New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (4/29/23) has painted a picture of the newsroom that time forgot. Her remembrance of a frenetic, vibrant newsroom where sin united professionals, and the cubs learned from the veterans on the beat, matches the great depictions of newsrooms like The Wire’s Baltimore Sun or the New York Post in Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life.
Dowd worries that the younger generation won’t know such pleasures. She quotes the Times’ Jim Rutenberg asking what a cinematic portrayal of a newsroom would look like today: “A bunch of individuals at their apartments, surrounded by sad houseplants, using Slack?”
Beyond Memory Lane
Her piece is not a mere trip down memory lane, though. She used her column space deliberately to attack the Times union for pushing for more remote and hybrid work, as post-pandemic many office workers have seen the benefits of such scheduling. Contract talks at the paper have been rough, as 1,100 Times workers held a one-day strike at the end of last year over stalled negotiations (Reuters, 12/8/22). Dowd writes:
Remote work is a major priority in contract negotiations for the Times union, which wants employees to have to come in to the office no more than two days a week this year and three days a week starting next year. Management, which says one thing it is worried about is that young people will stagnate and see the institution as an abstraction if they work remotely too often, has committed to a three-day-a-week policy this year but wants to reserve the right to expand that in the future.
For office workers, this has been a struggle. The pandemic has taught us that we don’t need to spend five days a week commuting, or to use leave time to take care of a house chore in the middle of the work day. There is research showing remote scheduling is good for workers and employers alike (Forbes, 2/12/20; Entrepreneur, 11/5/22; Psychology Today, 2/28/23).
But Taylorism is a hell of a drug for bosses, who need to literally see workers’ asses in seats in order to justify their paychecks, even if the work is getting done just as efficiently, or even more so with hybrid schedules.
Dowd sides with the bosses, who think that remote work will mean workers won’t put their hearts into the job, even though the news profession itself has been in a downward spiral for decades.
While Dowd admits that “newsrooms have been shrinking and disappearing for a long time, of course, due to shifting economics and the digital revolution,” the thrust of her piece blames a younger generation, inspired by the pandemic to work remotely. “I worry that the romance, the alchemy, is gone,” she said, adding that once her co-workers realized “they could put out a great newspaper from home, they decided, why not do so?”
Generally, a younger generation has embraced flexible scheduling because for all the romanticizing of the so-called water cooler, the 9-to-5 grind has also included workplace sexual harassment, challenging physical environments for the disabled and other structural inequalities. Hybrid work doesn’t solve these issues, but these problems are the flip side to the rosy image of the days of yore.
News sector decline
It’s easy for someone like Dowd, who joined the Times in 1983, to lose touch with what it’s like for a working journalist these days. I cut my teeth in journalism at Atlanta’s beloved alt-weekly, Creative Loafing, which was battered with layoffs since I sifted through city housing records under the guidance of the brilliant reporter Mara Shalhoup, now an editor at ProPublica. I was drawn to alt-weeklies, and my dream was to work for the Village Voice, which died (New York Times, 8/31/18) along with Boston’s Phoenix (WBUR, 3/14/13) and the San Francisco Bay Guardian (USA Today, 10/14/14).
The Forward, once the most important Jewish newspaper in America, where I was once a columnist, no longer prints on paper, and lost star reporters like Larry Cohler-Esses (Columbia Journalism Review, 2/5/20). I reported from the United Nations for Free Speech Radio News—it’s gone (Democracy Now!, 4/28/17). I was a reporter at the Chief-Leader for three years. Its sale, along with the shortsightedness of its previous owners, has led to what appears to be a shrinking product (Editor and Publisher, 9/1/21; Chief-Leader, 3/15/22).
I don’t say all this to ask for sympathy, but rather to underscore the fact that for journalists out there who are not patricians on the Times columnist roster—i.e., who are part of the 99% of the news industry economy—this is just the norm. My lifelong friends and colleagues have dealt with layoffs, restructurings, management hostility toward staff unions, precarious employment and increasing workloads.
