New York Times Strike: From Reporters to Rabble-Rousers

Yves here. While author Sonali Kolhatkar points out that the writers at the normally corporate-toadying New York Times have resorted to a one-day strike, I wouldn’t pin my hopes on a Damascene conversion. Despite having been a journalist at a not-for-profit radio station, Kolhatkar has an unduly romantic view of the profession: “Journalists are meant to report on matters of social, political, and economic injustice.”

Hun? Yes, we like to think that the press serves as an important check on abuses and entrenched power. But, for instance, the US recently imposed sanctions on Chinese purchased of advanced American chips, with the excuse being to prevent military use and development. Note these chips are not used in military applications but in games and other high-end consumer devices. Mind you, they no doubt will be when those chips are further from cutting edge. But when that happens, will the US have maintained dominance in this category as the start of the art has moved on?

Most observers see this as an economic, rather than a security play, to thwart Chinese development…as we did do successfully with Huawei, once the ne plus ultra of 5G, now somewhat diminished.

So this is a story about the exercise of economic power and the US attempting to preserve its hegemony. Even though some actors are definitely getting the short end of the stick, I find it hard to put stories about financial and governmental fisticuffs in the injustice box. They fall more readily under “Godzilla v. Mothra”.

Kolhatkar also gives a very half-hearted critique of the establishment/corporatist bias o the Times, which is long-standing. In his 1928 classic, Propaganda, Eddy Bernays takes a New York Times cover pages and show that half its stories are what he calls propaganda, as in pitched to the paper to advance the interests of a business or government. To be clear, Bernays counted only articles that showed the presumed protagonist or initiative in a positive light.

By Sonali Kolhatkar, an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Strike activity in the United States appears to have reached an all-time high as the unionized staff of the New York Times recently joined the ranks of iconic brands like Starbucks and Amazon in agitating for their rights. More than 1,100 staffers, represented by the NewsGuild of New York, staged a one-day walkout on December 8, saying their hand was forced “due to the company’s failure to bargain in good faith, reach a fair contract agreement with the workers, and meet their demands.” It was the first time in 40 years that the paper boasting of publishing “All the News That’s Fit to Print” experienced such a labor action.

“We make the paper, we make the profits!” chanted striking workers in a raucous rally outside the Times’ headquarters. Some union members called on the public to show solidarity by refraining from accessing the digital edition of the Times, even in order to play the popular game Wordle. The NewsGuild has also called on subscribers and supporters to sign a petition in support of their demands, saying, “We are the people who deliver groundbreaking journalism and keep the newsroom running every day.”

The strike is particularly significant given that the Times is arguably the most influential journalistic outlet in the nation, framing political and economic issues for the public. It is considered the “national ‘newspaper of record,’” and its journalists have won more than 100 Pulitzer Prizes. They have leverage over their employer, although their reluctance to use it is apparent given both the rarity of such strikes and the very limited scope of the December 8 action.

Staffers have been working without a new contract since the last one expired in March 2021. After more than 20 months of negotiations, the New York Times Company, which owns the paper, has reportedly refused to budge on salaries, remote working limits, and other demands. According to the NewsGuild, “their wage proposal still fails to meet the economic moment, lagging far behind both inflation and the average rate of wage gains in the U.S.”

How radical are the Times workers’ demands? Among other things, they want a $65,000 salary floor, which is hardly a large amount for residents of New York City, one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S., and in the world. Workers have rightly rejected the paltry 2.75 percent annual wage increase that the company is offering—the same company that gave its top three executives raises amounting to about 32 percent from 2020 to 2021. Workers are also asking the company to fully fund their health insurance policies—again, not a radical ask.

Instead of meeting these basic demands, the company is operating like a money-hungry Wall Street corporation, by taking the massive profits it has made off the labor of its workers and setting aside $150 million to buy back stocks for its investors.

Another major workers’ concern is racial discrimination within the company. According to an August 2022 report by the NYT Guild Equity Committee, the company’s performance rating system is deeply discriminatory. Performance evaluations determine bonuses, and the report concluded that in 2020, “white employees accounted for more than 90 percent of the roughly 50 people who received the top score.”

Instead of using some of its profits to make its workers happy, the company offered them free Times-branded lunch boxes in September—part of a push to lure remote workers back to in-person work. “[M]y colleagues and I don’t need cute trinkets,” responded one Times staffer in September. She pointed out that “330 of us wrote emails last month asking for real raises to combat inflation.”

