former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Posts Tagged ‘jobs’

March Celebrated Past But Didn’t Commit To Future

In Blog on August 30, 2013 at 2:30 pm

What happens when you compress all the news coverage of Black History Month into one week, and put it on steroids?  This week’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Don’t get me wrong. It is absolutely fitting to mark this event, and to pay homage to the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.  Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech ought to be remembered. We should honor the years of struggle that African-Americans endured to galvanize a nation.  Their nonviolent protests were met with beatings, imprisonment and death, and those horrendous events were broadcast across the nation.  Television journalism helped inform the conscience of a nation.

But what was lacking in the commemoration was the acknowledgment that the strides in racial equality also demanded political power.  As dramatic and moving as the civil rights protests were, the prospects for legislative reform 50 years ago seemed dim, at least until the Southern Democrats’ hold on the Senate was broken.

Ignoring that fact meant that this week’s events were more about emotion than strategy and leadership. The reading and viewing public got a big dose of memories, leavened with cogent analysis of the continuing legacy of racism. It was in large part, about sharing memories. NPR’s “The Race Card Project,” offered us an intriguing glimpse into the feelings of average Americans about black-white relations.

Watching the broadcast coverage of the event, one was struck by the tens of thousands of people who gathered on a rain-soaked day, the speeches, and the songs.

But here’s one concern about all that coverage. The March was framed as the one event that changed the course of history, prompting the passage of landmark civil rights and voting rights laws.

No one wants to diminish the March’s impact. It was crucial to the advance of civil rights. But the media ill serves the civil rights movement and history when it implies that speeches and marches alone change history. King, and his colleagues sowed the seeds for reform, as did the hundreds of thousands of civil rights activists throughout the country. And civil rights leaders were acutely aware of the obstacles that stood in their way in Congress, and used the media as a vital tool to overcome some of those obstacles.

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How The Post Failed The Public on Wal-Mart

In Blog on July 18, 2013 at 8:00 am

Washington, D.C. probably is home to more think tanks and economists than any other city in America. So you would think The Washington Post, still the city’s leading newspaper, might have turned to some of them to shed a little light on a major local controversy.

The D.C. City Council recently passed the Large Retailer Accountability Act, or the “living wage bill.”  It would require large retailers to pay a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour.  In reaction to the passage of the bill, Wal-Mart has said it will withdraw plans to develop three stores in the District, and reconsider its plans for three other stores already under construction. As I write this, no one knows whether Washington Mayor Vincent Gray will veto the bill.  It doesn’t appear that the council has the votes to override a veto.

I am not complaining about The Post’s two editorials opposed to the living wage bill.  The paper has a right to take a position on this issue, albeit one that was heavily biased in Wal-Mart’s favor.

What does bother me is the quality of the paper’s overall coverage. As this controversy has played out, The Post has failed to provide comprehensive ongoing reporting on the issue, or to give its readers consistently solid explanatory journalism that provides facts and context, and challenges assumptions.

Instead, The Post’s coverage has been scatter-shot.  Some of its best analysis seemed to be left to the paper’s blogs, which tend to be more commentary than straight news, and while very informative, lack the authoritative voice of news stories. Blogs, too, are not always published in the print editions of the paper.  That means that the people most affected by the Wal-Mart decision, those in underdeveloped neighborhoods waiting for a Wal-Mart bounce, might not have access to all the information about the controversy.

At the very least, The Post should have explained what the living wage bill does in some detail, not just once, when the bill was introduced, but for each significant story on the controversy.  A Post story in March included facts about the living wage bill that were significant and deserved repetition.  The living wage bill applies only to large retailers who have not negotiated wages through collective bargaining agreements. And the $12.50, as I understand it, is actually $11.75 if benefits already provided by the employer are factored in. That distinction appears to have been lost in most of the subsequent news coverage of the law.

But The Post should have done much, much more.  It could have reached out to the city’s urban policy experts and economists, and given the community coverage that:

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Journalists Should Stop and Do the Math on Minimum Wage

In Blog on February 13, 2013 at 1:31 pm

In last Saturday’s Washington Post, Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress authored a very thoughtful oped proposing that we raise the minimum wage, which currently is so low that it forces people who work full time to live in poverty.  Miller argues that increasing the minimum wage is a much simpler solution to the problems of the poor than the raft of federal programs out there to help alleviate poverty.  Plus, if the minimum wage were increased, thousands of workers would have the discretionary income to increase their consumer spending, improving the economy.

So what does Miller’s proposal have to do with journalism? In my mind, quite a bit.  Here’s the problem. Most journalists haven’t been paid by the hour since they were teens babysitting or mowing lawns.  When they report about the working poor, they fail to do the math, and since they thought $9 an hour was pretty good when they were 15, the reality of how little the minimum wage is and how inadequate it is to support a family is lost on them, and their readers and viewers.

So let’s do the math. A full-time worker earning the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25 earns a princely $15,080 a year.  Let’s boost that figure up a bit, to the hourly wage of $10.  Annually, that amounts to $20,800.  Could you live on that?  Would that be enough to pay for food, clothing, and shelter?  (Let’s assume that your employer gives you health benefits, which isn’t too likely.)  When you live this close to the bone, losing a dollar bill or a metro card that drops out of your pocket is a disaster.  You can’t afford any sick time.  A vacation is a faraway dream. No restaurants with tablecloths.  No books.  No movies.  There is no margin for error.  God help you if you thought you could raise a child or two, or live in a decent neighborhood.

So here’s my plea, all you journalists out there.  Whenever you are doing a story about a minimum wage worker, do the math, and translate that hourly wage into what most of us are lucky to earn, an annual salary.  It will not change national policy, but maybe it will give the rest of us just a little more empathy for the burdens of the working poor.

The Blog

In Blog on March 12, 2011 at 4:03 am

Why I Wrote This Book

For years, I have had a recurring dream. I’m in a newsroom, working on a story, desperate to be accepted, wanting a job. The room is crowded, noisy, intense. I observe people but they don’t seem to notice me. Obstacles get in the way of making a good impression. Either I’m dressed in my underwear, or can’t find a computer, or don’t understand the assignment. Whatever happens, and however hard and frantically I try, the dream always ends the same way: I am shut out.

I have had this dream since I left journalism, although leaving journalism was a perfectly rational thing to do, and something I did voluntarily. I loved my new career as a public interest lobbyist, and the power it gave me to influence public policy. Writing a sentence in a law, I would tell myself, was far more meaningful than writing a front-page story.

And yet that sense of incompleteness wouldn’t go away.

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The Book

In Main Posts on March 12, 2011 at 4:02 am
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Long before mainstream news organizations were hemorrhaging jobs and losing billions of dollars, journalists at some of the nation’s biggest and most respected mainstream news outlets were leaving their newsrooms. Out of the News tells the stories of some of those journalists. In the process, it offers a detailed accounting of the past three decades of journalism, a time when the news industry has undergone dramatic change.

Out of the News captures the voices of the nation’s best journalists as they explain the circumstances that led them away from mainstream reporting and into new endeavors. Wexler, herself a former award-winning journalist, describes their experiences in and out of journalism and presents a fascinating group memoir of these times and their rich, exciting lives.

Their stories are good reads in and of themselves. But their experiences also offer an inside look at the structure of news organizations, and the limited power many journalists have over their own work.

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