Tuesday, May 29, 2007

LAT Devolves: Labor and Economic Justice Go Uncovered

LAT Devolves: Labor and Economic Justice Go Uncovered

posted by Julia Rosen | 05.29.07
The LA Times is buying out 56 reporters contracts, including that of Nancy Cleeland, the paper's labor writer. She is leaving in "frustration with the paper's coverage of working people and organized labor, and a sad realization that the situation won't change anytime soon." Thankfully, the Huffington Post provided a platform for her to explain her decision and the massive failure of the LA Times to address issues of great concern to regional residents, their target market.

It's awkward to criticize an old friend, which I still consider the Times to be, but I think the question of how mainstream journalists deal with the working class is important and deserves debate. There may be no better setting in which to examine the issue: The Los Angeles region is defined by gaping income disparities and an enormous pool of low-wage immigrant workers, many of whom are pulled north by lousy, unstable jobs. It's also home to one of the most active and creative labor federations in the country. But you wouldn't know any of that from reading a typical issue of the L.A. Times, in print or online. Increasingly anti-union in its editorial policy, and celebrity -- and crime-focused in its news coverage, it ignores the economic discontent that is clearly reflected in ethnic publications such as La Opinion.

The city deserves and needs coverage of these issues, the vibrant LA County Labor Federation, and the impact of public policy on labor. The focus on crime and celebrities marks a shift away from real journalism. They are seeking quick profitability, not a quality product.

The editorial room has taken a hard rightward shift in recent years. This has had a profound impact on the op-ed columns they publish and their ability to retain writers like Cleeland. Too often the editorial page is in direct conflict with the items published in other sections of the newspaper.

Of course, I realize that revenues are plummeting and newsroom staffs are being cut across the country. But even in these tough financial times, it's possible to shift priorities to make Southern California's largest newspaper more relevant to the bulk of people who live here. Here's one idea: Instead of hiring a "celebrity justice reporter," now being sought for the Times website, why not develop a beat on economic justice? It might interest some of the millions of workers who draw hourly wages and are being squeezed by soaring rents, health care costs and debt loads.

In Los Angeles, the underground economy is growing faster than the legitimate one, which means more exploited workers, greater economic polarization, and a diminishing quality of life for everyone who lives here. True, it's harder to capture those kinds of stories than to scan divorce files and lawsuits. But over time, solid reporting on the economic life of Los Angeles could bring distinction and credibility to the Times. It also holds tremendous potential for interacting with readers. And, above all, it's important.

The answer to Cleeland's question is yes: writing on economic justice would be of great interest to tens of thousands of local residents, but they are not the current target demographic for the LAT right now. That is abundantly clear in these moves. The Times is eliminating hard journalism positions and hiring people for "celebrity justice". What a joke. What the heck does that mean anyways? One hopes that the reference to justice merely indicates coverage of legal proceeding rather than any advocacy angle.

There is and there will be a market for the type of journalism that Cleeland knows and loves, but it will not be with the LAT. The paper will sponsor less investigatory journalism of the type that brings Pulitzer Prizes and move towards blog style breaking news and celebrity fluff pieces. All major newspapers are dealing with declining subscription rates and the impact of the Internet. The LAT is taking a decidedly low-brow approach to solving their profitability problems.

For Cleeland's part, she has found another outlet for her writings.

I couldn't stop seeing them. I remembered the workers who killed chickens, made bagged salads, packed frozen seafood, installed closet organizers, picked through recycled garbage, and manufactured foam cups and containers. They were injured from working too fast, fired for speaking up, powerless, invisible. I saw that their impact on all of us who live in the region is huge.

Now, like hundreds of other mid-career journalists who are walking away from media institutions across the country, I'm looking for other ways to tell the stories I care about. At the same time, the world of online news is maturing, looking for depth and context. I think the timing couldn't be better.

With the Los Angeles Economic Roundtable, a source of economic research for 15 years, I'm exploring the development of a nonprofit online site to chronicle the regional economy from a full range of perspectives. We want to tap into the wealth of economic research being generated by academic institutions, business groups, labor unions and others, as well as the vast experience of ordinary Angelenos. After all, the economy is nothing more than how we live, work and consume, all drawn together.

I look forward to the development of such a website. It will be extraordinarily useful for my writings here at Working Californians. The blogs should be a natural outlet for the work being produced by the Roundtable. Hopefully, Cleeland will continue to write at HuffPo and other blogs. The story needs to be told and I glad the LAT's devolution will not silence her voice, for she speaks for millions without a voice in the public sphere.
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