I was a unionized journalist for nearly 20 years as a member of SAG-AFTRA. Even though I worked for a nonprofit radio station, many of the issues my fellow staffers and I faced were similar to those at a for-profit outlet like the New York Times. Rather than cute lunch boxes, my radio station’s management once gave employees brand-new copies of the book Who Moved My Cheese?, a patronizing pro-corporate piece of pabulum intended to soothe workers without actually giving in to their demands. For years we worked for below industry wages, telling ourselves that our noble profession was a labor of love.

Journalists are meant to report on matters of social, political, and economic injustice. We don’t like to report on ourselves and our own industry. But, in a world where information is currency and travels at lightning speed, and disinformation has driven democracy into a corner, solid, dependable journalism is more crucial than ever. We are people. We too have to eat, pay bills, and go to the doctor.

In all honesty, the New York Times does not deserve its reputation for being the “newspaper of record.” It’s true that the paper has produced such groundbreaking work as Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project, earning it the ire of right-wing extremists like Fox News host Tucker Carlson and former President Donald Trump.

But, analysts at the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) have, for years, called out the paper’s journalists and the editorial board for faulty, biased, incomplete, pro-corporate, or pro-government reporting. One September 2021 report by FAIR senior analyst Julie Hollar detailed how a Times reporter was “running interference” for wealthy elites when reporting on the Biden administration’s tax plan. Another report, from June 2021 and also by Hollar, demonstrated how the paper was merging content and commerce with a blatant non-advertising promotion for Amazon’s Prime Day. FAIR has produced dozens of such critical reports over the decades.

Now, Times workers who produce the news find themselves on the other side of the reporting as they demand fair working conditions. It’s a harsh lesson to see oneself as the victim of a predatory capitalist structure that chews up and spits out workers like they mean nothing. Within such structures is a continuous stream of money upward with only the barest allowable minimum being set aside to pay the labor costs required to make the product—in this case, the news.

A December 7 article that appeared in the Times explained that “Times journalists have rarely gone on strike. They did so for less than a day in 1981, and there was a brief walkout in 2017 to protest the elimination of the copy desk. No labor action has stopped publication of The Times since a strike of pressmen and others in 1978, which lasted 88 days.”

Clearly, there is a reluctance on the part of Times journalists to fully flex their power. But the point of a union is to extract what it needs from an employer by using collective power. The paper can, and did, wait out the 24-hour strike. If workers went on an indefinite strike until their demands were met, it might force the company’s hand—and it might make reporters more critical of business models that screw over workers for profits.

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  1. Acacia

    In his 1928 classic, Propaganda, Eddy Bernays takes a New York Times cover pages and show that half its stories are what he calls propaganda, as in pitched to the paper to advance the interests of a business or government.

    Would the figure still be 50%? After all the post-9/11 war mongering, maybe more than 50%? What would Chomsky say?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Due to the state of the Internet, I can’t find a Pew study (~2010-2012) on sources for news stories. IIRC well over 60% came from business and government, and this was media generally, not heavily access journalism pubs like the Grey Lady. So yes, over 60% is likely a conservative guess

      Also what drove the death of real reporting was not 9/11 (despite the “all propaganda all the time” WMD in Iraq exercise) but the collapse of classified ads, which provided 1/2 of newspaper revenues.

  2. Stephen

    Journalism and the newspaper industry do seem to be increasingly precarious.

    Journalism was never a profession that systematically attracted the financial rewards of banking, consulting and senior corporate jobs. There were (and are) exceptions of course, just as acting is precarious except for a relatively small number of stars. But my understanding is that until the late 90s, the rise of the internet, the growth of platforms and the resulting diversion of advertising revenues one could still make a reasonably comfortable career as a mid level journalist. Those days are gone, of course, and the life is tougher.

    My instinct is that both journalists and their newspapers are therefore even less keen to toe an independent position on key issues than they were. Financial security and market power allows one to take risks. It also funds investigative teams who may produce a handful of cutting edge exposes each year but which in leaner times cannot be justified. Easier just to scoop up what Reuters provide and tweak the words a little. Increased dependence on government funding (in the UK for example they are the biggest advertiser) and on access via platforms no doubt also drives narrative compliance. It does not need to be overt but is an outcome of incentives.

  3. Cocomaan

    I stopped reading at the first line. Strike activity in the US seems to have reached an all time high? Citation needed.

  4. The Rev Kev

    Normally I am sympathetic with union workers striking to get a fair deal at work but I just can’t do it here. It is like trying to be sympathetic to the striking workers at a major German newspaper back in the 1930s. If that sounds harsh, then I would ask if the New York Times has been sympathetic with union strikers in recent years – such as the railway strikers – and if those striking NYT workers had any problem with that reporting. You have to know what you are dealing with.

