Tag Archives: working-class stories

“Let’s Get To Work” — on the Weekends!

I started following Ed Schultz, the beefy, loud mouthed, pro-labor MSNBC anchor on Twitter a year ago last spring, when Pennsylvania education cuts were starting to reverberate across the state, forcing thousands of K-12 schools to cut art, band, music, drama, and science programs. Right around this time, the Pittsburgh Opera decided to give Governor Tom Corbett a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the arts, and Pittsburghers staged a raucous rally to protest Corbett’s award and to bring attention to the cuts. Schultz caught wind of the statewide crisis and helped to focus attention on it by giving it ample coverage on his show.

Schultz, occupying the coveted 8:00 PM slot for two years, from 2011 to 2013, was the only MSNBC host who seemed to be following the school cuts as closely as I was. Watching Schultz I had the feeling—one I rarely get from the mainstream media—that he was speaking for me and the thousands of other “little people” across the country who were losing their jobs, their homes, their schools, their unions, their homes, their healthcare, and their dignity in the wake of the great financial collapse of 2008.

During his education coverage last spring, I watched The Ed Show almost every night, but over the course of Schultz’s tenure at MSNBC I didn’t watch as often as I should have, and now I feel bad. In March of this year Schultz announced he was moving to 5:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays later in the spring. He claims that he “raised his hand” for the assignment, but it’s hard to believe that he would give up a prime time weekday slot, voluntarily, for a weekend gig.

Schultz, admittedly, doesn’t look or sound like a lot of the other hosts on MSNBC. He’s 59, barrel chested, and a former football player. He was an All-American quarterback at Minnesota State University in the 1970s, played as a free agent for the Oakland Raiders, and had a short stint with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Canada. In 1982, Schultz became a sportscaster for KTHI-TV, in Fargo, North Dakota, and started calling the radio play-by-play for North Dakota State University football games. He didn’t broadcast his political opinions until the 1990s, when he started adding political commentary to his sportscasts. Then, he started broadcasting “on location” in economically depressed American towns. Oddly, Schultz stayed No. 1 in his market for 10 years, “despite the fact that [his] political views changed radically—from conservative to progressive—during that time.”

As Schultz tells it, his second wife, a nurse named Wendy, was the one who brought him out of what he describes as his “right-wing darkness.” She introduced him to homeless people and veterans where she worked, and she encouraged him to meet with struggling Dakota plains farmers face to face. By 2009, Schultz had a successful radio show, The Ed Schultz Show, on the Jones network.  MSNBC first tapped him to host a 6:00 pm show, then a 10:00 pm show, and then moved him to the coveted 8:00 pm slot when Keith Olbermann left in a blaze of rage and bluster.

During his time at MSNBC, Schultz has put his foot in it at least once. In 2011 he called Laura Ingrahm a “right wing slut.” He quickly made an on-air apology and took a week off the air, without pay, as penance. But most of the time, Schultz has been a rare champion of the working class, taking his anchor desk to Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan as these rust belt states have fought off attacks from Scott Walker, the Koch Brothers, and the Ohio supporters of SB 5, a severely anti-union bill that was signed into law and then reversed by Ohio voters—with the help Schultz’s powerful 8:00 pm newscasts. As Schultz explained in an interview with the AFT, “we’re . . . staying focused on the plight of the workers, on outsourcing, privatization, the loss of collective bargaining rights, cuts to wages, on the attacks on workers, and working on solutions that will help the working class in this country.”

Was Ed Schultz sidelined, or did he go willingly? There are conflicting accounts. This blogger speculates that Schultz was pushed out because he could not make a dent in audience attracted to the Bill O’Reilly Show, Fox’s 8:00 PM behemoth. But according to The Daily Beast, it was Schultz’s idea to move to the weekend. He still does his radio show every day, and he told his boss at MSNBC, Phil Griffin, that he wanted to spend more time with his wife, who has recently undergone treatment for ovarian cancer, at their home in Minnesota.

Ed Schultz’s replacement is no slouch—the eggheady Nation-affiliated Chris Hayes, who created a loyal following for his weekend show, Up with Chris Hayes, over the last two years. The charm of Up was that Hayes interviewed small groups of super smart people about things they had written books about, and then wowed his audience with his ability to understand everything that his guests were saying, weave it together into a narrative, and, sometimes, cut people off and referee.

Hayes is also not completely alienated from the working class. He explained to Politico that he “grew up in the Bronx,” the son of a teacher (his mother) and a community organizer (his father). In 2012, his brother worked as a paid organizer for the Obama campaign. “I come from a working-class background,” explained Hayes. “My first job was as a labor reporter for a socialist newspaper in the Midwest, called In These Times.” Hayes insists that he has a “genuine awe and admiration” for Schultz’s focus on working-class and labor issues, and he says wants to continue the conversation that Schultz started.

But Hayes has more of a challenge ahead then just paying homage to the working class. Hayes’s Up formula of intelligent conversation with learned professors, sitting Congressional representatives you’ve never heard of, and double or triple the number of women of color and/or gay and lesbian guests than we see on the other networks, might not play well in prime time. Hayes simply will not have as much time to talk, or to listen, as he did before. As Inside Cable News argued, the secret formula that made Up so great “is nontransferable.” Will Chris Hayes find a new way to be the bleeding-heart brainiac—in 47 minutes—that made Up so watchable?

Part of the problem here may be one of demographics. Did Ed Schultz attract an older, bluer-collar, and less affluent audience than Chris Hayes did? Does Hayes, with his fashionable specs, wry humor, and baby face (he’s only 34), represent the kind of affluent, college-educated viewer that MSNBC wants to attract? Is the working class in the US in decline—so much so that they are not even sought after as an audience for the only liberal cable news outlet on the dial?

Regardless, the MSNBC staff is probably scrambling over at Hayes’s new show, All In, because its ratings have not been great—worse than what Schultz used to pull in. But as political blogger Jason Easley has argued, MSNBC has “time on its side.” While FOX might continue to dominate with older, more conservative viewers, cable news viewers are getting younger, and more progressive, with every passing year.

In the meantime, if you miss your daily dose of the pro-labor grizzly bear, Ed Schultz, check out The Ed Show online or at 5:00 PM on Saturday and Sunday. Schultz claims he will use the freedom of his new schedule to spend more time on the road, talking to the working-class people he continues to see as his special cause. And he still starts every show with his signature tag line “Let’s Get to Work.”

Kathy M. Newman



News for the Consumer Class

It is no surprise to readers of newspapers – or readers of this blog — that newspapers contain little coverage of labor and working-class economic issues. Although I’d hesitate to say there was ever a “golden era” of labor coverage, there was a time not too long ago when newspapers regularly reported on the activities of labor unions – contract negotiations, strikes, and community activities.

