Working-Class Journalism: A Model for Teaching

Among seemingly endless reports, studies and speculations that have almost unanimously heralded the death of the newspaper, the Columbia Journalism Review’s recent study stands out as both incisive and constructive for its detailed summation of the conditions that have caused our current media “crisis,” and also for its outlining of possible solutions.

In the report, aptly titled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” Leonard Downie, Jr. and Michael Schudson, endorse a claim that we have made in previous blogs, that while some of the implications for the future of American journalism in the current financial and technological storm are downright scary, emerging energies and fresh ideas about news and news practice offer significant hope. As Downie and Schudson find,

Reporting is becoming more participatory and collaborative. The ranks of news gatherers now include not only newsroom staffers, but freelancers, university faculty members, students, and citizens. Financial support for reporting now comes not only from advertisers and subscribers, but also from foundations, individual philanthropists, academic and government budgets, special interests, and voluntary contributions from readers and viewers. There is increased competition among the different kinds of news gatherers, but there also is more cooperation, a willingness to share resources and reporting with former competitors. That increases the value and impact of the news they produce, and creates new identities for reporting while keeping old, familiar ones alive.

Around the same time that we began contributing to this blog, we were beginning a project here at Youngstown State centered on a collaborative news gathering model, a news service that partnered a public “working-class” university and its journalism students with a commercial newspaper and a public radio station.

Our goals for the project are ambitious:

* To provide students guided practical experience with reporting and producing news stories

* To provide students who might not be able to afford non-paid internships a chance to earn internship-level experience

* To help media organizations acquire content that they would not ordinarily be compelled to obtain and to act as an intermediary resource for collaboration amongst competing media

* To produce research to study media collaboration and content decisions.

We started with the idea that journalism students need both theory and guided practice.  Unlike traditional internships where students often leave their communities, our students gain hands-on experience in the local area.  Because they becme immersed in the urban community that surrounds the university—a relationship that is rarely cultivated by our largely suburban commuter student population—student reporters learned that the plight of the city so often reviled by suburbanites and slighted by the profit-driven media is an inextricable part of the region they call home.

Media professionals from our two partner organizations, The Vindicator and WYSU-FM, joined us in the classrooms frequently during the semester and worked one-on-one with students. In class sessions in The Vindicator newsroom, news service students presented their work, talking with us and newspaper editors about possible story directions and generally immersing themselves in the newsroom and city culture. A WYSU-FM manager spent several hours each week working with students in the radio production lab, helping them to produce their stories and gain a deeper understanding of what makes good public radio.  With one semester completed, it is still too soon to judge the overall success of the endeavor, but based on what we’ve seen so far, we think the news service model has merit.

Most of the stories that our students are reporting deal with issues of importance to those who live in or precariously close to urban poverty — the scarcity of fresh, healthy food in most neighborhood stores,  or the challenges of public transportation in a city where many of the most basic goods and services have migrated beyond the walkable core neighborhoods into the sprawling suburbs.

Many of these issues have been slighted by the local mainstream media as they increasingly cater content toward their suburban clientele, and we believe that this news project, while small in scope, may yield results that will be of interest to media managers who make content decisions. Our operating premise is that traditional media may actually benefit by running such stories, which may attract new readers, and that with collaboration comes a unique opportunity to inform, enlighten, and ultimately encourage social responsibility.

In addition, our students are learning how to draw upon one another’s strengths. For example, by working with a grandmother with deep roots in the city community, a young male student who commutes from the suburbs gained access to people and resources that might otherwise have remained untapped and under-represented; two other students got  clearer perspectives on the complexities of school funding and performance by visiting and comparing a drastically under-achieving city school with a high performing suburban one located only a few miles away, while still another pair of students chronicled a neighborhood’s efforts to reverse the crime and economic despair that has been plaguing it for decades.  These stories address important issues and trends in the community that entrenched local media, suffering from the same economic challenges plaguing all traditional media, might not have covered.

Even when the story “hook” is not specifically about a problem or an issue, we are encouraging students to be curious about and attuned to the lives and stories of the members of our predominantly working-class community. For example, a recent radio report builds on our earlier Worker Portraits project with a profile of a man who has spent most of his working life as a gravedigger.

We are excited about the long-range possibilities of the news service, because it strengthens our students’ reporting abilities, helps bolster local media, and most of all, gives all of us a chance to experiment with media collaboration and different types of content. These values are essential to the mission of a strong university journalism program, and they encourage the local media be more responsive to the information needs of those who are not well-served by traditional media, including the working class.

Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff

Jobs, Ideology, and Policy: Putting Workers First

During the 1980s recession, as steel mills closed and auto plants began downsizing around the country, neoconservative economists insisted that the jobs lost to deindustrialization would soon be replaced by new jobs.  In Youngstown then, we knew better.  And as we wrote seven years ago in Steeltown U.S.A., Youngstown’s story in the late 70s and early 80s has not only persisted here, where unemployment is among the highest in the state and the poverty rate hovers around 30%, but has become America’s story today.