We’d love to chain smoke and yell at each other as the deadline looms. But these positions are hard to find, not because we are lazy, but because the machinations of capital have reduced what was once a career into a burdensome, low-paying gig offering no future prospects.
Today, more and more journalists turn to Substack and Patreon as ways to make money, as the jobs in the industry dry up, and self-employment without editorial oversight becomes easier than scrounging for freelancer fees. The story of the news sector decline is an old one, but the most recent shakeups include the closure of BuzzFeed News (New York Times, 4/20/23), fighting over layoffs and pay at Gannett (New York Post, 11/4/22), bankruptcy preparations at Vice Media (Reuters, 5/1/23), downsizing at 538 (Variety, 4/25/23) and a protracted strike at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (WESA, 4/6/23).
If a journalist is lucky, maybe they can get a job—even if it doesn’t pay what’s needed to live, and is so overloaded with work that the job becomes untenable. The rest can work as precarious freelancers, trudging along without benefits or job protections.
The hollowing out of the profession is, indeed, bad for journalism and thus for democracy. Dowd sees that problem—but not the root cause—when she says:
I’m looking for proof of life on an eerie ghost ship. Once in a while, I hear reporters wheedling or hectoring some reluctant source on the phone, but even that is muted because many younger reporters prefer to text or email sources.
“A problem with this,” said the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who started with me at the [Washington] Star, “is that if you interview someone in writing, they have time to consider and edit their responses to your questions, which means that spontaneous, unexpected, injudicious and entertaining quotes are dead.”
Mayer, who is among the best at the New Yorker, is correct: An interview in person is better than on the phone, and a phone interview is better than email. But why is that happening? The preference for text and email, I have often found, is that because of this cultural shift, it is often easier to get in contact with someone over text or email, and some sources even insist on it.
Further, in an age where reporters must churn out more and more copy in shorter amounts of time, reporters must often find the most time-efficient manner to report under such thrifty constraints. Send out a flurry of email requests in the morning, get statements by midday, file as soon as you can. Rinse and repeat.
Shaming younger workers
If Dowd were using this example as a reason to give younger reporters more time to flesh out stories, real salaries and benefits to offer workers the chance at a lifelong career, bigger expense accounts for writers to travel to meet sources, and more staff to spread the work around more evenly, then she’d have a point.
Does Dowd blame the loss of the New York Times newsroom culture on, for example, management’s decision to lay off copy editors (Deadline, 6/28/17)? No, she somehow forgot that part. In essence, Dowd provides pure Boomerism, an elite worker in her twilight years shaming younger workers to slave over smaller and smaller scraps.
But it’s clear from her lashing out at the union that this piece was not meant to urge the industry to reverse its cost-cutting and deprofessionalization. She wants the younger, less-paid workforce at her employer to fall in line.
The Times had already fumbled an attempt to coax workers back to the office when it offered free lunch boxes to workers, a show of utter out-of-touchness (Gawker, 9/13/22). Dowd continued the awkwardness:
I’m mystified when I hear that so many of our 20-something news assistants prefer to work from home. At that age, I would have had a hard time finding mentors or friends or boyfriends if I hadn’t been in the newsroom, and I never could have latched onto so many breaking stories if I hadn’t raised my hand and said, “I’ll go.”
It’s a little sad to hear someone talk like this in public, when so many young journalists are eager to take assignments, even if that means filing from a Brooklyn coffee shop instead of a midtown office. The truth is many youngsters know how to socialize and date without the physical office, so neither a lunchbox or the prospect of a new hookup is going to break union solidarity when it comes to hybrid scheduling.
Dowd’s attempt to run interference for management should expose the weakness of Times management’s position here. At the Times, it should be an inspiration for unionists to keep fighting for a better workplace. And for the rest of us, it should be inspiration for a better industry, one that values its workers’ contributions.
By Ari Paul
May 2, 2023