The shift away from more active labor reporting came in the late 1960s, when the newspaper industry started to employ the tools of the growing consumer research industry to target “quality” demographics – that is, more upwardly mobile readers, with higher education and higher incomes.  Although we like to think of journalism as a democratic practice, by the 1970s it served only a select group of consumers.

We can track the consumer shift in newspapers in Editor & Publisher, the leading trade journal where newspapers placed advertisements to sell their audience to national advertisers. The main commercial message of U.S. newspapers in the mass-market era of pre-1970s was simple: they had lots of readers who earned good wages in America’s booming industry and could buy advertisers’ products.


For example, this Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph ad from January 6, 1940 instructed advertisers to “Hitch Your Budget to a Boom.” The indicator, according to the ad, was that “Pittsburgh industrial electric power sales are up 45%.”  The equation was simple: “More electric power means more buying power; for more electricity, used by industry, means more production, more employment, more wages, more money to spend for your products.”

By the 1970s, the Editor & Publisher ads make clear, newspapers shunned the mass working-class audience. Newspapers decided that delivering wage earners to advertisers wasn’t enough; they wanted to deliver “quality” consumers to their advertisers.

ClevePD9May70_p23You can see this new tone in an ad for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the dominant newspaper in the famously working-class city. The May 9, 1970 ad featured a drawing of a young, fashionable woman on a black and pink striped chair.  The design’s flattened image, bold color, and wavy stripes style echoed George Dunning’s 1968 animated Beatle’s film fantasy Yellow Submarine. The visual image of the ad makes a break with the past (earlier ads rarely portrayed a select group of readers visually), and the text of the ad makes the break with the Plain Dealer‘s mass readership, too: “Our readers are the first people – affluent moderns who are the first with new things for better living.  And who find where to buy them first in The Plain Dealer.”

LAHer-Ex11Apr70_insfrntFor some newspapers, like the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, the afternoon competitor to the morning Los Angeles Times, the shift from its mostly working-class readership to becoming “the rich man’s newspaper” was swift. In an April 11, 1970 full-page Editor & Publisher ad – with a stereotypical “rich man” image of a suited, cufflinked, and pinky-ringed executive in a leather chair peering out from the stock exchange pages – the newspaper seemed overjoyed to target a new audience.  The ad read, in part:  “Suddenly, we find ourselves in the money. For about two years we’ve suspected a circulation shift toward richer readers. Now it’s official… This calls for a fresh look at the whole Los Angeles market.” The tagline was “Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, where the money is.” (Ironically, union jobs helped to create better-compensated readers in LA and across the country.

We can see the shift to consumerism in newspaper stories, as well. By the 1970s, the tone of articles about labor began to take a consumer perspective across all the mainstream news media. For example, consumers, not workers, became the central narrative figures of strike coverage. Instead of describing strikes primarily as disagreements over collective bargaining, stories cast them as being about how strikes inconvenienced consumers– transit systems immobilized, goods in short supply, services delayed.  With the new focus on consumers, newspapers let their labor beats wither and die. Today the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are the only top newspapers in the country with a dedicated labor beat reporter.  Starting in the late 1960s, most newspapers across the country added a “workplace” columnist, who covered life in the preferred office cubicle environment, and covered topics like workplace romances, office parties, and what to wear on casual Fridays. This is the predominant kind of “workplace” coverage today.

Of course, one could argue that a lot of general news readers became television news viewers by the 1970s, which is true. But TV, which welcomed mass audiences, didn’t provide the same level of labor and working class coverage. No national news network had a dedicated labor beat reporter, and few local TV stations covered labor and working class issues on a regular basis.

The transformation of journalism’s target audience away from citizen/workers to citizen/consumers created two big “blind spots” for journalism when it comes to working-class issues. First, labor journalism is nearly nonexistent. Over the past several decades, some stories have examined the shocking levels of income inequality, but no consistent beat covers labor or working-class issues.  The occasional stories that do appear lack any sense of continuity or content.  It’s not unlike the sports pages covering the Super Bowl game, but without reporting the entire season’s worth of the games leading up to it. How could one appreciate the Super Bowl story’s magnitude?

Second, stories that do get reported often reflect a consumer point of view. Anji L. Phillips of Bradley University and I have tracked this in reports on the 2012 bankruptcy and shutdown of Hostess Brands. (We both had Hostess facilities shuttered in our communities in Iowa and Illinois.)  From a journalistic point of view, it’s a tragic and fascinating story of a major national corporation and employer. One might expect the Hostess Brands story to delve into the very checkered managerial history of Hostess, with leveraged buyouts, a slew of acquisitions, a revolving door to the CEO suite (six CEOs in a decade!), union concessions, underfunded pensions, two bankruptcies in 10 years, hedge fund investments, lax accounting, and poor product development.  In many ways, Hostess Brands could have been a story that exemplified the excesses and shortcomings of American business since the 1970s.  Instead, the main interpretive frame of the closing of Hostess Brands, and the loss of 18,500 jobs, cast it primarily as a consumer story.

I don’t fault journalists for using the Twinkie as a “hook” for getting the audience into the story (about 90 percent of the national news stories in 2012 we analyzed did this). But, I do fault journalists who made Twinkies the main frame of the story (about 50 percent of the stories did this).

The consumer framing of labor news always ends up badly for labor unions, as their position gets lost in the emphasis on consumers. For example, even though Hostess workers’ labor unions made big concessions worth $110 million a year and lost 10,000 jobs in the first bankruptcy of 2004-2009, more than 60 percent of the 2012 news stories blamed the union for the Hostess closing. From the news media framing of the story, only the union’s resistance to more contract concessions stood between consumers and a continuing supply of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and Ho Hos.

Given that the news will not likely change the way it’s been covering labor for the past 40 years, an alternative is for labor communicators to use the consumer frame themselves.  A big factor in success of the UPS strike of 1997 was workers leveraging their relationships with UPS consumers.  The same could have happened in the Hostess case.  Eric Blair in Labor Notes suggests how this might have worked:

At Hostess, whose products are iconic American brands loved by millions, a campaign to safeguard Twinkies from private equity vultures might have had the dual impact of winning public support for the workers and angering management by interfering in its relationship with its customers. The fact that consumers started hoarding the famous snack cakes during the Bakery workers’ strike suggests the potential.

This could be the way forward:  workers as the advocates, not enemies, of consumers.

Christopher R. Martin

Martin is Interim Head and Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Northern Iowa.  He is the author of Framed! Labor and the Corporate Media (Cornell University Press) and is working on a book about news media coverage of labor in the twentieth century.

This American Strife: What Happened To The Working Class In The Mike Daisey Retraction?