Youngstown learned then how real economic shifts could be exacerbated by ideology: the idea that businesses and investments matter more than ordinary human beings and the notion that we should just get used to economic patterns that create long-term hardship for those with the least power and resources.  Youngstown learned more than 30 years ago how damaging such ideas can be.  Once again, the rest of America is learning that lesson today.

The gap between the Wall Street recovery and the continuing jobs recession was highlighted by Friday’s jobs summit.  Communities around the country understand that we are in another jobless recovery that leaves hundreds of thousands of American families vulnerable.  While markets have stabilized for the moment and investors are feeling more confident, the economy isn’t improving for most Americans.

So is the current situation just like the earlier recession? No. It is worse. As Peter Edelman and Barbara Ehrenreich note in Sunday’s Washington Post, the current economic crisis reveals the glaring problems left behind by the welfare reform of the 1990s, a policy change that reflected the long-standing assumption that poverty is a “voluntary condition” and that every able-bodied adult should simply find a job – “even when there are obviously no jobs available.”  When we removed the safety net because of conservative and neoliberal worries about “fostering dependency,” we created the economic conditions that left 17.1 million Americans living in extreme poverty in 2008 – and no doubt even more today. As we learned last year, we’re willing to bail out corporations but not working people.

The current recession is also worse because it isn’t just a matter of jobs.  It’s a matter of ideology.  Blaming the victim and normalizing long-term economic struggle were part of the discourse at the jobs summit, during which Jan Hatzius, chief domestic economist at Goldman Sachs, acknowledged that unemployment will likely remain high for a long time.  She suggested that we may just have to get used to it.  Why?  Because those who have been unemployed for a long time are losing their skills and their work habits.  No doubt, long-term unemployment affects people, but the idea that unemployment will last a long time because workers won’t be prepared to return to work represents the most absurd, cruel version of blaming the victim.

On the other hand, Hatzius is not wrong that we’re in for long-term unemployment and underemployment– problems which are far worse than the official unemployment rate suggests. No doubt, business takes the cautious path during economic downturns, often by adding hours to workers’ schedules rather than by hiring additional workers. But as we learned in Youngstown, the reality is that those jobs may never come back as businesses, especially manufacturers, continue to disinvest in the United States.

At the same time, as we have argued before, we’re also witnessing long-term shifts in the nature of the jobs available.  Promises about a new “creative worker” economy or green jobs that will someday provide some former steelworkers and autoworkers with new versions of manufacturing jobs fall short when we remember the latest predictions of the Bureau of Labor Statistics:  that the job categories predicted to grow most over the next few decades involve primarily low-wage, low-education service positions.  Many of these jobs pay less than $21,000 a year.  That means that poverty is going to be a long-term problem for American workers.

What we need, in other words, is not a single jobs summit. We need long-range policy planning aimed at creating a better system of supports for the working poor and unemployed.  We need to recognize that as much as education matters, it won’t necessarily overcome long-term employment trends and growing income inequality.  We need economic policies that focus on the poor and working class and that treat them with respect, rather than blame.

Too often, economic theory has provided a distraction from the real struggles of real people.  Jan Hatzuis and her colleagues might do well to stop worrying about the work habits of the unemployed and start learning about what it’s like to lose a job after you spent years doing everything right, about the indignities associated with applying for government aid as you struggle to survive job loss, about how limitations of K-12 education, urban transportation, limited access to fair banking, overcrowded housing, persistent hunger, and lack of health care make finding a steady job that pays enough to support a family incredibly difficult.   A little moral education might help as well.

We need to stop thinking about the current crisis as a temporary recession, and we certainly have to stop talking about the economic crisis as part of an inevitable shift we can’t do anything about.  We have to recognize and act on the situation as what it is: a moral crisis.

The Obama administration must take the problem as a moral imperative, acknowledge that the private sector simply won’t solve the problem on its own, and like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, create a jobs-centered stimulus that is environmentally sound, improves the national infrastructure, and provides an economic foundation for working Americans and rebuilding the American economy.

The economy isn’t a game, with winners and losers who deserve what they get, because the players don’t occupy a fair playing field and the rules are biased.  Inequality has long been and is becoming more deeply engrained in the American system.  We cannot continue to view long-term high unemployment rates, minimal public supports for the poor, and a permanent and increasing gap between rich and poor as normal much less acceptable.  We can do better.  “Yes, we can.”  And we must.

John Russo and Sherry Linkon

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Obama’s DeLorean?

