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Working In These Times

Friday, Jan 13, 2012, 10:36 am

Wonk Bloggers and the Vanishing Voices of Workers

BY Mike Elk

Earlier this week, I got into a little Twitter battle with Matthew Yglesias after the prominent blogger tweeted out “"EXCLUSIVE: The activities of individual business executives have no relationship to the level of economy-wide employment.” 

That statement flies in the face of my own reporting showing that the decisions of individual CEOs to lay off workers and lower wages have a very real effect on economy-wide employment. If one CEO sees that he or she can crush a union and get away with lower wages, or force workers to be more productive by laying off other workers, other CEOs in the same industry will see it as a symbol that they can get away with that behavior themselves.

I typically don't bother getting into fights with bloggers. But the hiring of wonky bloggers  like YglesiasSlate hired him as its "business and economics correspondent" last November—is a labor issue that not only affects the industry in which I work, but also the quality of journalism that is crucial to the lives of workers. Yglesias is a trend-setting blogger who The New York Times labeled as one of the “New Brat Pack,” whose ability to produce massive amounts of content could lead to the downsizing of news organizations through the elimination of traditional reporters who produce less content.

At a time when many seasoned reporters are being laid off by publications—like four veteran writers and editors who were laid off in August a few months before Yglesias was hired at Slate—mainstream news publications are turning to wonky bloggers like Ygelsias and fellow Brat Packer Ezra Klein (of The Washington Post) to turn out massive amounts of content and generate traffic. These bloggers can turn out 6-12 posts a day while traditional reporters, who take the time to go out in the field and interview people affected by the subject of their stories, can typically only turn out 3-4 stories a week. The result is that workers' voices are often excluded in the rush to produce quick blog content.

For instance, take a piece Yglesias wrote this week about attacks on Mitt Romney and private equity firms. These firms often get rich by using companies like credit cards, pumping them up with debt before (sometimes) liquidating companies in bankruptcies and laying off workers, as I covered in the case of Armstrong World Industry lockout. (For more on how private equity firms saddle companies with debt and often lead to massive layoffs and wage cuts, see this excellent New York Times feature by Julie Creswell,  “Profits for Buyout Firms as Company Debt Soared" and the accompaning video titled “Flipped: How Private Equity Dealmakers Can Win While Their Companies Lose.

Yglesias wrote on Twitter about the piece, “Romney and Bain didn't do anything wrong, but we still might not want an asshole in the White House.” He expands:

The art of the leveraged buyout and the private equity restructuring is, needless to say, different in many ways from the art of innovation. But they don’t differ in their destructive potential. And while layoffs and closures are devastating to families and households, restructuring troubled firms are often the best way to preserve jobs and shareholder value in the long run.

Yglesias does not provide any examples of how the so-called “destructive potential” of private equity firms leads to a company being successful over the long run. Unlike  Creswell, Ygelsias does not interview economic experts or workers with varying or opposing views of the effects of private equity firm-ordered layoffs.

While they work at mainstream media outlets, wonk bloggers like Yglesias and Klein aren't held to the same standards as the reporters working for the same outlets. Yet many young Americans view them as trusted sources of where to get news.

Like Klein, Yglesias has written on a wide range of healthcare, economic and foreign issues, despite not having done in-depth field reporting on these topics. Their stories are often centered on the debates of the day between other journalists and policy elites, and they don't talk to workers or the general public.

Take, for instance, one of Yglesias' recent posts “Blame Ikea and H&M for Inequality,” where—again, without interviewing anyone, he writes about the success of Ikea and H&M, saying:

Under the circumstances, it's obvious that the income gap between the CEO of H&M and the average Swedish worker is going to grow. But that doesn't mean that the CEO's income growth has come at the expense of middle class Swedes. On the contrary, it's come at the expense of the owners and managers of rival retailers around the world....What's true of H&M, of course, is also true of Ikea.

Apparently the growth of a company like H&M or Ikea could not have come through exploiting workers, a notion my In These Times colleague Josh Eidelson explored in a piece whose headline says it all: "Union Victory at Virginia IKEA Plant: Resistance Grows Against Race-to-Bottom Wages."

Or take another post by Yglesias titled “Bus Drivers Should Be Paid What It Costs to Hire Competent Bus Drivers.” He writes, “It’s extremely difficult to have excellent public services if the debate is polarized between people who want to reduce spending in order to cut taxes, and people who want to view the bus system as a jobs program for bus drivers. When a city is having trouble attracting qualified applicants for bus driver jobs, that’s a sign that the wage is too damn low.”

Yglesias did not interview bus drivers about how much they make, like Daniel Massey of Crain’s New York Business did for a story about the upcoming contract negotiations for New York City transit workers. Instead he suggests that perhaps bus drivers’ wages should be lowered if qualified applicants can be paid to work at a lower wage.  

Yglesias declined to comment on whether or not he would apply the same wage logic to his own salary. He also refused a more in-depth interview for this piece.

But his salary is relevant here, since traditional news publications are turning to bloggers like him to produce content. Bloggers with personalized brands and large Twitter followings (Yglesias has nearly 35,000 followers) are attractive to publications because they bring in a guaranteed audience. In addition, they are also cheaper to employ than traditional reporters, per the ratio of content they produce. Bloggers like Yglesias can turn out 6-12 blogs a day in some cases.

By constantly turning out content, these bloggers generate a lot of traffic. But it's worth asking if the quality of their analysis is the same as professional journalism. This is not to say bloggers cannot provide valuable analysis. Yves Smith, who worked for nearly two decades in the finance industry has an excellent blog at Naked Capitalism, Marcy Wheeler, who worked for years in the auto industry, has an excellent blog at Emptywheel, and labor history professor Erik Loomis writes Lawyers, Guns and Money, a must-read blog on labor history and its applications for unions today. But these people, unlike Yglesias, have years of experience and are writing for their own sites, not mainstream news organizations.

I should note that I started off as a labor blogger who often wrote stories without interviewing workers or presenting contrasting opinions fairly. But under the mentorship of old-school reporters like The Nation’s William Greider, I realized this type of writing did a  deep disservice to workers. I began to realize that the more you learn as a journalist, the more you realize how much you do not know. Quite often, the best journalism presents all sides to complex questions and problems without trying to definitely answer those questions—such journalism lets people speak for themselves, and in doing so lets readers answer questions for themselves.

As mainstream news organizations keep hiring bloggers instead of reporters, and readers of my generation (I'm 25) increasingly turn to people like Yglesias to get news, it’s  important to ask if these news organizations are endangering journalism's mission to serve the public interest by presenting a full range of voices affected by a story—in particular, the voices of workers. If we really want to understand the problems of today's economy, shouldn’t we let workers speak for themselves?

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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