political spectrum -- though I hope what I do write reaches a wider audience.

But for young writers trying to break into the field, online outlets can offer more opportunities to get experience, especially writing about the issues that they want to write about.

Josh Eidelson writes about politics, labour and inequality for Salon, an online magazine that covers politics and arts. He's a former organizer for UNITE HERE who decided he wanted to start telling the stories he was hearing day after day while organizing bargaining units. While he has written for print outlets, Eidelson found that there were more opportunities for him online.

"In the few years that I have been doing this I've gotten to see the opportunities that come with writing for publications that have a more focused labour audience and the opportunities writing for places that have a broader audience," he said. "There are advantages and disadvantages, but I try to do work that tries to grab and engage and challenge people that don't think of themselves as invested in labour stories as such, and that also has something useful for people who are closely following a lot of these questions."

He thinks that, thanks in large part to the Occupy movement, the mass protests against anti-union bills in Wisconsin in 2011 and the highly visible protests against large, mega-brands like McDonald's and Wal-Mart have increased interest in labour issues and created a demand for more content about it.

"[These issues] really brought labour in the broad sense further into the conversation," Eidelson said. "And it has made it seem less of a marginal question than it might have when I was in college for many people."

The labour reporting that does exist is often helped by the fact that, simply put, it makes for great storytelling. Everyone I interviewed agreed that the scope of a labour reporting goes beyond unionization to stories that encompass all workers, from people emigrating to North America to battles to raise the minimum wage -- all stories that have compelling, human centres.

"When ordinary people when they take a stand for whatever reason against a company -- especially these days when strikes are uncommon -- that has to be a story," said Mickleburgh. It's why it frustrates him that this beat has been, for the most part, dropped.

I think we also forget that those same workers are so often our audience, a lesson I learned while on my first ever assignment working for rabble, covering the Unifor founding convention. While canvassing attendees for quotes, I introduced myself to a woman who insisted on giving me a hug.

"Our local helped raise funds for your position," she told me excitedly. She was thrilled someone was there to cover the event.

Workers want their stories told, journalists want to write about them and audiences increasingly want to read about them. Now we just need to figure out how to get labour reporters out of the museum, and back in the newsroom.

Canadian labour beat reporters -- a list of North American reporters covering the beat (if not in name than in content):

Tavia Grant - Economics reporter for The Globe and Mail, frequently covers employment and labour issues

Laurie Monsebraaten - social justice reporter at The Toronto Star

Tom Sandborn - Reports on labour and social justice, health policy and environmental issues for The Tyee

H.G. Watson -- Labour beat repoter, rabble.ca

Nicole Cohen - Work and Labour editor, J-Source

Nora Loreto - Freelance writer, author of From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement

Rod Mickleburgh - Freelance writer

Our Times Magazine - Canada's magazine about workers' rights and social justice

Rank and File - Canadian labour news and analysis from a critical perspective

International labour beat reporters:

Steven Greenhouse - Labor reporter, The New York Times

Ben Casselman - until December 2013 was an economics reporter, focusing on employment, for the Wall Street Journal. Now the Chief Economics Writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Eidelson - Reports on politics, labor and inequality for Salon

Mike Elk - Labor reporter, In These Times magazine

Ashley Gross - Business and Labor reporter, KPLU Seattle (part of the NPR network)

Dick Meister - Freelance writer, focused on labor issues based in Northern California

Eric Lee - editor of LabourStart

photo: flickr/hades2k

embedded_video

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.