The Broken Table: Tale of A Newspaper Strike That Didn’t End Happily (Like Newsies)

The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor   By Chris Rhomberg (Russell Sage Foundation, 2012, 387 pp).

Review by Steve Early

Lately the New York Times has been chronicling the further contraction of the newspaper trade and related job insecurity among print journalists. In a June 4 report, entitled “The Undoing of the Daily,” Times readers learned that the much respected Times-Picayune in New Orleans is not alone in trying to stay afloat by publishing less than once a day. Six other newspapers, in the United States and Canada, have just announced plans to reduce their print schedule and rely on web editions the rest of the time. “Newspaper executives argue that printing and delivering newspapers only on certain days will sharply cut costs while at least preserving some of the paper advertising….”

As the Times notes, “the decision to reduce print papers is usually accompanied by cuts on the newsroom side, as well.” The quality of daily coverage, already eroded due to widespread newsroom downsizing, will further deteriorate for reasons the NYT spells out. “Staff members at The Times-Picayune expect that about one-third of the roughly 140-person newsroom will be cut.” Reporters “have been told that their priorities will shift to writing for the web.” According to one past editor: “They want them to produce more blog posts a day and not worry about putting things together in a more thoughtful package. The Times-Picayune has a sterling tradition of enterprising journalism. That tradition is being thrown under the bus.”

Also part of this unhappy trend are the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, two papers now owned by the Detroit Media Partnership. Since 2010, the News has “printed Monday through Saturday but delivers papers only on Thursday and Friday (with a special section delivered with The Free Press on Sundays).” In the mid-1990s, close coordination between the same two papers—then owned by the Gannett media chain and Knight Ridder, Inc. respectively—laid the groundwork for labor’s biggest media industry defeat in the last several decades. When Detroit newspaper management succeeded in throwing 2,500 employees “under the bus”—by replacing them during a strike—it not only sacrificed the quality of local journalism; it dealt a grievous organizational blow to my own union, the Newspaper Guild/CWA, one of six labor organizations involved in that 583 day ordeal (and years of legal skirmishing thereafter). Continue reading