I know I’ve used the déjà vu/time machine analogy before,  but if Michael J. Fox can make three Back to the Future movies, then I can make a sequel, too.  Every time I read about how the Democrats first pandered to and are now ignoring the needs of the working class, I feel like I just landed back in 1993 after taking a wild ride in Doc Brown’s beat up DeLorean.

Back then, the Clinton administration lost control of the health care reform debate, abandoned its number one promise to labor, and screwed a whole bunch of Mahoning Valley residents who worked for Packard Electric. Clinton’s approval numbers tanked, and Republicans, once thought to be an endangered species, regained power.

Sound eerily familiar?  Today, the Obama administration has lost control of the health care reform debate, abandoned its number one promise to labor, and apparently screwed a whole bunch of Valley residents who used to work for Packard Electric.  The president’s once-phenomenal approval ratings are tanking, and Republicans, pronounced dead less than eight months ago, have risen Lazarus-like from their crypt.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on just to make sure we aren’t really caught in a time warp.  On health care, Mr. Obama is being beaten into the ground by the same right-wing liars who crushed reform in ‘93: Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, the insurance industry, and the AMA.

These guys, along with some new crazies, are recycling the lies they told 16 years ago.  They say we’re headed toward the kind of socialized medicine that (they claim) doesn’t work in Canada, that bureaucrats will interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, that care will be rationed, and that a government worker sitting in a cubicle will decide whether your elderly mother lives or dies.

The fact that none of this is true doesn’t seem to matter any more today than it did in the Clinton era.  Like then, the liars are using paid advertising and talk radio to propagate their fables.  And, like then, people are listening.

The President has responded by conducting town hall meetings where he spends most of his time refuting tall tales.  But that won’t get the job done.  It’s time for the president and the Democratic Party to spend some of the millions in their campaign accounts to mount a counterattack.

The TV and radio ads will be easy to make—just tell people the truth.  Tell them your plan won’t require them to abandon their coverage or their doctor, that bureaucrats working for the profit-hungry insurance industry are already making decisions about their health care, that care’s already rationed, especially if you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who are under or uninsured, and  that we already have socialized medicine.  It’s called Medicare, and it’s kept untold millions of elderly mothers alive since 1965.

Tell the American people all that and do it right now, before members of Congress head home and are verbally assaulted by constituents who haven’t heard the truth.  If you don’t, the reps and senators will return to Washington scared sh—well, we all know how scared they’ll be—and health care reform will be dead.

Now let’s talk about unions.  In another Back to the Future moment, Mr. Obama, like Clinton in ’93, recently abandoned his promise to fight for the enactment of organized labor’s number one priority.  Sixteen years ago the issue was scabs.  During his campaign Clinton had promised to do everything possible to ban the use of permanent replacement workers during labor disputes.  He didn’t.

In 2008, labor’s priority was passage of the Employee Freedom of Choice Act (EFCA) a rewrite of the National Labor Relations Act that would, among other provisions, make card check recognition the law of the land.  This would prevent employers from engaging in the coercion and intimidation that have crippled countless organizing drives over the past two decades.  Obama repeatedly promised to do whatever was necessary to get it done:

We need to stand up to the business lobby that’s been getting their friends in Congress and in the White House to block card check. That’s why I was one of the leaders fighting to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. That’s why I’m fighting for it in the Senate. And that’s why we’ll make it the law of the land when I’m President.

But they haven’t.  In yet another Democratic betrayal of the working class, the card check provision was stripped from the EFCA before it came to a vote in either house.  The president expended zero political capital on the issue.

Which brings us to Delphi-Packard.  At one time approximately 14,000 people worked in the company’s plants in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.  Then Clinton won the NAFTA battle and thousands of Valley residents saw their good-paying jobs head to Mexico.  Thousands of employees agreed to retire early in exchange for enhanced pensions and guaranteed health care benefits.

Guess what happened next.  First, Delphi-Packard went bankrupt.  Then salaried retirees lost their health care.  Then the company dumped its pension obligations on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.  As a result salaried employees will lose the enhanced benefits they were promised, as will thousands of retired hourly employees who had the misfortune of belonging to the IUE, including  most of the company’s workers in the Mahoning Valley.  They will also lose health care benefits.

Ironically, one group of hourly retirees will not face similar cuts: those from the UAW.  In a move designed to facilitate GM’s emergence from bankruptcy by gaining the union’s support for a concession package, Packard workers who were UAW members of  won’t lose a penny of their pensions or their health care benefits.  The IUE asked Mr. Obama’s auto task force to order GM to provide its members with the same supplemental pension and benefit package given to the UAW.  That request was summarily rejected.