On March 18, the popular public-radio program This American Life issued an unprecedented retraction of the now-infamous episode in which performer Mike Daisey recounts his supposedly firsthand experiences of exploitative labor practices at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China that produces Apple products.  The issue was not that Daisey had misrepresented the company’s labor practices.  Instead, the concern was Daisey’s misrepresentation of his interactions with Foxconn workers.  A full explanation of the inconsistencies in Daisey’s story and the subsequent fallout can be found in the retraction itself, in which both Daisey and TAL host Ira Glass suggest that Daisey’s theatrical untruths serve a broader existential truth, namely that Apple conceals from view the kinds of inhumane and unjust employment practices to which Daisey supposedly gives a human face.  The situation raises several issues related to the ethical standards of theater and journalism, particularly how these standards apply to depictions of the working class.

Public radiophiles have been buzzing for weeks with the revelation of these fabrications, but what has gone largely overlooked and uncommented on, despite write-ups from outlets as diverse as Slate, Entertainment Weekly, and The Washington Post, is how Daisey’s own business practices— the concealment of fact, the smoothing over of complexity in order to form a sleek, streamlined narrative— mirror those of the company whose exploitation he claims to have “outed.”  No doubt Apple understands the centrality of narrative to its marketing success more thoroughly and successfully than any other contemporary corporation.  Suppressing the unpleasant reality of its production practices, Apple peddles a lineup of sleek, minimalist products expressive of an existential “truth” for the consumers who buy them.  We buy iPhones, in other words, not because they have the fastest download speed or the largest screen of any phone on the market— in fact the iPhone remains stunningly behind in both of these categories— but because Apple has wrapped the phone, like all its products, in a narrative of which we want to be a part, a narrative of youth, fashionability, and cleanliness.  (It is one of the damning ironies of the company that one of the adjectives most often used to describe its products, assembled by workers who often work 24-hour shifts in dust-choked factories, is “clean.”)

While Apple conceals its outsourcing of exploitative working conditions in order for its consumers to preserve an image of themselves as socially-conscious global citizens, Daisey conceals actual working conditions in China in order to create the “clean,” streamlined narrative that we, as theatergoers and consumers, want to hear.  Daisey’s stage-performance works not because it peddles an objective glimpse behind the curtain of Apple’s business practices, but because it sells us the story of our lives that we desire, a narrative of ourselves as committed, well-meaning liberals.  Daisey’s story does implicate us in a system of social and economic exploitation, but its ultimate effect is to numb us to this complicity by reassuring us that we somehow transcend this exploitation simply by knowing about and acknowledging it.

In this respect, Daisey’s show is the theater version of the “slacktivism” that so often clutters our News Feeds with links to “KONY 2012” or Mother Jones graphs of American income distribution.  This kind of slacktivism may indeed be consciousness-raising, but it gives us a false sense that we are taking real action toward addressing the root causes of the problems these links point to.  Not only should we acknowledge the limitations of working-class slacktivism, we should also endeavor toward action in the real world of protests, picket lines, and legislation.  It is not enough, in other words, to post links in support of the working class, especially if we’re doing it using products, including the MacBook on which I write this, that undermine the sentiment behind those links; from the beginning, this kind of protest participates in the very practices it condemns.  And this is the genius of Daisey’s show, that it allows us to feel outraged— and self-righteous and angry and indignant and betrayed— but has the added bonus of permitting us to take no real action against the source of our outrage.

This is not to say that conditions at Foxconn, or at any other factory in China, are more pleasant than Daisey makes them out to be.  Workers, to cite an example from Apple’s own supplier standards, are often pressured to work 60-hour weeks on “sped-up” assembly lines at wages low enough to ensure a marginal profit for the corporations that employ them.  Between January and November 2010, a wave of suicides at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen prompted the company to install suicide-prevention netting around its buildings after 14 workers hurled themselves from the factory roofs.  And workers at an Apple factory in Turkey, who sometimes work 30-hour shifts, have been instantly fired for attempting to join a union, even after sustaining workplace injuries that could have been avoided had Apple taken basic safety precautions.  Recently, the Fair Labor Association issued its own critical report on Foxconn labor practices, noting widespread worker dissatisfaction with these kinds of abuses.

At the risk of apologizing for Apple, however, examining the intricacies of these situations— for example that thousands of workers “voluntarily” enroll at these factories, which offer some of the “best” jobs in China, or that Apple is merely one offender among thousands in a globalized system of labor abuse— requires the kind of time and detail that would disrupt the gripping narrative that Daisey constructs.  And in constructing this narrative, he misuses the working class in a manner similar to, though less severe than, Apple’s own mistreatment of its workers.  By fabricating his encounters with the workers of Shenzhen, Daisey transforms human individuals into cogs in the machine of fiction, mere characters designed to plug a hole on the assembly line of rising and falling action.

Even This American Life‘s “retraction” of the Daisey episode ends up oversimplifying, if not ignoring, the working class with which the story began.  In issuing its own quasi-apology for misleading its listeners, TAL wraps itself in the narrative we’ve always wanted to hear from our journalists, the narrative that, despite increasing pressure from a host of complicated factors, journalists continue to hold themselves to a higher standard of truth.  We need only look at the fabrications of a Jayson Blair or a Michael Olesker— or any program on Fox News for that matter— to understand how dangerous this narrative can be.

To its credit, TAL does not defend Apple, but nor does it attempt to interview a single worker at Foxconn or contextualize the experiences of those workers within the bigger picture of the globalized economy.  And while it discredits Daisey in order to prop up its own ethical stance, the show fails to point out that Daisey’s analysis remains an accurate, if mishandled, assessment of the working class both at home and abroad.  Indeed, TAL‘s apologetic hand-wringing conceals how the show utilizes Daisey and the abuses on which he “reports” to paint itself as a bastion of journalistic integrity, while ignoring, like so much American journalism, the broader systemic injustice of which those abuses are a part.  The narratives of both Daisey and Glass employ the working class, like Apple, as a mere tool to bolster each entertainer’s professional reputation.  As consumers of these narratives— and of all popular media in which workers’ voices remain suppressed, mediated, or misrepresented— we should recognize that the true narratives of the working class can only be constructed by workers themselves.

Christopher Kemp

Christopher Kempf is an adjunct faculty member at the Indiana Institute of Technology, and will be a 2012-2014 Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University.

A Visit to the Food Pantry

I went to visit my daughter today to the food pantry.  It’s my first time ever. It’s twenty-five degrees outside and sunny.  We arrive before 9:30 AM, already the line is fairly long leading to the three-bay garage building.  My daughter seems to be feeling her way, not really sure how to proceed.  Yesterday during our phone conversation she told me, “You sit in the car, drive   through and they load everything in your car.”  But that’s not really the way it happens.

