Christopher R. Martin Martin
Professor of Communication Studies, University of Northern Iowa
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.
You 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.”
For 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. (more…)