It should come as little or no surprise then, that when retirees gathered to protest their fate, many carried signs castigating Obama and told reporters that they would do everything they could to deny him a second term.  Of course, these same workers had made a similar threat about Clinton in ’93.  Maybe Rahm Emanuel and the crew in the West Wing are confident history will repeat itself?  After all, they know that Democratic leaders keep getting away with disrespecting working families and their unions.  And maybe that’s why they were so willing to pit one union against another in order to protect GM?.

By the way, Mr. Obama’s approval numbers: 64% in February, 54% in July.  Was that whoosh I just heard the sound of the air rushing out of his presidency or the whirr of an old DeLorean flying by?

Leo Jennings

Economic hope for the Mahoning Valley

On August, 21, 2008 General Motors’ CEO Rick Wagoner stood on a makeshift stage in front of a packed audience of Lordstown autoworkers, state and local politicians, and civic leaders from the Mahoning Valley to announce that his troubled global company would invest $350 million to retool the plant for production of the new Cruze line. GM’s announcement represents more than just an infusion of corporate capital in a production line. It is a profound vote of confidence in the future of the Mahoning Valley.

Almost 31 years ago, on September 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s Campbell Works was closed without notice, leaving thousands out of work and beginning to dismantle the country’s third largest steel producing center. For decades, the people of the Valley had boasted of “Thirty Mills in Thirty Miles.”  By the mid-80s, that had became a bitter memory as mill after mill closed.  Ultimately the demise of the steel industry left 50,000 people out of work and devastated the Youngstown area.

Over the next 25 years the city’s population shrunk in half. As laid-off workers left to pursue opportunities elsewhere, foreclosures, abandonment, and tax delinquency ripped through once proud neighborhoods.  Along with manufacturing jobs, families lost their houses, their dignity, and their hope for the future. The Valley’s social service agencies were stretched to the breaking point.  Local governments cut staff dramatically, shut off street lights, and deferred all but the most essential services.  Downtown Youngstown became a stage set of the empty storefronts, roofless commercial buildings, and abandoned lots, used by reporters and politicians to illustrate the impact of deindustrialization in the Great Lakes. The once fierce sprit of the Valley, like the fires of its mills, was extinguished. For many, optimism was replaced by despair, anger, and resignation.

A generation was to pass before the devastation began to reverse. The past 5 years have been a time of profound change.  New leadership has emerged in the Valley’s two major cities-Youngstown and Warren-and in the region’s Congressional and state legislative delegations. New IT companies, focused on “business to business” software applications, are developing at the Youngstown Business Incubator. YSU began construction of a new $34 million Williamson College of Business Administration, and the state chancellor of higher education announced plans to develop a community college in the Mahoning Valley.

Despite the steady progress of the past five years, the Valley’s future has remained uncertain as people await evidence that manufacturing-long the cornerstone of the region’s economy-will once again provide opportunity and prosperity.

GM’s investment marks one of the most significant private sector capital infusions in the Valley in recent decades.  It is also a profoundly important acknowledgement by a global corporation that the Mahoning Valley is back in the game as a place to do business.

Standing shoulder to shoulder that afternoon with hundreds of UAW members and with cars moving on the production line all around us, we heard union reps talk with sober pride about the effort they and their fellow workers had made and the sacrifices they had accepted in the most recent contract negotiations to insure that Lordstown would remain competitive in the cutthroat world of global auto production. Their hardnosed realism was balanced by the enthusiasm with which they and the entire audience greeted the full-scale mockup of the new Cruze-a sleek, stylish global automobile that will go head-to-head with the competition from Honda and Toyota. What I witnessed was a team proud of wining without compromising fundamental values, of producing quality work at a competitive price, and of earning a fair wage and benefit package. It was clear that this investment in the Lordstown plant and in the Mahoning Valley economy was enormously important economically and spiritually both to the Lordstown workforce and to the wider community.

It was no small feat to get GM to add a third shift, to integrate the new workforce-drawn from places as far afield as Shreveport Louisiana-onto the line in record time and to compete for $350 million in scarce corporate capital even as GM closes other factories in the region.  Many of the speakers-from labor and management-stressed with hard won pride the importance of this accomplishment and the fact that this success resulted from collaboration and cooperation within the workforce and between labor and management.  Lordstown’s message might apply both to Northeast Ohio’s manufacturers and their employees: tough, fair, reality-based negotiations combined with a renewed competitive drive and a fierce dedication to producing a quality product can lead to success in the global marketplace.

While GM’s investment will yield tax revenues for state and local governments and create additional new jobs in the region, the most significant outcome is its effect on the heart and soul of the Valley.  As Congressman Tim Ryan told Wagoner,  GM had given the Valley something it hasn’t had for a long time: hope. He predicted that a decade hence people would see August 21, 2008 as “the day the Mahoning Valley turned the corner.”

The GM Lordstown story demonstrates that economic development is not just about making deals and cutting ribbons. It is about giving people back their hope and giving communities back their future.

Hunter Morrison