For a long time we wait in the cold, not really moving, and she has to be at work by 11:00 AM.  She rarely calls, so I want to share the morning with her no matter what she’s doing. Regularly, my husband takes food to our small town’s pantry, but I’ve never been there.  I don’t go.  I don’t offer to work there either, and I could.  I really could.

Inside this whale’s belly my daughter and I struggle to speak.  These days everything I   say makes her feel defensive.  I believe she has depression, maybe she dislikes her life and displaced anger is not uncommon.  What mother wants to see her child’s arms flailing?  It is difficult for both of us.

My eyes are open and looking into the faces of America.  The elders are here.  Some with their scarves and hats and mittens, and others, like me, dressed wrong for this weather.  At the parking lot’s perimeter, there are odd pieces of cast-off furniture: a brown corduroy couch, loveseat, mismatched dressers, and a nice old-lady chair letting the shade sit there first and then the sun.  To our left there’s a box of knit caps – in Appalachia, we called them toboggans — for babies.  Off to the right, there’s a table of coats with a “one per family” sign printed with a black sharpie on a piece of cardboard.  A big swell of odd clothing lies on a picnic table by the shed, and folks constantly look sideways as they pick through it.  Milling around there’s a heavyset woman with her little boy in a toboggan with a red-face and camo sweatshirt, which is not nearly warm enough for this morning.  A small boy in a tan raincoat carries a pair of white tennis shoes he found on the table to his mother, and there’s a bag of broken glazed donuts being passed down the line.  Everyone is welcome to eat as many as they want.  It feels like communion.  Yes.  Our faces shine in the light, and we are, however slowly, making our way to the altar.

My daughter knows she must not miss work.  I point to the man who seems to be in charge.  I say, “Go tell him you have to go to work, and ask if I can stand for you and get the food.”

All this time she has struggled to think of things to say to me.  I’m just sort of numb.  Up since 6:00 AM, I’ve already scrubbed floors, started laundry and picked up a house suffering from clutter.  She tells me, “Did you hear about the boy on his bicycle at the lake last night?  He was hit and killed.  They are reopening Natalie Wood’s case after thirty years.”  Really?  I want to say, but I’m quiet.  Why must death always be at the center of our lives?  Last week didn’t I go to three funerals?  Wasn’t one of them a good friend to my daughter?  A good-hearted man with a terrible disease, only forty-five years old and gone

forever.  She leaves the line to speak with the man in charge.

“Let’s go Mom; I’m taking you home for a scarf and gloves.  You can get your car.  He said it’s okay for you to get the food.”  I nod and move out of line.  In silence we walk to her car.

She tells me, “I’m leaving the apartment unlocked.  These are the only keys we have.  Here’s a paper you will need to get the food.  I love you Mom, and thank you, thanks for doing this.”  A sound comes into her voice I have not heard forever, she leans over, and gives me a kiss.  “I love you,” she whispers.  “Live well,” I answer.

Now, I must remember the way back to the food pantry.  I forget one turn and wind up near the railroad tracks.  I turn around.  When I see the chicken house sign, I know I’m on the right path. But I have lost my place in line.  This is the story that keeps   happening to all of us, but didn’t I read somewhere the last shall be first?  And that white-haired man in his warm green coat, didn’t I hear him tell a tall boy wearing an orange knit hat, “Yes, yes you can stand for your grandma and your mother.”  And didn’t that boy grin at me saying, “They had to go to the car.  My grandma is old and my Mom has a neurology disease. She has MS.  She can’t stand too long.”  I saw his grandmother’s pale face under her stocking cap, watched her wobbly gait steadied on the arm of her daughter who is younger than me.

In our long line there’s not one person of color because this is the north end of our county, but I know ten miles down the road people are waiting/wanting/hoping the wind may die down and quit blowing them like leaves.  Odd sizes of baby diapers sit under a sign that says, “Please do not take for relatives or friends.” You must think only of yourself.  These are the rules for survival.  Everyone in line knows the rules, but one package of diapers doesn’t have a size marked.  Like a crystal ball, mothers lift it up and try to guess its mystery.

Against the gravel, I stomp and stomp my feet. Without thinking, I am learning this new dance.  About twenty people have arrived since I went to get my own car.  I check to be sure the paper my daughter gave me is in my pocket.  For her scarf and gloves, I am grateful.  The newcomers are mostly women.  Elderly. White hair, walkers, and canes.  Oh Lord, I think, who will carry their food inside when they get home?  I step out of line, go to the place where first we started.  “Do you remember me?  I was just here with my daughter.  She had to go to work.”

“Yes, I remember you.  You were with the woman in a black coat.”  And the tall boy in his orange knit cap nods and smiles.

“Well, would you mind if I step back into line here?  I have to get my mother-in-law to physical therapy by noon.”

“Sure.  Jump right back in here,” the woman replies.

A first-grade boy swings the bag of broken donuts.  He stops in front of us.  “Want a donut for a penny?” he asks.  His mop of brown hair and grin are contagious.  We start laughing. All of us.  It ripples up and down our line.  “An entrepreneur,” I comment.  The woman behind me says, “Yes.”  Our laughter and this cold, hurting air starts an old man’s chronic cough.  We watch him struggle.  We hear his phlegm rattle and somehow it chokes us all.

We are about twelve feet from the white door.  A lady in a mauve coat opens it every so often and says, “Three of you may come inside now.  Bring your numbers.”  I think of heaven. I think of all the people who must wait their turn.  People here are not grumpy.  Lord, they are pleasant.  All these volunteers who have been here for several hours setting this up and the woman with black-rimmed glasses who checks me in with her big ledger, the woman who saw my I don’t know what to do next look and leaned closer to ask me, “Is this your first time?”

“Yes, yes.  It’s my first time.  I’m here for my daughter.  She had to go to work.”

“Tell me her name.”

“Julie.  Julie Brown.”

There’s a box with note cards she thumbs.  It looks like my recipe box.  “Here she is.  Now, just find her name in the book.  Sign her name with your initials after it.  Give me your number.”  She sounds like my second grade teacher, and I do just as I’m told.

My number is four.  There are four people in my daughter’s family.  Two of them are children.  “We have another four,” a man yells to his co-workers in the back of this huge unheated garage.  And bags of food are placed into a deep plastic wheelbarrow.  My number four lies in there too.  It feels like I’ve hit the jackpot at a quarter casino machine.  A man pushes my wheelbarrow toward the produce.  Cabbage, green peppers, onions, acorn squash, apples and ten pounds of potatoes get carefully loaded.  Someone hands over a big frozen turkey, a small roast, juice drinks.  Another voice tells me to take a jug of laundry detergent.  Every voice is cheerful.  The wheelbarrow aches under its weight.  “Lead the way,” the man smiles at me.

