Graphic by Talaj/Shutterstock.com
In a cataclysmic health crisis, it’s plain to see how essential the work of journalists has become. The public is turning to news media sources in record numbers, particularly online, to answer burning questions:
“Which hospitals are at capacity?”
“How many cases are in my state?”
“Is the curve peaking or flattening out?”
“What are the latest rules?”
“Are we re-opening the country for business too quickly?”
“How do I stay safe?”
The patchwork of restrictions from county to county has made COVID-19 not only the biggest story of our lifetimes, but also the most local one. For people sheltering indoors, hometown news outlets are providing critical access to life-saving information. Journalists, more of whom have recently become part of the organized labor movement, are the ones bringing these stories to our communities.
Yet the news industry is also in crisis. Newspapers are now furloughing or permanently laying off workers, slashing pay by up to 25 percent, or shutting down entirely. Earlier this year the Cleveland Plain Dealer laid off more than 30 journalists, gutting the union-represented side of the newsroom.
WILL LOCAL NEWS GO EXTINCT?
The hedge funds and private equity groups that have acquired many of the nation’s newspapers are making these draconian cuts. Their primary interest has been profit, not the public good—and this was true long before the pandemic. After hedge fund Alden Global Capital bought the Denver Post, for example, the NewsGuild bargaining unit shrank from 513 workers in 2012 to 145 late last year. The company laid off another 13 workers in March.
Whole regions are now “news deserts” where there is limited access to credible and comprehensive news coverage. At some outlets, staffs have been so eviscerated that what’s left is almost nothing—what media economics professor Penny Abernathy calls “ghost newspapers.” These are papers that still publish under a once-respected name, but their quality is significantly diminished, running mostly legal notices, ads, or syndicated news from outside the community. They’re usually created when companies slowly cut staff to the point that there aren’t enough journalists left to cover the courts or school board, leaving the publications with few unique or original local articles.
Many communities entered this pandemic without enough journalists to cover the crisis. In spite of that, media workers have done a heroic job, even as they stare down the possible extinction of local news.
If this happens, we’ll lose more than just the public health reporting and government accountability we need right now. When a community loses a newspaper and there are no longer reporters covering city hall and other institutions, corruption goes up, taxes go up, partisanship goes up, and disinformation spreads like a virus.
EXPLOSION OF ORGANIZING
Rampant corporate greed is a major factor in the explosion of organizing across the media industry. Our union, The NewsGuild, represents 24,000 journalists and other workers in the U.S. and Canada, and our ranks are swelling every year.
We set a record in 2018: More than 1,400 workers decided to join our union. And we beat that record in 2019 by adding 1,500 more.
Rank-and-file mobilization and bottom-up organizing have been at the core of these union drives. Workers of all ages, idealistic and committed, have led this grassroots uprising at small-town papers, national outlets, and digital newsrooms. News workers have come to understand that for their own survival, protection, and advancement, they need a union. And they are willing to fight for it.
This organizing energy is good for journalism, and it’s good for the larger labor movement. Media workers are the eyes and ears of our communities. Bringing them into the union family amplifies workers’ voices even as corporations and governments try to silence them.
The NewsGuild, a sector of the Communications Workers (CWA), has been very apolitical for the last few decades because so many of our members are reporters who work hard to remain independent from the sources they cover: politicians and corporations. But that’s changing as we face a catastrophe—for our industry, for our communities, and for our democracy.
We’re getting politically active. In early April, our international Guild executive board unanimously adopted a proposal to do two things: 1) prioritize news industry workers in a future stimulus bill, as a matter of public health, while working to maintain independence from those we cover, and 2) seed a future landscape in which news publications are accountable to our communities before shareholders. That proposal was unanimously endorsed by the CWA and they’re helping us in this fight.
We’re working with legislators on Capitol Hill to keep journalists on the job during the pandemic and make sure vulture hedge funds don’t benefit from public support. Aid could come in the form of advertising buys by the government, a paycheck protection program extension to media workers (many work at large corporations that operate hundreds of community publications), or paycheck grants directly to workers (similar to the airline packages).
But we’re also researching and pushing ideas to create an equivalent of the federal government’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to support news publications online and in print.
PUBLICLY FUNDED JOURNALISM
A new “Corporation for Public Media” could be funded by levying a tax on Facebook and Google. Australia is pushing platforms to pay for news content, France is investigating the idea, and the National Union of Journalists in the UK is calling for a tax on the revenues to support a global media fund.
The Corporation could make grants to local news publications, pay for them to establish libraries or archives, conduct research, and train journalists. A locally owned group in a news desert could get seed money or an ongoing grant. No hedge funds or giant media corporations would be eligible. Non-profit and employee co-op models would.
I didn’t expect to jump into politics when I left my reporting job at the Los Angeles Times last December and moved to D.C. to lead our union. But that’s where we are. We have to do something to save our industry. And we have to do it for our communities as a matter of public health.
We’re asking Labor Notes readers to support our union organizing drives wherever they develop. We also ask you to push your members in Congress to include journalism in a future stimulus. Review our plan, sign our petition, and subscribe to your local publication if you can.
It’s essential that we keep news flowing during this crisis and that we work aggressively to weed out hedge funds and private equity, which have been so devastating to communities and to our democracy. And we need to organize every news worker in this country. Think about it: wouldn’t that be a big boon to organizing everyone else?
Jon Schleuss is president of the NewsGuild-CWA.