News for the Consumer Class

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.

Of course, one could argue that a lot of general news readers became television news viewers by the 1970s, which is true. But TV, which welcomed mass audiences, didn’t provide the same level of labor and working class coverage. No national news network had a dedicated labor beat reporter, and few local TV stations covered labor and working class issues on a regular basis.

The transformation of journalism’s target audience away from citizen/workers to citizen/consumers created two big “blind spots” for journalism when it comes to working-class issues. First, labor journalism is nearly nonexistent. Over the past several decades, some stories have examined the shocking levels of income inequality, but no consistent beat covers labor or working-class issues.  The occasional stories that do appear lack any sense of continuity or content.  It’s not unlike the sports pages covering the Super Bowl game, but without reporting the entire season’s worth of the games leading up to it. How could one appreciate the Super Bowl story’s magnitude?

Second, stories that do get reported often reflect a consumer point of view. Anji L. Phillips of Bradley University and I have tracked this in reports on the 2012 bankruptcy and shutdown of Hostess Brands. (We both had Hostess facilities shuttered in our communities in Iowa and Illinois.)  From a journalistic point of view, it’s a tragic and fascinating story of a major national corporation and employer. One might expect the Hostess Brands story to delve into the very checkered managerial history of Hostess, with leveraged buyouts, a slew of acquisitions, a revolving door to the CEO suite (six CEOs in a decade!), union concessions, underfunded pensions, two bankruptcies in 10 years, hedge fund investments, lax accounting, and poor product development.  In many ways, Hostess Brands could have been a story that exemplified the excesses and shortcomings of American business since the 1970s.  Instead, the main interpretive frame of the closing of Hostess Brands, and the loss of 18,500 jobs, cast it primarily as a consumer story.

I don’t fault journalists for using the Twinkie as a “hook” for getting the audience into the story (about 90 percent of the national news stories in 2012 we analyzed did this). But, I do fault journalists who made Twinkies the main frame of the story (about 50 percent of the stories did this).

The consumer framing of labor news always ends up badly for labor unions, as their position gets lost in the emphasis on consumers. For example, even though Hostess workers’ labor unions made big concessions worth $110 million a year and lost 10,000 jobs in the first bankruptcy of 2004-2009, more than 60 percent of the 2012 news stories blamed the union for the Hostess closing. From the news media framing of the story, only the union’s resistance to more contract concessions stood between consumers and a continuing supply of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and Ho Hos.

Given that the news will not likely change the way it’s been covering labor for the past 40 years, an alternative is for labor communicators to use the consumer frame themselves.  A big factor in success of the UPS strike of 1997 was workers leveraging their relationships with UPS consumers.  The same could have happened in the Hostess case.  Eric Blair in Labor Notes suggests how this might have worked:

At Hostess, whose products are iconic American brands loved by millions, a campaign to safeguard Twinkies from private equity vultures might have had the dual impact of winning public support for the workers and angering management by interfering in its relationship with its customers. The fact that consumers started hoarding the famous snack cakes during the Bakery workers’ strike suggests the potential.

This could be the way forward:  workers as the advocates, not enemies, of consumers.


Martin is Interim Head and Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Northern Iowa.  He is the author of Framed! Labor and the Corporate Media (Cornell University Press) and is working on a book about news media coverage of labor in the twentieth century.


This has been reposted from the Working-Class Perspectives blog.

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