“The tan Chevy, over there,” I say, choking on something I can not name.

His cheeks flush from the cold, and both our bifocals help us to see everything more clearly.  Together, we lift and load what has been given into my car.  “Have a happy Thanksgiving,” he says.  “God bless you, all of you,” I tell him.  Our words stir the air like church bells calling us back to something we once knew and must never forget.

Jeanne Bryner

Jeanne Bryner is a poet, a former emergency room nurse, and a community affiliate of the Center for Working-Class Studies

Working Labor Back into the News

In her last post, CWCS affiliate Denise Narcisse looked at the Pew Center’s latest research on the digital divide in America and noted the ways in which digital deprivation for poorer and working-class families amounts to a form of social and economic disenfranchisement.

To be sure, one of the most serious implications of the digital divide is the barriers to information lower income and working-class citizens need to fully participate in the political and social spheres of their communities and of the nation. But, even if working-class and poor Americans were to gain regular access to digital news and information sources, I wonder what kind of news and information they would find. For as traditional commercial news organizations migrate to the web, too many are replicating the structures and agendas that have elided the experiences and interests of the poor and working classes for most of the 20th and 21st centuries.

It is certainly not news to note that commercial mainstream news media abandoned the working class quite some time ago.  The reasons for this desertion are numerous and widely cited: advertisers increasingly want to appeal to more affluent readers, reporters and editors no longer come from working-class backgrounds, and corporate media ownership encourages an ethic of business.

These factors, combined with the steady downsizing in newsrooms that began long before the crisis of competition with online news, resulted in the replacement of substantive issues stories in mainstream commercial media (the sources relied upon by most working-class people according to Nielsen) with cheap-to-produce stories about celebrities and scandals. For example, The Pew Research Center found that in 2007, the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Iraq, that Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith received more extensive coverage than the war, noting that, “During the two days immediately following Smith’s death, nearly a quarter of the news from all sectors (24%) was devoted to this story. Public interest did not match the amount of coverage, and 61% of Americans said the story was being over-covered.”

One result of this is that Americans who rely solely on commercial media for political knowledge and hard news are being denied critical information and analyses of the national and international events that may ultimately affect their daily lives.

In their recent book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols cite a recent study by a group of communications researchers that finds Americans with a high school education or less who rely on commercial media for news, score just above the 20th percentile in political knowledge of international and right at the 40th percentile for domestic hard news, compared to the next lowest group, British news consumers, who score just above 50 percent and 60 percent respectively. For McChesney and Nichols, the data suggest that American “commercial media systems tend to marginalize the poor and working class,” endangering the very purpose of a free press system.

Furthering the disenfranchisement of the working class is the skewing of coverage of workers issues, part of the mainstream media pursuit of an affluent consumer base designed to appeal to advertisers.

McChesney and Nichols cite Christopher Martin’s benchmark analysis, Upscale News Audiences and the Transformation of Labour News, which documents the emergence of news coverage targeted at an “upscale” readership, in which he charts the shift in labor coverage in the U.S. and Canada evidenced by content analyses of coverage of transportation strikes in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Toronto Star. Martin chronicles the movement in news accounts of the strikes from accounts of legitimate disputes between workers and management to tales of inconveniences suffered by the majority of consumers using transportation services. For Martin, this reconfiguration of news is related to the increasing consolidation of media and its adoption of the practices and ethic of big business, and this adoption is apparent in the narrative frames, and even in the language, in which the strikes are presented, notably in the commonplace phrasing that management makes “offers” while unions make “demands” or, as Mc Chesney and Nichols observe, “Poor and working-class people are, for all intents and purposes, only newsworthy to the extent that they get in the way of rich people” (51).

And, while the burgeoning economy of online news sites and blogs has led to increased awareness of working-class lives and struggles (as evidenced by this site) these issues often remain relegated to specialized sites and targeted user searches. Many mainstream sites still foreground the business beat at the expense of the labor beat and the former rarely represents the interests of the latter in a way different from what Martin describes. And too often, when working-class people are featured in mainstream accounts, they serve as anecdotes or catchy narrative leads to pave a colorful path to the “experts,” the real sources for the story.

There are of course, exceptions. Some excellent examples of stories that chronicle the lives and issues of working class Americans have emerged in the major dailies, particularly since the start of the Great Recession. Anne Hull of the Washington Post has written about the struggles of working class Americans with precision and detail, and Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times reports on the complexities of labor, economics and politics in a way that connects policies with people.

Yet, with the opportunities of the internet and the demand for news organizations to reinvent themselves comes the opportunity for the profession to further rediscover its working-class roots and mission– if news producers can see both a means and a benefit for undoing the damage, for as John Nerone notes in a 2009 article for Journalism:

The past half-century of neglect leaves a lot to overcome: the media have worked hard to encourage ordinary people to think of themselves as consumers rather than as workers, and to regard any overt appeal to the working class as not just biased but old, dreary, and boring.

Nerone believes, however, that there exists potential for news organizations to reconnect to their working-class readers, and that because traditional filters and gatekeepers are falling away in the new media economy, that such a reconnection is not only possible but beneficial, because in today’s economy, more and more people self-identify as workers. Indeed, with the most recent Labor Department data showing that 80 percent of the economy is tied to the service sector, Nerone may be on to something.

If news outlets continue to try to rely on advertising for revenue, which Nerone believes is probable, but McChesney and Nichols do not, then in theory, news sites can rely on advertisers who now recognize the importance of reaching the working-class, an appealing proposition, particularly for local news outlets, which many agree might be best positioned to carve out a niche in the online economy. In fact, People magazine has recently begun developing stories about working class people, telling CWCS co-director John Russo, that they understand that most of their readers are working class women.

Endorsing this rather optimistic view, Robert Niles of OJR: The Online Journalism Review lists the five most important beats for a local newspaper/newssite, and included in this list is the Labor Beat:

We eat. We learn. We work. But how many publications cover work, from the worker’s perspective? Business stories typically focus on the management side. But what about the pocketbook and workplace politics issues that employees face? Where’s the coverage of that? This is the home for your consumer reporting, including household finance and budgeting, but also for local development issues covered from an employee’s point of view. Are development incentives helping create jobs and pay for workers, or just fatting management’s pockets for projects that would have happened anyway?

For both Niles and Nerone, the resurgence of the labor/work beats would, at a local level, help to refranchise working class news consumers. And, if these stories were done in a way that explains the relationship between state, national, and international policies and the everyday lives of the working citizens, news sites could do much to return to the mission of journalism and to remedy the deficits in democratic participation.

Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies









Where’s the Working-Class Web?

