As well as anyone, Jon Schleuss makes a compelling case for saving journalism jobs.
In an interview, he shared his outlook for legislation to sustain the free press, explained a resurgence of media labor organizing and made a Jan. 6 argument to save local news.
A former print, online and radio journalist, Schleuss in 2019 became president of The NewsGuild, part of the Communications Workers of America labor union. It represents around 25,000 journalists in the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada, plus some workers at nonprofits and court interpreters.
Previously Schleuss was a data and graphics journalist at the Los Angeles Times and earlier interned at The Seattle Times.
Now based in Washington, D.C., Schleuss is lobbying for bills to save local news outlets, particularly the Local Journalism Sustainability Act.
While down from its 1980s peak of 34,000 members, the NewsGuild grew 30% the last six years and set a record this year with 1,565 new members.
Edited excerpts of our chat:
Q: Does the recent surge of NewsGuild organizing reflect uncertainty across the industry or something else?
A: There’s definitely a lot of fear of losing a job, a lot of uncertainty. That I think is a huge reason why a lot of people form unions, they want some kind of security. My first full-time journalism job was at the Northwest Arkansas Times. Two months into my job it was merged with our competition. I remember finding out 500 people were going to lose their jobs in kind of a mixture of the two and it was devastating. The first entry for a lot of journalists is potentially seeing their job be lost or the publication shut down, so a lot of people want certainty.
Q: We’re waiting for a new version of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, to help publishers negotiate with Google and Facebook. I’ve heard grumbling that will help big chains. But done right, it should help smaller outlets just as much.
A: I definitely think big players right now have too much control. They’ve just been extracting huge amounts of wealth. My big fear is we have so many players that just aren’t committed to local news. Google and Facebook should definitely pay their fair share. Whatever happens we just need to tie up the jobs.
Q: If platforms have to pay for local news, won’t that induce publishers to invest?
A: There’s a good argument there. The flip side is if it’s based on page views. We know city council stories don’t get good page views, but there’s accountability. Local content can’t be pictures of puppy dogs. I worry about the chase for clicks or impressions that could potentially degrade the editorial direction of a newspaper, to hold people in power to account.
Q: Lots of papers are wrestling with that. If payments are based on traffic, we’ll have a lot more Britney Spears stories.
A: Spears or things much less desirable for accountability journalism when you tie it to metrics. We’re all watching Google Analytics or Chartbeat and ‘What’s the story that’s getting the most attention?’ Maybe I’m a little myopic; 100 years ago publications put a lot of salacious things out there to attract people and draw attention.
Q: Will the Local Journalism Sustainability Act pass this year?
A: My hope is it gets into a reconciliation package. There are edits that I think are necessary, making sure it applies to actual journalists, to really focus on local journalism. It’s had bipartisan support, which is key. My favorite part is tax credits for jobs, to ensure we can stabilize journalism jobs we currently have and potentially build them back up, because we’ve lost so many over the last decade.
Q: Do you think the credits make it feasible to restart a newspaper or start new ones?
A: I do think it could potentially spur the creation of more jobs and a lot more news publications. One of my big fears is we just have so many Americans who have lost touch with reality and factual information, culminating with the Jan. 6 insurrection in D.C., spurred by a lie about an election. Remember that picture of a guy who had his feet up in Nancy Pelosi’s office?
Well that guy was from Gravette, Arkansas. One of our publications there was the Gravette News. About eight years ago there was one guy who ran the whole thing, he knew every single person in that small town. But we’ve lost people like him who were building a community by allowing people to tell their story.
I look at people like that guy in Pelosi’s office and how much local news coverage we’ve lost in the last 50 years. He doesn’t know what to trust, the publications left are in major cities, are not representing his viewpoint or the community, and he doesn’t feel represented. So he’s lost touch with factual information and instead is going to places like Facebook and 4chan and other dark places of the internet to find that sense of community. Because without that local publication you’ve lost that community.
Q: That’s a powerful argument for legislation to save local news. The challenge is that for many in Congress, it’s in vogue to bash the media.
A: It’s definitely in vogue to bash the media but it’s deeply un-American to do that. Our founding fathers put the importance of the free press right at the top, No. 1, in our amendments. That is truly an American thing: If you want to have a democracy where people vote on issues, they need to be informed.
Q: How do you overcome that?
A: Continue the word “local.” I’ve been concerned Republicans would be wary of supporting legislation that would invest in media. What they care about is local media. Places like Arkansas, which has four Republican members of Congress and two Republican senators — they want publications in Arkansas speaking for folks in Arkansas. Because at the end of the day a large publication like The New York Times or The Washington Post or even Fox News, they parachute into these communities, they can’t cover local news the way local journalists can.
Q: How receptive are Republicans to The NewsGuild?
A: I have been able to get some audiences with Republicans on this issue because they get it. The benefit for me as a union leader is, because we represent journalists, we don’t typically take partisan sides on issues.
Q: How can people help?
A: The key is looking at the list of co-sponsors. If you don’t see your member of Congress represented, give them a call and ask them to sign on because local journalism is going to impact you in this community and we need more of it.