The Disappearing Labor Beat

THE DISAPPEARING LABOR BEAT….The labor beat at daily newspapers has been on the verge of extinction for years. My local paper, the LA Times, used to have some of the best labor coverage in the country, thanks to its great labor beat reporter, Harry Bernstein, but that heritage declined and then finally died last year when labor writer Nancy Cleeland left the beat. As Michael Massing reported:

She made the move “out of frustration,” she told me. Her editors “really didn’t want to have labor stories. They were always looking at labor from a management and business perspective ? ‘how do we deal with these guys?'”….”They don’t consider themselves hostile to working-class concerns, but they’re all making too much money to relate to the problems that working-class people are facing,” observed Cleeland, who is now writing about high school dropouts.

At the New Republic, John Judis observes that BusinessWeek has increasingly transformed itself from a serious chronicler of business into a Smart Money clone (“Revealed! Secrets of the Male Shopper”) and suggests that its prize-winning labor coverage was one casualty of the change:

I have read BusinessWeek regularly for 30 years….But, over the last year or so, I started reading it less, and finally stopped altogether. I didn’t know why at the time, and I even felt somewhat guilty about neglecting the magazine. But I figured out why last week when I heard that the magazine’s new editor, Stephen Adler, had fired Aaron Bernstein, who had worked at the magazine since 1983 and had written many of its most outstanding stories.

….To see the difference between the old BusinessWeek and the new, you need only compare issues from a few months toward the end of Shepard’s tenure with some recent issues that Adler has put out….As I looked over these issues, I suddenly understood why I had stopped reading BusinessWeek and why its new editor would let someone like Bernstein go. A serious writer ? and particularly one who writes about the American worker ? has no place at a magazine that aspires to be the People of the business world.

As labor unions decline in power and advertisers insist ever more vigorously on appealing to specific demographics (young, white collar, lots of disposable income), coverage of blue collar and working class issues simply fades away. It’s like this stuff doesn’t even exist anymore. And let’s face it: if all you read is BusinessWeek or your local daily, it doesn’t.