While Working-Class Perspectives aims to reflect the interests and experiences of working-class people, in truth we spend more time talking about the working class than listening to actual working-class voices.  But, it turns out, finding working-class voices online isn’t easy.

About a year ago, a reporter from the MinnPost called me to ask why so few working-class people have created websites about how to do things like plumbing or electrical wiring.  He noted that many creative professionals were writing blogs about how to manage their freelance writing, graphic design, and web development businesses.  He was frustrated that he couldn’t find a good site that would show him how to do things like fix a broken toilet, and he wondered why blue-collar work wasn’t more present online.  His theory was that working-class people lacked the education to use the web.  I suggested that the story might be more complex than that.  Plumbers might not view their work as anything worth writing about, or they might not see writing as either useful or enjoyable.  And maybe they’d rather we hire them to fix our backed-up toilets and clogged sinks.

While I was frustrated by his assumptions, he’s not wrong to note the relative invisibility of the working class online.  You’ll find good informational sites run by labor organizations, and several academic organizations, like the Center for Working-Class Studies, make resources available on working-class culture.  But after these listings a Google search on “working class” leads mostly to commercial ventures that use the term to denote something about their style.

A few sites do offer workers’ voices, though most are run by either cultural institutions or unions.  Take, for example, Working Stiff, a short-lived web project that collected workplace diaries, offered advice to workers on how to stand up for their rights at work, and even offered a “stress-o-meter” to help you measure how tough your job was.  It was a project of PBS’s  Web Lab, from more than a decade ago.  Not exactly a working-class operation, but a genuine and interesting effort to create a space for workers’ voices.

You can hear workers’ voices on some labor websites.  Change to Win, for example, has a page of worker testimonials about workplace issues.  Here, as in many of the websites that include statements from or interviews with workers, there’s an overt agenda – not worker expression for its own sake.

Some poetry websites includes poems about work, but again these are largely sponsored and created by more middle-class cultural institutions.  Poets.org has a great online exhibit on work poetry, “Overhand the Hammers Swing,” put together by Philip Levine.  One of my favorite poets of work, Tom Wayman, has some pieces online, and this week, with the latest mining disaster in West Virginia, is a good time to search out the poems of Diane Gilliam Fisher, who’s Kettle Bottom takes us deep into the lives of miners from the first half of the 20th century.

All of this, of course, defines “working class” entirely as a matter of work.  And as I told the guy from the MinnPost, it might not be that working-class voices are absent from the web.  They may just not be labeled “working class.”  Since people rarely use the term to define themselves – except in relation to their work – we don’t find websites about working-class family life, neighborhoods, churches, or community groups when we search for that phrase.  That doesn’t mean it’s not out there.

Here’s a good example.  A few weeks ago, my friend Ben mentioned that he had found a YouTube video about the history of a house and family on the south side of Youngstown.  631 tells the story of how a family made a home by renovating a run-down house in the late 50s and how, over time, as the community and the family struggled economically, they lost it.  The video features family photos and interviews, and while family members make a few references to their jobs, no one ever uses the word “class.”  Nonetheless, the film shows how class, race, and place together shaped this family’s life.  And I’d never have found it if I went looking for something on that theme.

You can find additional images of working-class life, created by working people, thanks to the multiple versions of unseen america, a photography project organized originally by Bread and Roses, the cultural branch of the Service Employees’ International Union local 1199.

Obviously, the web isn’t the only place to hear working-class voices.  The best place to look for workers’ voices, other than at a neighborhood bar or church basement, is in print.  For example, New City Community Press collects oral histories and organizing writing projects involving working-class people in writing and creating images of their own lives and getting them into print.  Bottom Dog Press has published a number of individual volumes of prose and poetry as well as several terrific anthologies about working-class life.  The Blue Cubicle Press also publishes worker writing, including a journal, Workers Write.

But that still leaves me wondering: where are the working-class voices online, the stories not just about work but about daily life, family, and neighborhood?  At the Center for Working-Class Studies, we already have links to a number of websites and museums, though most reflect the work of either academics or labor unions.  I’d like to add more links to websites, images, and videos created by working-class people about their own lives, so let me put the puzzle in your hands.  What are you seeing out there?

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Why Working-Class Literature Matters

As chronic unemployment grows and many who once seemed solidly middle-class are losing their economic footholds, the working class is getting larger and more frustrated.  Both size and perspective make the working class more important than ever before.

So perhaps more than ever, Americans across the class spectrum have good reason to understand working-class culture and experience.  As recent columns about film and television stories about working-class people make clear, popular culture too often relies on familiar narratives that blame poor and working-class people for the hardships in their lives.  If we want to understand working-class culture, we need better stories – stories that reflect the complex realities of working-class life.

Working-class literature tells those stories.  From poems about being a waitress to novels about the long-term social effects of deindustrialization to memoirs about growing up in working-class families, literary texts provide some of the most affecting and inspiring views of working-class life.  Without erasing the struggles of economic hardship, family dysfunction, or limited options, working-class literature reminds us of the strengths of working-class culture: humor, integrity, hard work, and strong interpersonal connections, among others things.

Scholars of working-class literature are uncovering new and forgotten books and exploring the common qualities that define working-class literature as a genre.  While our colleagues who study women’s literature and ethnic literature have been analyzing the literature of cultural groups for decades, working-class literary studies is just getting started.  While a few studies of 1930s proletarian novels appeared in the 1960s, the study of working-class literature really begins with Paul Lauter’s 1982 article on working-class women’s writing.  As with these other categories, working-class literary studies gained momentum through anthologies, most notably the several books edited by Janet Zandy in the 1990s, including Calling Home and Liberating Memory. The first comprehensive anthology of American working-class literature appeared just a few years ago (also by Zandy, with co-editor Nick Coles).  Their work is defining the boundaries of the field.

At the same time, those boundaries are being expanded because of concerns about essentialism and the complexity of cultural identity.  Many of those involved in working-class studies have also worked in women’s studies, ethnic studies, and LGBT studies, so we know very well the problems of claiming that only people who have a specific kind of experience have the authority to write about or critique literature about that experience.  We saw how the shift from women’s literature to feminist literary criticism created new ways of studying literary representations of gender and sexuality.  Having seen the productive directions fostered by that shift, working-class literary scholars resist establishing narrow definitions.  Instead, we want working-class literary studies to provide similar critical openings.

Of course, a writer’s own experience and perspective matter, but we recognize the significance of representations of working-class culture by writers from more elite backgrounds.  Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills may be the most commonly-studied example.  Working-class literary scholars have long debated how to interpret her story of mid-nineteenth-century immigrant iron workers, but her intention of making working-class life visible and evoking empathy for workers is clear, even to those who note that the story is limited by its white, middle-class woman’s point of view.  Regardless of whether we choose to label Life in the Iron Mills as “working-class literature,” it appears in several anthologies and is widely taught and analyzed.  It matters, regardless of its author’s class position.

