New York city newspaper workers—including journalists, delivery truck drivers, and pressmen—went on strike on November 1, 1962. They would be off the job for 114 days. In the gap, suburban publishers produced special city editions, and New Yorkers, used to the nation’s most vibrant and diverse newspaper culture, had to turn elsewhere for news. In their appraisal of what readers likely missed, New York Times reporters Clayton Knowles and Richard P. Hunt found ample evidence that on a wide range of issues, the city just didn’t work well without papers providing a steady flow of civic information. Their piece is a fascinating guide to mid-century New York, and resonates with today’s debates about diminished newsroom capacity. The below paragraph originally ran above the article.
How does a newspaper strike affect the functioning of government in a metropolitan area? In search of a detailed answer, two experienced reporters (who, in normal periods, cover city affairs for The New York Times) took a close look at what happened to New York’s government agencies, political parties, and pressure groups during the first two months of the strike. Their investigation was sponsored by the J. M. Kaplan Fund and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Loss in dollars and cents is the most popular measurement of the impact of strikes; dislocation in normal living is another. But when a strike shuts down the major newspapers in a great metropolitan area neither yardstick is adequate. There is a third important dimension in a newspaper strike—the effect on public policy. This inquiry attempted to determine the effects of the New York newspaper blackout on:
• The public services that newspapers normally provide.
• Public debate on decisions of government.
• The “marketing” of ideas that go into the generation and formation of public policy.
• The newspapers’ traditional “watchdog” function.
Government uses the press as a vehicle for information, as an auxiliary to law enforcement, and as an arm of administration. The extent of newspapers’ services was demonstrated in the strike: some tasks were left undone; some were done less effectively,.
I. Public information
The strike posed a difficult public-relations problem for government. Many officials did not consider radio and television or the substitute newspapers adequate to tell the public what their agencies were doing. Reports and statements were in some cases withheld; in others they were abridged.
The City Department of Health cut its annual report from thirty-two pages to ten. “There was no point in publishing the full report in a vacuum,” a spokesman for the department said.
The State Commission on Human Rights withheld its annual report as well as studies of racial patterns in employment in the hotel industry and in department stores.
The City Department of Buildings held up its findings on two disasters: on the human error that had caused a boiler explosion at the New York Telephone Company’s upper Manhattan office and on the faulty construction that led to the collapse of a garage roof in a luxury apartment house.
The Department of Real Estate delayed a report answering charges that it had favored religious institutions by assembling parcels of city-owned real estate for sale as tax-exempt sites. The department had found that only eight of many hundreds of sales could be so construed. It held up its report on the ground that it had been criticized in the major dailies and was entitled to the same forum for reply.
The news strike also slowed the distribution of a major public-relations effort by the City Commission on Human Rights. “Progress Report” was published, but copies moved slowly. “Normally we would have had hundreds of letters and telephone calls requesting copies, because people would have read about the report in the newspapers,” a spokesman said.
The strike also deprived two city agencies of a valuable weapon in enforcing laws to protect consumers and tenants. Markets Commissioner Albert S. Pacetta said that fear of publicity normally helped keep shady merchants in line. The cheats, he said, hold back because they know how customers react to a newspaper story about a conviction. But in the blackout the highest sentence ever imposed in the city against a butcher with a heavy thumb—$750 or 30 days in jail—got scant attention. Such a story. Commissioner Pacetta said, “normally would have brought a flood of letters, giving us new leads.”
Buildings Commissioner Harold Birns told a similar story about the fight against slumlords. “Landlords don’t want to be known as slumlords,” he said, “There’s a distinct difference between a $500 fine and a $500 fine plus a story in the Times.”