This essay is adapted from Christopher R. Martin’s 2019 book, “No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class” (Cornell University Press).
In June 1951, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard held a two-day conference for labor reporting. Louis Lyons, the curator of the Nieman Foundation at the time, introduced Louis Stark, the longtime New York Times Washington bureau labor reporter, as “the ringleader of the conference.” Stark’s work assembling the conference might have been an effort to ensure his legacy and the future of labor reporting, a beat he helped to foster. He started working at the New York Times in 1917, became a full-time labor reporter in 1924, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1942 for labor reporting, and left the beat in August 1951—just two months after the Nieman conference—to become a Times editorial writer.
There were 22 “newspapermen” listed in the Nieman Reports account of the conference. They all stayed in Mower Hall, one of the Harvard Yard dormitories, and took meals together at the Harvard Faculty Club.
The point of this first-time gathering of so many labor reporters, Stark said, was that labor reporting had come of age in the past 15 years, but “many still don’t take labor news seriously” and the conference could “point the way.” The emerging consensus of the conference was to have more labor reporting.
Labor reporter H. W. (“Hap”) Ward of the Associated Press estimated “there are 23 [labor reporters] between here and St. Louis,” and he argued for even more labor reporters: “There ought to be at least 200 labor reporters—at least part-time—because in every industrial town there is something in labor-management news and if the newspapers cannot see it to their advantage to cater to their readers, the wage earners, it is just too bad.”
Unfortunately, within two decades of the labor reporting summit, the hopes of the attendees came undone. Today there are just six full-time labor reporters in the top 25 newspapers across the U.S., none in network or cable news, none at NPR or PBS, and just a few at digital news organizations and magazines on the left. What happened?
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, newspaper companies, then becoming publicly-traded, bigger chains, moved to a new business trajectory that changed the target news audience from mass to upscale, and altered the actual news narratives about the working class in US journalism.
Today, the upscale news audience is the normal objective of news organizations’ marketing efforts. Nearly every mainstream news organization’s media kit claims they have an above-average audience of high-income, highly-educated consumers and influencers.
As the labor beat was left to wither, newspapers pursued more upscale readers with workplace “lifestyle” columns featuring the lives of young professionals and their concerns about office gossip, job interview strategy, expense accounts, and office party etiquette.
Personal finance news also began its ascendancy in the 1970s. The focus was on individualism: people had to take care of themselves. Time Inc.’s launch of the magazine Money in 1972 helped to kick off a boom in personal finance stories, which assumed that every upscale reader had an investment portfolio.
Data on readership from 1967 to 1997 from the Newspaper Association of America reveal a sharp decline of the “downscale” readers the industry rejected. In 1967 readership rates among those who attended high school (but did not graduate) were not far from those who graduated from high school, attended college, or graduated from college: just an 11.3 percent difference across the educational spectrum. By 1977, the percentage difference in readership across levels of education grew to 19.2 percent, and to 22.9 percent by 1997. The growing disparity in newspaper readership was clearly caused by a much greater decline in readership levels in those whose education level did not reach graduation from college. Ironically, if newspapers wanted to build their circulation, their largest populations of readers (and potential readers) were in the categories with lower educational attainment: the same readers many newspapers had intentionally dismissed.
U.S. adults: average weekly newspaper readership education level, 1967–1997
|Attend HS||HS graduate||Attend college||College graduate|
Note: Numbers in thousands.
Source: Newspaper Association of America
The upscale focus of the news upset the status of labor unions and upended politics through the last third of the twentieth century and beyond. The mainstream news media’s write-off of the working class set the conditions for the decline of labor and working class news and the rise of a deeply partisan conservative media that hailed the abandoned white, working-class audience. (Working-class women and people of color had no similar emergent news media platform to pursue them as an audience.) The right wing then attacked the upscale-focused mainstream news media as “elite” and ultimately as “the enemy of the people.” Given this politicized media infrastructure, the “surprise” of a Donald Trump presidency seems much less of one.
This has left us with two problematic ways in which the news has covered the working class for the last several decades. First, the news media usually look at the working class only through the lens of a political news story, not through the lens of a labor or workplace story. Second, the news media typically consider the “working class” not in its entirety, but just in the stereotypical white male form, which nicely serves the purposes of divisive politicians who seek to exploit this image and divide working-class people on every other dimension: race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and citizenship.
Yet the whole of the working class is hardly ever presented or imagined by the US news media. This is a nation of people with all kinds of collars. Service-sector jobs account for 80.3 percent of jobs; manufacturing, construction, and mining—the types of jobs Trump regularly cites for his economic objectives—make up only 12.6 percent, about the same percentage as health care and social assistance (part of the service sector), the fastest-growing employment category. People of all races, genders, and political persuasions inhabit the working class, and they exist as real people, not just occasionally visible and selectively cast props for presidential campaigns. But with few exceptions, America’s working class is invisible, deemed no longer newsworthy.
My concern is about journalism’s future as an inclusive social practice. Journalism critics Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel offer a moral compass in their indispensable book The Elements of Journalism: “If we think of journalism as social cartography, the map should include news of all our communities, not just those with attractive demographics or strong appeal to advertisers.” Unfortunately, journalism’s “map” for years has been exclusive, consigning working-class people and their communities to obscurity—a class-based redlining of the news audience, the same people Hap Ward would call their readers, the wage earners.
There are some steps that could be taken to make good on the idea of more reporting on labor and the working class. First, journalists are already taking one important action – unionizing themselves, which former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse reported earlier this year. Unionization helps to close the gap between journalists and the communities they cover, in which many of the citizens stand on similar economically precarious ground. Second, news media organizations need to cover the labor beat more expansively than just organized labor, or white male hardhats. Bill Serrin, the late New York Times labor reporter from 1979 to 1986, once told me the beat should be defined “as work. You cover work, you cover everything.” Finally, if the mainstream news media want to talk to the working class, they need to find them, give them a voice, and include them in their audience (and not treat them as just a subject of anthropological investigation). This recommendation will likely be the hardest to do, since it requires reconsideration of the upscale consumer business model that has defined the news business for nearly 50 years. But, it may also be the answer to finding a bigger audience for American journalism at its sobering moment of crisis.