The labor beat is not dead. Covering it could teach you a thing or two.
What the hell was labor reporting?
That was the first thing I thought when my editors at The Harvard Crimson gave me my first reporting beat assignment after a semester of trying out for the paper my freshman year of college. Then, a second later: do I even want to do this?
I knew vaguely that covering the labor beat meant I was covering work — how it was done, who did it, and how much they got paid. I knew that unions were involved, and because of my attendance at a high school with a fraught negotiation history with its unions, I had for context only whispered horror stories of reps slashing the tires of those who crossed dared to cross picket lines and frustrated rants about prickly grievance processes. Flocking to Google offered no solace: my first search (“how to be a labor beat reporter”) turned up a string of apocalyptic headlines that seemed to uniformly pronounce the labor beat dead. RIP.
To be sure, the labor beat at Harvard had been thriving in the years before my arrival to campus. Protests and demonstrations led by a cohort of hotel workers affiliated with a Harvard union dominated the news the previous fall, and the largest campus union representing some 700 clerical and technical workers was gearing up for its latest round of contract talks with Harvard, set to begin just as I’d be settling into the role. But I was a naive, new reporter, and something about labor just didn’t say sexy, not as much as beats like admissions or campus social organizations, which drove the bulk of our paper’s online traffic.
I had imagined myself chasing down top university administrators and breaking stories that would be picked up and digested by pundits during the morning news shows, not plodding through health care agreements and eking out an article every now and then that generated buzz only among die-hard Harvard campus watchers.
Four years later, as I eye a future in the journalism industry (fingers crossed), it’s clear that being assigned to the labor beat fresh onto the paper’s staff was the best thing that ever happened to me. It made me a stronger reporter, sharpened my toolbox of skills, and taught me valuable lessons about the role of a reporter.
Chief among those lessons was a critical one in humility.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the celebrity of journalism (look ma! People are reading my stuff!) particularly as social media outlets like Twitter have brought the people writing the stories to the fore of the news.
Glamorous profiles of the “Trump Whisperer” Maggie Haberman and clips of Jim Acosta sparring with the White House have contributed to a culture that prizes the byline just as much as it does the story behind it.
I won’t declare that a good or bad thing, but it’s clear to me that as a fledgling journalist searching for ways to up my Twitter followers or make a brand for myself, this “pop-culture’d” aspect of reporting held me in its sway.
It’s a culture anathema to good labor reporting.
Labor reporting constantly reminds you of the lives at stake whenever you write a story and that no amount of pithy Twitter replies will be the panacea for injustice that journalism aims to produce. In my first few months on the beat, I spoke with countless Harvard employees caught in a three-way yoke between the demands of their job, dwindling region-wide health benefits, and a housing affordability crisis decades in the making. If I failed in my job to ask critical questions of Harvard, Cambridge, or union leadership, that failure meant their needs might not be addressed in the next round of contract talks. If I spent my evenings fielding heat from Twitter trolls instead of roving the dining halls speaking with employees to discover what ailed them the most at work, I might miss key stories about alleged discrimination or dangerous working conditions.
I’ll never forget one source tearfully recounting the particular burden that the almost seasonal nature of their work at the university posed on the members of their family, some of whom suffered from chronic health problems that demanded she have a year-round buffer of cash in the event that a medical emergency arose. Something clicked for me in that interview, and I began to measure the value and impact of my reporting by metrics beyond whether my stories made the top-five most-read box on The Crimson’s website.
But to do the sort of work that good labor journalism requires meant learning the art of the deep dive — a skill that, as journalists turn to handling larger and larger archives, mining for truth in a sea of disarticulated data, will be integral to producing the sort of impactful journalism that changes lives.
In my second semester on the beat (and my sophomore fall of college), Harvard’s dining workers announced their intent to go on strike, demanding the university set a baseline salary of $35,000 for its workers and improve health benefits across the board. It was a historic strike, marking the first time the dining staff walked off the job during the academic year. For 22 days they picketed as UNITE Here Local 26, the Boston-based union that represented them, bartered testily with Harvard’s negotiating staff.
At the start of that semester, I was the sole reporter assigned to the labor beat. But as the strike became imminent and then dragged on through a busy, frigid October, more reporters joined the coverage team. Still, when it came to dissecting the mountains of contract proposals, wage schedule tables, regional and national data on food industry employees, and expert healthcare analyses both sides released to support their goals, it was often left to me to do the difficult work of parsing through it all.
I learned more in those 22 days about the nitty-gritty of producing digestible news — distilling a snarl of competing data into readable content — than I probably would have learned had I been assigned to one of the “sexier” junior beats at the paper.
I produced explainers, tweeted out responses to frequently asked questions pouring in from across the region about the headline-grabbing strike, and truly felt as though I was keeping up with if not trumping the coverage out of national news outlets and local professional affiliates.
It was personally rewarding to feel like I had a true grasp on the glut of information relevant to the strike, and it taught my editors that they could trust me to (to borrow a phrase oft-read on job postings) be detail-oriented—so much so that the following year they tasked me with a senior beat notorious for throwing obscure reports at those who cover it: following Harvard’s investment arm.
And, I didn’t know it then, but the beat imparted upon me a third skill that had practical application beyond the industry. It taught me what to expect when I eventually began working.
Reporting on both unionized and non-unionized workers alike exposed me to the spectrum of treatment workers face in the labor force. Regardless of the industry you end up in, that’s valuable knowledge that will help you navigate contracts, health benefits, and human resource disputes. And for journalists seeking roles in digital news sites, the stakes of understanding organized labor are high. It’s no secret that newsrooms across the digital landscape are caught up in a unionizing wave meant to address at least a decade-worth of criticism that these companies fail their staff with inconsistent salaries and benefit packages.
A heartening note: four years into my personal experience with reporting, the headlines pronouncing the death of the labor beat have appeared to die down. CJR wrote a piece highlighting the new iterations of labor beat coverage a changing workforce demands, and I even came across a posting on LinkedIn looking for a dedicated labor journalist to cover the tech industry’s reckoning with organized labor. The opportunities are out there. And they have a lot to teach you.