When NewsGuild members elected Jon Schleuss president of the national union in December, he planned to spend this year battling hedge-fund control of newspapers and helping local chapters gather enough votes to unionize their newsrooms.
But the COVID-19 pandemic blew him off course. On Monday, he launched the union on a tricky new path: lobbying Congress and the Trump administration for direct subsidy of news-media workers.
The Guild’s position paper urges Congress to fund grants to be paid to individual journalists. Many of them report on the federal government and will cover other industries’ proposals for stimulus funds. The subsidies NewsGuild proposes would be paid directly to journalists at local newspapers and online news outlets. Recipients would be required to prove financial need and that the grants made up for wage or salary cuts during the pandemic financial downturn.
News publishers have opposed this approach, proposing instead that funds flow through news organizations and that those organizations be subject to claw-back penalties if the funds are not used for newsroom payroll.
The risks of getting into lobbying are what is required at this time, Schleuss said. With more than 36,000 news-media workers laid off, furloughed or facing pay reductions during the pandemic economic freeze, according to a New York Times estimate, he is seeking emergency funding to keep local journalism afloat at a time when the audience for news has never been higher.
During the pandemic, government agencies from the World Health Organization to local governments have rated local journalists essential workers and journalism an essential service. In addition to the union’s campaign, there are multiple efforts underway to make up for disappearing ad revenues that used to pay newsroom salaries.
“Three months ago, I wasn’t planning on engaging politically at all,” Schleuss said May 15 in advance of the “Save The News” campaign launch. He declined to detail the budget, but said the Guild’s parent union, Communications Workers of America, is footing the six-figure cost of research, publicity and two professional lobbyists: one focused on Republicans in Congress and one focused on Democrats.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump routinely calls the press “enemy of the people” and has even, this week past week, attacked his reliably flattering supporters at Fox News for reporting the controversy over his announcement that he is using an unproven remedy, hydroxychloroquine, to ward off COVID-19.
Schleuss left his job as a data journalist at the Los Angeles Times when he won his post and now finds himself collaborating with newspaper owners the News Guild confronts in contract talks.
The campaign is pushing Congress and the administration to enact three elements: direct federal funding of journalists, Paycheck Protection Program loans for local news outlets left out of the first round of loans and a nationwide federal ad campaign to replace newspapers’ lost revenues.
It is the job of a union to testify before Congress to protect bargaining rights and improved working conditions. But Schleuss acknowledged this campaign breaks new ground in seeking direct federal payments to journalists and hiring professional lobbyists instead of using union staff and officers to make the case.
“We need to support (journalism) because it’s essential to the running of our democracy. We have to hold the government accountable,” Schleuss said.
And that’s where the lobbying campaign runs into trouble with industry ethical standards, which call journalists to seek truth, minimize unnecessary harm, maintain independence and be accountable to the public.
“Public confidence in journalism can be eroded even with a perception of self-interest,” said Bob Steele, co-author of the standard journalism ethics guidebook and longtime leader of the Ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “It’s not unusual for the Guild or owners to apply lobbying pressure. This has always been a reality,” he said. “The difficulty occurs when it’s the journalists who are seeking, in this case, government financial support via the lobbying influence of the NewsGuild.”
That could erode the credibility of journalists, said Bruce Pinkleton, dean of Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.
“It made me a little queasy,” said Pinkleton of his response to the NewsGuild’s lobbying announcement. “Lobbying for government support makes journalism indebted to government or appear to be indebted to government,” Pinkleton said.
He and Steele both concede the circumstances are dire, with news outlets likely to go out of business without a major cash infusion, but Steele said he’d rather see the NewsGuild lead a national campaign for reader donations and subscriptions than lobby for federal subsidies.
At The Seattle Times, where Local 82 of the NewsGuild represents workers, Executive Editor Michele Matassa Flores said she has been following social media and other discussions among journalists about the lobbying campaign.
“I don’t think we need a disclosure with every single story right now saying the Guild is out there lobbying Congress,” she said. “That would be cumbersome, and we don’t know where this is leading. Should we get some relief, I think it is incumbent on us to be transparent about that.”
Although both Steele and Pinkleton said they worry critics will exploit the conflict between news business subsidies and the public’s interest, Matassa Flores said she is confident Times readers have a long track record to reflect on.
“The Seattle Times has a lot of experience with transparency around funding because of our community-funded labs,” she said. At The Seattle Times, Education Lab, Project Homeless, the Investigative Journalism Fund and other coverage teams are funded with reader donations, private foundation money and corporate giving. That’s an approach The Times pioneered, which includes strict rules about funder interactions with reporters.
“The work we’ve done on our community funded labs has been independent, fact-based and fearless, and I think readers have come to understand that we won’t be swayed by funders or other outside forces,” she said.
Schleuss said the union has responded to ethics concerns by pledging to seek bipartisan solutions, hence the hiring of a Republican lobbyist and a Democratic lobbyist.
“It’s a historic effort to save the news,” he said. “Journalists covering national politics aren’t engaged in our advocacy efforts. But thousands of members are deeply concerned about watching our free press go extinct. So they’re engaged to save it — for our communities that depend on news.”
Editor’s Note: The author is not covered by the NewsGuild contract with The Seattle Times.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct Jon Schluess’ status at The Los Angeles Times and to clarify the nature of job losses and changes in the news industry.