America’s labor crises hit a depleted beat

Modified billboards in Portland, Oregon, photographed on May Day, 2020. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA via AP Images

A normal day of reporting on labor in America is busy. But these are not normal days. 

Precarious labor conditions under the Trump administration—including the repeal of the Fair Play and Safe Workplaces Executive Order, the appointment of a corporate-friendly labor secretary, and numerous other anti-worker policies—have turned catastrophic. Since mid-March, one in five Americans has filed for unemployment benefits. Employees who can work from the safety of home tend to be wealthier, while those who can’t have planned and executed unprecedented actions across multiple industries. As Hamilton Nolan, labor reporter with In These Times (and CJR’s public editor for the Washington Post), puts it, “There’s a crisis in every single workplace at the same time.” And too few reporters to cover them all.

Several labor journalists expressed their concerns to CJR that the current lack of labor reporters—and a corresponding deficit of watchdog coverage—poses an exceptional threat to workers’ rights. Paired with a halted legal system and lax accountability standards, this deficit means that new injustices might go unnoticed, while previous ones could reappear. 

“It’s not as if covid has dismissed all the other issues that were already occurring in the worker safety world,” Fatima Hussein, a Bloomberg Law reporter, says. “So long as no one is watching or covering a certain issue or agency, there’s always opportunities for accountability to slip.”

 

It’s a life-or-death situation, and there’s a lot of desperation in these emails. People are dying to have their stories told.

 

LABOR REPORTING—“business reporting from the perspective of human beings,” as Nolan puts it— has traditionally been a critical check on power and exploitation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, labor journalists such as Mary Heaton Vorse and Eva McDonald Valesh reported on poor working conditions in factories and participated in historic strikes both as journalists documenting the action and as allies standing with workers. 

That tradition continues today, though in a diminished form. “Many newspapers have cut back on, or entirely eliminated, the labor beat—the one beat that talked about the life of the working class,” Christopher Martin, author of No Longer Newsworthy, previously told CJR. Sarah Jaffe, a freelance labor reporter and cohost of the Belabored podcast, says the very nature of labor reporting is at odds with journalism’s faltering business model, which for a time seemed to thrive on advertising—and which the current pandemic has once more pushed into the spotlight. 

“[Labor reporting] is not a thing you can attach to ads very well,” Jaffe says. “Usually, you’re saying bad things about companies. We’re not a revenue-producing stream.”

The recent unionization wave in news media has arguably heightened the industry’s awareness of class and labor issues. Still, space allocated for this reporting remains scarce, says Kim Kelly, a freelance journalist who writes the “No Class” column for Teen Vogue and serves on the Writers Guild of America, East council. 

For media workers, there’s also a sense of irony in reporting on exploitative working conditions, Kelly says. 

“There’s just too much happening on top of the precarity inherent in journalism, especially when you’re freelance and budgets are being slashed,” she says. “There’s a dreadful sort of hopelessness that comes from trying to report on mass layoffs and spiraling unemployment numbers when you’re also constantly refreshing your own state’s unemployment website in another tab, hoping you finally get through this time.”

The labor beat is a way to understand the experiences of immigrants and other marginalized populations, Bernice Yeung, an investigative journalist at ProPublica, says. “It’s such a fundamental American value, arguably, that so many people from around the world come here specifically to work,” Yeung says. Otherwise disparate groups of people are tied together, she adds, through “work, the search for work, or the lack of work.”

Just as the pandemic has expedited the decline of many news outlets, it’s presented new hurdles to labor reporters at the time when their work is most needed. The physical isolation necessitated by the pandemic is uniquely trying for local labor journalists, Juliana Reyes, who covers labor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, says. “You’re writing about people that live all around you and work in places around you,” she says. “I’m not just calling people in other parts of the country.” Typically, Reyes would cover worker actions in person, in order to build trust with her sources. Public health measures have made such intimate journalism impossible. In early April, Reyes covered a grocery store workers’ action. She had to follow along via Instagram. 

Dave Jamieson, a labor reporter for HuffPost, says he was contacted recently by a worker at a factory in a midwestern American city where a coronavirus outbreak has led to at least one death. The worker couldn’t find a local reporter to cover the outbreak because the city’s paper of record had been decimated by layoffs. 

Jamieson says he’s “never seen anything like” the volume of emails he’s receiving about workplace issues. “It’s a life-or-death situation, and there’s a lot of desperation in these emails,” Jamieson says. “People are dying to have their stories told.”

 

IN LABOR REPORTING, says veteran reporter Mike Elk, “we have what we call a ‘dead worker story.’ ” The phrase means what it says: a story about a worker who has died during work. Elk—the founder of Payday Report, an independent labor journalism website—says such stories challenge labor reporters to expose how the death occurred and how it might have been prevented before a similar death occurs. During the pandemic, he says, “we’re actually trying to prevent deaths in real time, which is a new challenge.”

The industry is shifting according to these needs. Journalists from other desks have been reassigned to the labor beat—something labor reporters are generally enthusiastic about. “The fact that thousands of regular reporters are now getting pulled onto writing about labor is a healthy thing,” says Nolan. “You can write good labor stories just by listening to people.” Jamieson has observed more collaboration between otherwise competitive journalists: “Conversations [with worker sources] these days sometimes end up being, ‘Well, if we can’t take on this story then I’ll tell other reporters to try.’ ”

Independent labor reporting like that done by Payday Report, In These Times, Ricochet, Rank and File, and others often demonstrates correctives and industry best practices. In recent weeks, Elk and Payday Report have mapped more than a hundred strikes in more than thirty states—part of an ongoing effort by Payday Report to track labor actions. The tool is partly intended to counter labor coverage that focuses primarily—or exclusively—on workers who are suffering. “You don’t often see workers depicted with any sense of agency,” says Elk. “I think reporters have an obligation to present some sort of hope for people. You really need to paint a picture of what the options are of workers fighting back.”

Grassroots reader-funded outlets reporting on labor are the reason for, and a necessary supplement to, the surge in mainstream labor journalism, labor journalists say. These outlets are more likely to offer stories that are more nuanced and solutions-based. They might not hold the average news reader’s attention, but they service the community they’re reporting on: workers. This nitty-gritty labor reporting, says Elk, is critical for those who are low income and underprotected. “What’s uplifting to working-class folks like me is reading about other workers taking actions into their own hands,” he says.

RECENTLY: A reminder to editors: Be kind to your writers

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Ontario. His work has been published by The Guardian, Globe and Mail, Pitchfork, and CBC.