Bringing Back The Beat
Briarpatch|November/December 2019
In mainstream media, labour journalism has been replaced by financial reporting and business sections. But journalism students are raising the labour beat from the grave.
John Loeppky

In 2014, H.G. Watson, a freelance journalist and Ryerson journalism instructor, wrote for rabble.ca that “The labour beat – the reporters who write about workers, unions and all that it encompasses – has all but disappeared from newsrooms across North America. And with it, stories about workers’ struggles that are now slipping through the cracks.” By 2016, J-Source’s Errol Salamon had reversed course, pronouncing the beat “back from the dead.” So, which is it?

Watson, when asked if she still agrees with her characterization of labour journalism from 2014, now says that, in some ways, the field has rebounded.

“Yes and no. I think, if anything, we’ve seen a rise in the amount of reporting on labour even if we don’t necessarily call it labour – it’s not how, traditionally, labour has been viewed.”

In contrast to labour reporting in its heyday of the mid1900s, which saw reporters covering union conferences and intra-union politics, labour reporting today is more likely to cover the struggles of non-unionized workers. “The way labour itself works has changed,” Watson explains. “We have much more precarious labour, we’ve seen the rise of contracts, of the changes in manufacturing, the shifts in what kind of labour people predominantly do – so I think that has, as well, shifted what labour reporting actually is.”

David Bush, an editor at RankandFile.ca, says the corporate consolidation of media ownership and the shuttering of local outlets has “pushed the labour beat aside to the point where we have a mainstream press situation in Ontario where there is one person who regularly covers workplace issues – that’s Sara Mojtehedzadeh from the Toronto Star.”

“She’s not even categorized as a labour reporter,” he adds. “She’s a ‘work and wealth’ reporter. She’s amazing; I would say one of the best reporters in the country on these issues. [...] But that’s it; there’s no one else in that province and that’s a major, major problem.”

At the same time, Watson notes that the majority of labour reporting is being done by larger publications in big cities, like the Toronto Star, which leaves smaller centres without “local reporting and local accountability” on labour issues. Salamon – a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Minnesota who studies political economy, media history, and digital media – says that labour journalism is a place with “pockets of hope.” But he also points out that, for a long time now, labour beats have been disintegrating, giving way to financial reporting.

All of Canada’s biggest English-language daily newspapers – the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star – have business sections or journals. But it wasn’t always that way; before the turn of the millennium, it was common for papers to have journalists assigned to the labour beat, and for statements by union leaders to be front-page news. In search of more moneyed readers, mainstream media stopped prioritizing workers’ issues and voices, focusing instead on financial markets. And today, when some of the biggest publications in Canada are owned by the richest men in the country, journalists enamoured with “objectivity” end up acting as a cudgel for the interests of their capitalist employers.

But as working conditions across the industry continue to deteriorate, there are some hopeful signs of an uptick in class consciousness among journalists. Salamon says, “One thing that we need to keep in mind as vital to labour journalistic coverage right now is that [...] starting in June of 2015 we saw a wave of union organizing among digital journalists in the United States which has expanded into Canada.” In April 2016, for example, 170 workers at Vice Canada followed the lead of their American counterparts by unionizing with the Canadian Media Guild. And the wave hasn’t stopped: in March of this year, the six editorial news staff at BuzzFeed Canada joined the media union CWA Canada.

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