    This reporter from California got a job with the New York Times several years ago and was quite happy about it. But then he found out that it did not operate like a real newspaper. He stated that in an office on the higher floors, the top staff would get together and decide on the “narrative” for the day. Word would then go down to the editors to insert stories that would support this narrative while others that would contradict it hit the recycle bin. And out would go the news for that day that would be read by important people and you know that I am not making it up. If the New York Times went out of business, would it be so bad?

    1. flora

      I always think real life is an education you can’t get in college or from books alone. Maybe these highly credentialed strikers, even for a day, are learning something important about the real world of labor. Learning that they are labor, not management or the owner, credentials notwithstanding. Who knows what effects that education might have? / ;)

  5. Thistlebreath

    “Sophie’s Choice” is a solid book by William Styron. The movie wasn’t bad either, Meryl Streep turned in a bravado performance.

    Sophie’s husband in Nazi Germany had been a party supporter. Then, when he was no longer useful, he was accused. Sophie had to choose which of her children would live.

    There’s also “Watership Down” where some melancholy, romantic rabbits mournfully decry that every tenth or so bunch of carrots that come down a hole into their burrow is actually a snare, and a hapless hare gets yanked aloft for the pot. But the carrots are so delicious.

    In both stories, the cautionary message is careful who you praise or support. Everything comes at a price, apparent or not.

    The NYT reporters deserve some sympathy but not a lot. They knew what was going on upstairs, even though they have all been clustered at the bar downstairs.

  6. Dida

    I feel utterly bereft of compassion when it comes to the unsatisfactory wages of NYT journalists. Considering the mainstream media’s vital contribution in legitimizing the US international regime of plunder, wars, and sanctions, however low is their pay, it’s not low enough by me.

    Plus I’m forced to spend long hours on the Internet everyday sifting though all sort of academic blogs and alternative media channels just to be moderately well-informed; and I feel quite resentful about it. If journalists did their job properly, I could perform life affirming activities instead of staring at screens.

    1. cnchal

      > Plus I’m forced to spend long hours on the Internet everyday sifting though all sort of academic blogs and alternative media channels just to be moderately well-informed; and I feel quite resentful about it.

      An hour a day on NC cuts through the crap you are read elsewhere, and saves your sanity.

      I bet not one of the Times one day off work wonders isn’t a “Prime” whip cracking sadist.

      From one of the links above:

      One former Amazon human resources VP interviewed gave some context for the company’s sky-high 150% yearly turnover rate, saying CEO Jeff Bezos “didn’t want hourly workers to stick around for long, viewing ‘a large, disgruntled’ work force as a threat.” In other words, high turnover is a feature, not a bug, of this “success story for the ages.”

      Basically, Bezos bribes whip cracking sadist to become Prime members to the tune of nearly a grand per year, by extracting massive fees from third party sellers and running a pay to be found extortion scheme.

      Amazon’s Toll Road

      Amazon = corporate ISIS

  7. John Zelnicker

    Rev Kev and Dida – I can understand your disgust with the NYT. However, the reporters still need to be paid a living wage.

    Those folks are not in control of the stories they write, they receive their marching orders from the “the top staff” as you said, Rev. Of course that’s wrong, but it’s not the fault of the reporters.

    Given the state of journalism in the US these days, leaving the NYT to get another job in journalism is not likely to be an option.

  8. witters

    “Those folks are not in control of the stories they write, they receive their marching orders from the “the top staff” as you said, Rev. Of course that’s wrong, but it’s not the fault of the reporters.”

    Then they are not reporters, but “reporters.”

  9. No1

    I’m surprised by how low the pay is in one of the most important Ministries of Propaganda there is. The price of a soul is very deflationary.

    1. seabos84

      It actually makes $en$e – you kind of restrict the labor pool to those who are affluent enough to have granny’s 3 year old BMW / Audi, gramps paying for the condo, mummy paying the health care premiums, family vacations in Cool Swank Place$, …
      and you get people who comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. Ta Da.

  10. seabos84

    MY hunch is that too much of internet world, especially the “news” companies, are run by moron MBAs whose spreadsheets are just stuck in AOL world –
    The internet whatever should be paid ($19.99 a month) times (12) times (20 or 60 million). Ta Da.
    There has to be a way to get 25 or 50 or 100 bucks a YEAR out of a lot of people such that they have a reasonable access to a reasonable amount of what they want.
    There are all kinds of ways to count page views, aren’t there?
    DON’T ask me how to do it –
    IF I could figure it out I’d do it & I’d be taking my skim of 2 cents a person a month times 60 million.

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