To avoid essentialism, working-class literary scholars have focused on describing the qualities of working-class literary texts, rather than policing boundaries that define who has the authority to write them.   Janet Zandy, Paul Lauter, Renny Christopher and Carolyn Whitson, and William DeGenaro, among others, have identified qualities that make texts working class:  a focus on work, accurate representation of the material and social conditions of working-class life, validation of working-class culture, resistance to existing power structures, rejection or critique of the standard middle-class narrative of upward mobility, and so on.  Even as they focus on describing the qualities of working-class literature, these scholars have provided us with ideas around which we can frame critical questions about all kinds of literature.

The other complicating issue in working-class literary studies is intersectionality – the recognition that writers, readers, and characters all have multiple identities.  We have at least one race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class, and our experiences and points of view are shaped by all of those categories, not just one.  Working-class literature, too, reflects the intersections among these categories, not just ideas about class.  Consider some of the books widely viewed as “working-class classics”:  Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio, Pietro Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete, or Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. Each of these novels has been claimed by other areas of cultural studies – women’s literature, ethnic literature, LGBT literature.  Yet each also represents working-class culture, and viewing them through a working-class lens can reveal important insights.   It’s become commonplace for scholars to acknowledge and wrestle with the multiple cultural categories that play out in literary texts.  Indeed, to define any text as belonging only to one category seems old-fashioned and naïve.  This, too, is one of the lessons working-class studies has gained from other cultural studies.  We know the dangers of assuming that everyone who belongs to any group is the same.  Of course the working class is diverse.  But working-class literary studies doesn’t simply acknowledge that working-class writers have multiple cultural identities.  It isn’t just that, as Zandy writes, “working-class literature is not white writing.”

Rather, working-class literary studies provides a tool for considering class elements in texts that have been read primarily as representations of race or gender.   Working-class literary scholars like Michelle Tokarczyk and Michele Fazio, among others, are re-examining texts that have become part of the canons of women’s and ethnic literature, raising new questions about how class plays out in the work of writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, and Sherman Alexie.

Working-class literary studies is just getting started.  In two decades, the field has moved from excavating the long-buried texts of worker writers from the last three centuries to developing an ever-more complex understanding of the value of class as a critical tool for interpreting literature of all kinds.

Why does all of this matter to anyone except literary scholars?  Because literature gives us stories about working-class life as seen by working-class people.  Because working-class literary studies helps us understand how to think critically about representations of the working class, no matter who created them.  Because stories matter.  Because class matters.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Beyond Precious: Real Change for the Urban Poor

Last month, I received an email inviting me to vote for films nominated to receive an NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) image award. The email stated the film Precious had been nominated for a NAACP image award in several categories, including best picture, best actress, best supporting actress, and best director. “Image, advancement of a people; advancement, image; image, advancement,” I thought.

Like many, I have questions about the film.  Does Precious further the advancement of “colored” people–or better yet—the advancement of all people, regardless of color? Or does the film merely shock viewers, while leaving existing social, economic, and political arrangements unquestioned, unchallenged, and thus intact? What images of a past, present, or future does the film present that might inspire people to work for social changes that will advance not just “colored” people,” not just poor people, but all of us?

Through their endorsement of the film, the film’s producers—billionaire talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and multi-millionaire actor, writer, producer Tyler Perry—imply that the film enlightens and thus uplifts many.  But I am not fully convinced of this. Indeed, I am troubled by many of the images projected in the film:

  • Images of Precious (a 16 –year- old girl living in poverty-stricken Harlem in the 1980s) being brutally attacked by her mother, repeatedly raped by her father, and impregnated twice by him
  • Images of Precious giving birth to her daughter, who is actually her half-sister, on her mother’s apartment floor— a child whom Precious calls “Mongo,” which is short for Mongoloid or someone with Downs’ Syndrome
  • The image of Precious stealing and then eating a bucket of chicken all at one time, without sufficient exploration of  how feelings of desperation and deprivation generated by poverty and others’ indifference to its effects would drive some people to gorge food to the point of making themselves sick
  • Precious’s deferred dreams seem to “just sag like a heavy load,” as Langston Hughes wrote,   even as she receives an “A-” in English when she can barely recite the alphabet – a story line that gestures toward but doesn’t fully explore how the school has arguably perpetuated Precious’s illiteracy.

Most troubling for me is the film’s underlying message of “individualism,” which is conveyed through the omission of certain historical events, such as the loss of manufacturing jobs in poor urban communities in the 1970 s and 1980s. How could a film covering life in poverty- stricken Harlem in the 1980s fail to cover such things? The loss of manufacturing jobs under de-industrialization had a devastating effect on employment, family structure, neighborhood resources, and neighborhood cohesion within these communities, as William Julius Wilson has documented so well. Without this historical information, viewers are left with only Precious’s individual characteristics to focus on —her abuse, illiteracy, obesity, family dysfunction, self-loathing, self-isolation, and personal blame and guilt. These conditions, devastating as they are, reflect social problems, not just personal ones.

My fear is that such intense individualism will encourage the idea that the best thing others can do to help  people like Precious is to leave them alone to resolve their personal problems on their own. Such beliefs uphold the status quo and overlook systemic factors that continue to limit the life chances of the urban poor. Consider how our understanding of Precious’s story would be different if the film acknowledged these systemic factors:

  • The loss of supermarkets, which has been linked to the urban poor’s declining health
  • Transportation constraints that make it difficult for the urban poor to travel to and from school, the doctor’s office, and to jobs located in suburban or rural areas.

To move beyond the shock and discomfort that many said they felt when viewing Precious, to feel empowered and provide empowerment, we must eliminate these and other systemic constraints within America’s poor urban communities.  And then, in subsequent years, we may collectively receive an award for best performance, and maybe one for best image. But awards that come at the expense of the dignity and advancement of America’s urban poor do not represent a fair or ethical trade and should be seen as what they are: empty platitudes.

Denise Narcisse, Center for Working-Class Studies

Responding to the Deindustrialization of Journalism

Almost every week it seems there is a new report about another newspaper falling on hard times.

In February, The Rocky Mountain News closed.

In December, the Detroit Free Press announced that it would only deliver to residents three days a week.

Last month, the Dispatch in Columbus announced 45 layoffs. Yesterday, the Ann Arbor News announced that it was closing and launching a new, strictly online venture. Just last week, Time Magazine‘s online site ran a version of an endangered species list for 10 large metropolitan papers. The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s inclusion on the list drew fire from the paper’s publisher, who questioned the sources and the methods behind the predictions, and Terrence Egger’s criticisms of the list mirror those often leveled against online journalism at large-reliability of information, credibility of sources, and lack of accountability.

