Friday, December 19, 2008

News Industry Labor Pains

Explanations for the death spiral of so many newspapers are familiar to most of us.

Loss of advertising revenue to the web: check.

Demographic and cultural changes: check.

Economic downturn: check.

Changes in reading habits: check.

Proliferation of information sources: check.

Perceptions of bias: check.

Labor unions: Huh? Labor unions? What do labor unions have to do with it?

More than is commonly recognized, no doubt.

It’s probably not happenstance that some of the most unionized newspapers in the country are also those that are sinking fastest. The Los Angeles Times; The Chicago Tribune; The Miami Herald; The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press; The Minneapolis Star Tribune -- these papers all are in mortal danger and they all are heavily unionized. The Detroit newspapers have 5 unions they are negotiating with in order to save a sinking ship. The Denver Newspaper Agency has 6 unions to contend with as it tries to do the same.

These unions drive up business costs and drive down productivity, while adding nothing to the quality of the product -- unless one can prove that a union reporter writes a better story than a non-union reporter. Some non-union papers are also in trouble, no doubt. And there is probably a unionized paper somewhere going strong, which could put a dent in my thesis. But a correlation undeniably exists.

Unions have been implicated in the demise of many American industries, including, of late, the auto industry, so it makes perfect sense that they're also to some degree responsible for the struggles of the newspaper industry. But why isn’t this being written about and talked about, as the UAW is talked about when the auto-maker bailout is debated? Why don’t unions appear on most lists of media industry maladies?

Maybe it's because many of the people who write about the industry’s travails are in the industry, and union members themselves. That makes them reluctant to take responsibility. It's also because anyone who writes candidly on the subject will be attacked by unionistas -- who know how to organize a hate campaign. I’m aware of one blogger who touched on the subject in a post and felt their wrath, even though he is not anti-union. Better to just steer clear.

And perhaps it's because the average American, though she may have heard of the Teamsters and the UAW and the AFL-CIO, knows little about the The Newspaper Guild or its affiliated organizations. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.

And before anyone accuses me of knee-jerk union-bashing, they should know that, over a two year period in my misspent youth, I was a card-carrying member of the UAW. What I know about unions I learned first-hand.

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