The Era of Abundant Labor Reporting Is Coming to an End

Either the labor movement will support journalism, or the good times are finished.

Hamilton Nolan

It's not a growth industry. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

The years since 2016 have, in many ways, been a grinding political struggle. But in one very specific way they have been a golden age: The media’s interest in labor issues has grown drastically. In that time, American media outlets have been unionizing in earnest. Thousands of journalists across the country have gone through organizing drives, negotiated contracts, and fought with bosses right inside their own workplaces. That means that thousands of journalists have also acquired a tangible personal interest in the labor movement. As a direct result, unions have enjoyed increasing coverage, a trend that has elevated the profile of organized labor in our society. 

Well, bad news, unions: The good times in media are coming to an end. And if you don’t want all of that labor coverage to dry up, you’re going to have to take some action. 

For most of the second half of the 20th century, labor reporting was a staple beat at major newspapers. As union density declined decade after decade, so too did the prominence of labor journalism. By 2014, when Steven Greenhouse retired as the New York Times’ full time labor reporter, the conventional wisdom was that the entire beat was in danger of being permanently marginalized. 

In fact, the opposite happened. Media unionizing sparked media interest in unions which sparked a mini-renaissance in labor reporting. To the dedicated core of outlets like In These Times, where we never stopped covering labor, was added an outpouring of interest from newly unionized outlets spanning the entire media spectrum, from Vice to the Los Angeles Times. (I assert as my credentials not only the fact that I was one of those newly unionized reporters, but also the countless conversations I have had over the past eight years with union staffers marveling at the fact that it seemed like the public was paying attention to unions again.) 

For the labor movement people who slogged their way through the dark days of the early 2000s, this recent surge of coverage has felt like a ray of sunshine. One of the many factors fueling the current rise in public interest in unions is the simple fact that the public has been hearing about unions a lot more than they used to. 

It’s been fun, right? Not any more. Because even though the spirit of all the unionized media workers hasn’t dried up, the money employing them has. The economic death spiral of the journalism industry — caused by Google, Facebook, and other tech middlemen sucking all the profits out of the business — has arrived in its full, dreadful glory. All my colleagues who helped to unionize Gawker Media? Gone. The LA Times? Laid off. Vice? Dunzo.

If you don’t pay close attention to media news, let me tell you: It’s apocalyptic. Jobs are disappearing faster than I have seen in my entire career. Whatever the Next Big Thing in media is, it hasn’t arrived yet. All we have now are layoffs, shuttering publications, and a bunch of reporters hoarding their severance pay and desperately looking for new gigs that don’t exist. 

Rather than wailing about the poor journalists, I want to make a point instead about the labor movement itself. When there are no reporters around to cover what unions are doing, their campaigns become like trees falling in the forest with no one to hear them. It is hard to threaten union busting bosses with bad publicity when there is no publicity to be had. It is hard to get a community to rally around newly organized workers when there is no local news coverage. It is hard to convince America that organized labor should be the beating heart of our political system when all of the writers who were supposed to be capturing that stirring message are instead out looking for freelance advertising jobs to pay the rent. 

The media industry’s union wave was important most of all for the workers in question, but it also had the effect of delivering a zillion dollars worth of free media to the labor movement, thanks to that huge cohort of newly unionized journalists. As that cohort shrinks with incredible speed, so too will the amount of labor news. And just as political corruption flourishes in the absence of sunlight, so too does union busting. 

It is vital — vital! — for the world of organized labor to understand that labor journalism is a part of the labor movement. This is always a hard sell. Journalism is the odd profession that everyone supports in theory, until someone writes something critical about them. It is healthy for powerful institutions to loathe the reporters that cover them a little bit. That means that we are doing our jobs properly. It is never easy to convince these institutions to support journalism not just as a machine that will publish positive stories about the things that we do,” but as a more abstract sort of public good. 

Hell, nobody wants to be the one to pay for the public goods — that’s human nature. But I am here to tell you, my union friends, that if you don’t pay for this particular public good, it’s not going to last. Google and Facebook are strangely uninterested in the idea of sending some of their skimmed billions over to the people who want to see them dismantled. Writing about workers, I’m sad to say, is not by its nature a great revenue-producing enterprise. 

Labor reporting has something in common with labor organizing: Nobody is going to do it except us. There is no outside savior who will step in and organize the workers of the world for unions that are too lazy to do so. Likewise, there is no secret pile of money ready to pay the salaries of all the laid off reporters who had been writing about union drives until now. Unlike the last big media industry transition — from print to online journalism — there is no obvious new set of publications rising up to replace the ones that are dying. 

We are entering a period when most of the good labor journalism is probably going to come from the handful of places that were doing good labor journalism before its most recent bout of popularity — places like, yes, In These Times, and others whose commitment to covering the labor movement has ideological roots. (Along with some excellent Substacks.) These sorts of publications have always been shoestring operations, financially speaking. The happy period during which big-money publications with freshly organized work forces produced geysers of new labor reporting is going to be seen, in retrospect, as a passing anomaly. 

If unions want a healthy level of labor journalism to exist in this country, they are going to have to think seriously about funding it themselves. That could mean creating a big pot of money for reporting grants, or significant donations to existing movement publications, or even starting new outlets directly affiliated with labor. In the absence of this sort of funding, we will simply have much less labor reporting in the next decade than we had in the past decade. If you believe, as I do, that we are living at a time of incredible opportunity for the revival of organized labor power in this country, you can understand why the possibility of a simultaneous crash in labor reporting is a grim prospect indeed. 

So here we are: journalists who write about unions telling unions that they need to fund journalism. Self-serving! Audacious! And on top of that, ungrateful — we still reserve the right to write negative things about you! I know, I know. Reporters are the worst. Still, you’ll miss us when we’re gone. Every laid-off journalist forced to leave this industry because there are no more jobs represents another worker’s story left untold. 

Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.