Yet no one can deny a massive media reshuffling. And few will deny that this crisis is sparked by the growth of internet and mobile news sources. In response, most newspapers are trying to hold onto readers and advertisers through their websites. It is now commonplace that the future of news is interlinked with the internet.

Internet journalism, as many have argued, is largely driven by a kind of niche market-users seek out the content and stories for which they find relevance. Media analysts like Jeff Jarvis say readers want to create their own meanings, find and share their own news, and offer their opinions on it all. For Jarvis, news readers want to be their own “hunters and gatherers.”

While this is exciting for journalists, because, in theory, this revolution could free reporters from the drudgery of covering the day-to-day mundane news and allow them to focus on more enterprise and investigative news, it also poses some interesting — and troubling — questions for the future of news consumption, and for journalism educators.

Many of our students are extremely concerned with their vocational possibilities and view their college educations primarily as a means to land a job after they graduate. Can we, in good conscience, continue turning out majors and attracting new ones knowing what we know about the uncertain future of the industry?

We are certain of a few facts:

* Society’s need for information will not diminish.

* Democracy is dependent upon a free and fully functioning press.

* The important skills that journalists possess will always be in demand.

While these points seem certain, the practicalities remain muddy. Where will journalists work? What will they carry with them when they do interviews? How will they deliver the information? Who will pay for it all?

If the advertising model that long supported newspapers is now broken, it is clear that a new method of support for news dissemination must be found.

We believe that non-profits and universities can play a huge role in preserving the fundamental function of journalism as “watchdog,” safeguarding the interests of the public. Indeed the not-for-profit model is already assuming a vital role in the democratic marketplace, as evidenced by organizations like Propublica and numerous news blog sites.

At Youngstown State University, we are developing a project that surfaces some exciting but uncomfortable questions relating to the niche and internet markets: a wire service of enterprise and investigative news from our region.

By organizing a network of student journalists and faculty and professional editors, we envision an outlet for in-depth coverage of important stories too often overlooked or willfully sacrificed by resource-strapped local media. These student-generated stories would be made available to any interested media.

Inevitably, many of the stories will deal with working-class issues, although the editorial focus of the project is primarily geographic. We envision students thinking and reporting about issues of economic re-development and the changing nature of work, because these issues are so much a part of our region.

We see this as a way to help newspapers that are faced with diminished resources in both their print and online platforms to continue to give important content to readers. As newspapers respond to the current crises of the industry by increasingly defining their niches as local, event-based coverage, their constricted resources often leave them ill-equipped to generate significant issues based and investigative reporting.

While we understand that the future of media mandates that students become niche savvy, we wrestle with how to best balance this reality with our mission to educate within a liberal arts curriculum. We worry that a focus on the niche and on the platform could result in the development of a kind of geographic narcissism and an even more troubling critical myopia. We are also uncomfortable with playing a possible role in the continued downsizing of newsroom staff, an issue currently being aired on Jarvis’s blog in connection with a post on CUNY’s NYCity News Service proposal.

One school of thought argues that the best preparation for a career as a journalist is a solid liberal arts education with some emphasis on skills development. Without a strong basic education, a journalist cannot perform the analysis and prioritizing that are necessary for serious journalism. But many journalism programs across the country are flooding their curriculum with multimedia training, sometimes at the expense of the traditional liberal arts education. In these models, the focus is often concentrated on storytelling across multiple platforms, and curricula often weight the medium more heavily than the message.

In the true spirit of the collaborative model that is overtaking online journalism, we are interested in thoughts and feedback about our project and the issues it raises.

Our interest in feedback is fueled by our own discomfort with how to best prepare the next generation of journalists. Journalism has long held an uncomfortable position in higher education. Is it a profession? Is it an academic discipline? These questions, which first surfaced decades ago, continue to haunt us as we move journalism in a new direction defined, in large measure, by technology.

Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff

Working-Class Reporting

Kelli Cole came to her journalism class Tuesday expecting to eat a slice or two of pizza, listen to a New York Times reporter talk about a world she wouldn’t relate to and leave with the same sense of panic that has been plaguing her since the semester started at Youngstown State University.

“How am I going to do this project?  I don’t want to offend anyone by the questions that I ask. I don’t know where to start. I want to graduate.” These are the issues that worry Cole, a journalism major at YSU who, one day, wants to work as a television news reporter.

Cole’s assignment for her senior projects class is to investigate two area school districts: one in the city of Youngstown and the other in the more prosperous suburb of Boardman. Her goal is to uncover what is different about the two districts. Why does one significantly out-perform the other? Part of Cole’s consternation is that, in Ohio, where school funds are largely dependent on property taxes, school performance is often divided along lines of class and race. Cole’s hesitation is in part rooted in a culture of journalism that too often seeks to avoid the gritty details of the important stories, instead opting for sterile facts and figures that don’t communicate a whole story.

In fact, for years, the profession of reporting has taken an odd turn in which practitioners have become professionals, upwardly mobile, college-educated and too often out of touch, as we noted in our last blog entry on the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and has been documented by Brent Cunningham.

Steven Greenhouse, the New York Times’ labor reporter who came to YSU last week, had just started talking when Cole walked into class.

She and the other students in the class listened to his stories about the people in his book, “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.”  Greenhouse shared accounts of managers locking workers in stores and erasing hours from employees’ timecards. The students were awed by his ability to gather information and were intent on unlocking the complex secrets of first-rate reporting.  Instead, they found, his method for gathering powerful stories is simple, but too often forgotten in today’s culture of professional journalism-he hits the road.

Greenhouse told students he sometimes stands in parking lots waiting for people to leave work and he has gone door-to-door soliciting comments for stories even recounting a time early in his career when he had to interview the family of a murdered child.

Cole was the first to talk to Greenhouse when he finished his prepared remarks.

She asked him for advice for how to tackle her story.

His response was direct and simple, “You just do it.”

He told Cole that her job is to report the story even if it means asking uncomfortable questions.

He said that his decades-long career at the New York Times has been about asking those questions and getting out and finding people.

Greenhouse’s response was an important reminder for our students and for ourselves:  Our jobs as reporters is not behind desks. Cole needs to wander the halls of both schools, she needs to talk to the students passing through them and to the teachers who are charged with educating them. She needs to find out what a ninth-grader is reading at each school, what each is eating for lunch and what each will go home to at the end of the day.

Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff

Steven Greenhouse’s appearance at YSU was sponsored by the Center for Working Class Studies with assistance from YSU’s Journalism Major and The New York Times. Greenhouse was interviewed for“Lincoln Avenue,” a weekly radio show broadcast on WYSU, the university’s public radio station. It will air on November 5 and then be available online as podcast.