Politico

Opinion | A Newspaper Strike Ain’t What It Used to Be

As recently as the 1960s, newspaper unions were powerful enough to drive newspapers under with prolonged strikes, as happened in New York City in 1963 when four of the city’s seven dailies folded after a 114-day strike. But the technological and economic conditions that allowed newspaper unions to accrue such influence have been swept out with history’s tide, rendering them more of a nuisance than a genuine threat to publishers.

The unions understand this, which is why the 1,450 NewsGuild members who work at the New York Times have chosen to stage a symbolic one-day walkout on Thursday to protest the newspaper’s resistance to their contract demands rather than a full-fledged strike, at least for now. We’ve witnessed relatively paltry gestures like this before by Times staffers. In 2011, they staged a one-hour walkout over a lapsed contract. In 2017, hundreds deserted their desks for a 20-minute street protest over reduced staff and the loss of copy editor positions.

While these walkouts weren’t a complete waste of time — they did, after all, call the public’s attention to their discontent and build solidarity among union membership — management didn’t suffer even a pin prick. If the NewsGuild goes through with its planned Thursday walkout, Times management will shrug off the demo, because it can. Newspaper unions can annoy their bosses, they can reap publicity for their cause, but they can’t hurt management like they could in the old days.

To place the NewsGuild’s relative impotence in context, read journalist Scott Sherman’s history of the great New York newspaper strike of 1962-1963, published in Vanity Fair a decade ago. Back then, before computer typesetting took root, newspaper publishing was a much more labor-intensive business, requiring armies of pressmen to produce a daily. Sherman reports that New York’s seven dailies employed 17,000 workers — “pressmen, photoengravers, paper handlers, reporters, elevator operators, office boys.” Producing a newspaper without skilled union workers in a union-friendly town was almost impossible.

But advances in computer typesetting and other technologies, which, in part, instigated the great New York newspaper strike, have altered the union-management dynamic, favoring management. Let’s say today’s unionized Times newsroom decided to strike. Managers could still produce something that would pass for a newspaper with stories written by managers and by filling holes in coverage with wire service and syndicated copy. If the union pressmen were to walk out in support of the newsroom strike and no newspapers were printed, readers could still read their Times over the web. And they probably would.

Sherman’s Vanity Fair piece illustrates just how essential the newspaper was to the city’s culture in 1963. He reports that 350 newsdealers were put out of business, but they were only the most visible victims. Hotels and restaurants suffered because there was no venue for their advertisements, causing 5,000 hospitality workers to lose their jobs. Without obituaries to guide mourners, funeral attendance and florists suffered. Social welfare organizations found it impossible to place orphans for adoption without print ads. Department stores, the dailies’ biggest advertisers by far, had no comparable place to announce sales, and took a big hit.

Newspapers, even the New York Times, have lost the economic and cultural centrality they held 60 years ago, thanks to the rise of television and web news. The advertising industry has so bypassed newspapers that since 2012, Google has collected more ad revenue than the entire print publishing business. If the NewsGuild were to go on strike against the Times today, the nation and the economy would take notice, but then both would shrug.

Loyal Times readers would, of course, riot if editors filled the struck-paper with management-written copy and stuff ripped from the wire. Just imagine a day without a Maggie Haberman scoop! No more Dwight Garner book reviews! No Science Times or book review! Potentially no Wordle?! The mind quivers.

But how sustained would the fury be? Even the most ardent New York Times reader will admit that newspapers are fungible. Denied access to a staff-written New York Times, even the most Times-centric reader could survive a Times strike by turning to the web for timely news, an alternative that didn’t exist in 1963. A daily compilation of articles from the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time, the Atlantic, the New Yorker and POLITICO would easily do the trick. The NewsGuild has almost no leverage in its struggle against the paper, and it knows it. A union with real leverage would make plans for a real strike instead of a mock one. (Nota bene: One of the NewsGuild’s locals represents journalists from POLITICO.)

This isn’t to say the union has no recourse or not even cause for its wage demands. After all, the company is posting healthy profits, paying its top executives well, and recently purchased the Athletic for $550 million. The union and its members could do a better job of enlisting subscribers in their cause. For several years now, subscribers have provided the paper with most of its revenue, which means they have replaced advertisers as the tail that wags the Times dog. Stronger appeals to subscribers — beyond the few clever tweets the NewsGuild has produced — about their cause might help. Or would it backfire? The last thing the union should want is a subscriber boycott of the Times that would slay the fattened calf.

Fighting the bosses has never been easy. But play-acting at strikes has never won a new, juicy contract.

Home delivery of the New York Times is going up $2.75 a month starting in late February, according to an email I received from publisher A.G. Sulzberger last month. I think I’ll stage a walkout. Send cancellations to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com“,”link”:{“target”:”NEW”,”attributes”:[],”url”:”mailto:shafer.politico@gmail.com”,”_id”:”00000184-ecc8-d75d-a785-ecda79eb0002″,”_type”:”33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df”},”_id”:”00000184-ecc8-d75d-a785-ecda79eb0003″,”_type”:”02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266″}”>Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter“,”link”:{“target”:”NEW”,”attributes”:[],”url”:”https://twitter.com/jackshafer”,”_id”:”00000184-ecc8-d75d-a785-ecda79eb0004″,”_type”:”33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df”},”_id”:”00000184-ecc8-d75d-a785-ecda79eb0005″,”_type”:”02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266″}”>Twitter feed always reads Farhad Manjoo’“,”link”:{“target”:”NEW”,”attributes”:[],”url”:”https://twitter.com/fmanjoo”,”_id”:”00000184-ecc8-d75d-a785-ecda79eb0006″,”_type”:”33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df”},”_id”:”00000184-ecc8-d75d-a785-ecda79eb0007″,”_type”:”02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266″}”>Farhad Manjoo’s tweets. My Mastodon“,”_id”:”00000184-e98d-d955-a1a6-fbdffbb40000″,”_type”:”02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266″}”>Mastodon account is looking for Farhad’s Mastodon address. My RSS“,”link”:{“target”:”NEW”,”attributes”:[],”url”:”https://t.co/tfg9KzdCxq”,”_id”:”00000184-ecc8-d75d-a785-ecda79eb0008″,”_type”:”33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df”},”_id”:”00000184-ecc8-d75d-a785-ecda79eb0009″,”_type”:”02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266″}”>RSS feed longs for microfilm access to the New York Herald Tribune.

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