Deploying Journalism on Unemployment

The New York Times does good reporting today on an under-examined bit of the unemployment story: those many jobs lost over the last few years that are never coming back.

With the weak economy as their backdrop, employers have shed “millions of people—like file clerks, ticket agents and autoworkers—who were displaced by technological advances and international trade.” Those jobs might have been phased out in gentler ways, but, as the Times tells it, “because of the recession, winter came early.”

Ms. Norton is one of 1.7 million Americans who were employed in clerical and administrative positions when the recession began, but were no longer working in that occupation by the end of last year. There have also been outsize job losses in other occupation categories that seem unlikely to be revived during the economic recovery. The number of printing machine operators, for example, was nearly halved from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2009. The number of people employed as travel agents fell by 40 percent.

The story is part of The New Poor, a series that we’ve liked before. And it shows the strength of the Times, taking a big, difficult story like unemployment and deploying reporters across the country to tell it. The paper did something similar with The Reckoning, stepping back to explore the causes of the financial crisis.

On the unemployment story, though, it’s striking how much the Times stands out for its coverage. We’ve said it before—this is a long, hard story to tell, and it takes real creativity to tell it well. But it’s also important, huge and persistent. With the unemployment rate near 10 percent, and 6.7 million people in the country out of work for six months or longer, isn’t this a story that every news organization should be telling?

Instead, we’ve almost accepted this as the new normal.

Brad DeLong noticed something similar this week (just before the NYT story appeared), contrasting today’s mood in Washington with what he saw in 1983, the last time the unemployment rate reached these levels.

Back then it was a genuine national emergency that unemployment was so high—real policies like massive monetary ease and the eruption of the Reagan deficits were put in place to reduce unemployment quickly, and everybody whose policies wouldn’t have much of an effect on jobs was nevertheless claiming that their projects were the magic unemployment-reducing bullet.

Today…. nobody much in DC seems to care.

It’s an important observation, and he offers a few possible explanations:

A decade of widening wealth inequality that has created a chattering class of reporters, pundits, and lobbyists who have no connection with mainstream America? The collapse of the union movement and thus of the political voice of America’s sellers of labor power? I don’t know what the cause is. But it does astonish me.

Kevin Drum followed that up, largely agreeing with DeLong’s assessment.

But it’s true — or at least, it’s my impression that it’s true — that the media focused way more on economic hard luck stories in the early 80s than they do now. I have a strong memory of being practically bombarded with this stuff back then. Today, though, not so much. It’s not that coverage of unemployment is absent, just that it strikes me as much less urgent than it was in the early 80s.

That urgency was certainly lacking last week, when the April unemployment rate was reported at 9.9 percent, up from 9.7 percent a month earlier—and most of the business press’s attention went to explaining that this was actually good news, because it meant more people were encouraged to go out and look for work.

That may be. But the Times story shows just how hard that job search is for the recently obsolete, even those who get training for new lines of work. It also reveals the growing anger of the unemployed. Here’s Cynthia Norton, a 52-year-old Florida women whose administrative assistant skills are no longer in demand.

“If you’re not a minority, or not handicapped, or not a young parent, or not a veteran, or not in some other certain category, your hope of finding help and any hope of finding work out there is basically nil,” Ms. Norton says. “I know. I’ve looked.”

I’m sure she’s having a hard time. But her belief that others are having a much easier time of it only underscores a point we’ve made before. The business press needs to do a better job of showing the very uneven ways in which unemployment hits people depending on all sorts of factors, from income level and education to age, race and gender.

The unemployment story is a big one. But it’s an important one, and, unfortunately, there’s no shortage of ways to tell it.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at