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Silenced But Not Shutting Up
What the closing of the Labor Press says about the news media and Wisconsin at large.

The loss of the Milwaukee Labor Press is bigger than just the closing of a newspaper. It’s a sign of the continued fragmenting of our society and our culture in which the countless numbers of people who work for a living and who once helped make up a growing and thriving middle class are all but ignored by the machinery of the mass media.


The publisher, the Milwaukee County Labor Council, pulled the plug and, with the publication of last week’s issue, announced it would be the monthly paper’s final edition.


Sheila Cochran
“It was one of the hardest things I had to do,” says Sheila Cochran, the labor council’s chief operating officer. “I literally grew up with the Labor Press.” One longtime reader called to ask if she could keep receiving the recipes that appeared in the paper. “She said that was how she had learned to cook.”


After “a little breather,” Cochran says, the council, which is a federation of local unions, will reassess how to communicate, not only with its members but with the general public, making use of online outlets including the burgeoning array of social media. At the same time, she observed, “with resources tight, we’re going to have to look at how we allocate those resources in a creative way.”


Still, the demise of the paper is particularly sad because some of the best work in the Labor Press has been in its last few years, under the editorship of Dom Noth, a former Milwaukee Journal features editor. Indeed, under Noth, the Labor Press arguably moved some distance from that aforementioned image of labor’s house organ.


(An aside: Eleven years ago, when the job editing the Labor Press became open, Noth and I were both applicants for the job. I’ve never regretted losing out to him – I got some opportunities that would have been closed to me otherwise. But most of all, I’ve been impressed by the voice Noth brought to the publication.)


What killed the Labor Press was, for the most part, two old stories – one about media, the other about labor. Like newspapers everywhere, it has seen advertising revenue shrink and has not been able to recoup that loss as a hodgepodge of emerging media explodes the traditional economics of journalism. The decline of the union movement – a victim of economic and political forces that have also contributed to deepening social divides generally – has further undermined labor journalism. Add to those longstanding trends the more immediate impact of Act 10, which eviscerated what had become the greatest source of strength in the union movement over the last couple of decades: public sector unions.


Dom Noth

“One of the advantages of the Labor Press is that almost everybody who received the paper had an income, whether they were working or they were retirees,” Noth tells me. The paper was typically included in the dues of workers and retirees who belonged to unions that made up the labor council.


That would be a market for advertisers hoping to reach people with some money to spend. When Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 cut the legs out from under public sector unions, a significant chunk of that market was suddenly eliminated. Supporting the paper became too big a financial burden for the labor council.


“This is a sad moment for Wisconsin,” Noth says. He contends Act 10 – although framed as a way to save the state money – “was foolish economically” because it hurt the purchasing power of thousands and thousands of state and local public employees. But he also believes saving money was just an excuse for Walker. “There is a vindictive side to Act 10,” Noth says. “It was a direct attack on a political class or a social class that opposed many of his policies.”


At 70, Noth is positioned to retire but says he intends to keep his hand in and is weighing some other opportunities. “I’m of the age now where I can do what I want to do. I can pace myself,” he says. That includes looking for ways to write about culture and politics – topics he misses from his days in the Journal features section. “The main thing is I’m not going away.”


At the Labor Press, Noth sought to walk a complicated path that at once honored the fundamental values and principles of the labor movement but also held to a standard of independent journalistic inquiry.


“I was pretty much given carte blanche,” he tells me. “I had a no surprise rule.” If he was going to write something that could cause controversy for labor council leaders, he would give them a heads-up. But he would still write what he wanted.


And Noth did just that, especially in the last few years. His stories last summer on Democratic primaries in certain contested races examined racial politics and infighting that other coverage overlooked. One pol he criticized was state Sen. Lena Taylor, even though Taylor has long had the backing of unions.


Noth recalls attending numerous events – neighborhood protests, political rallies and more – where he was the only journalist. “We were filling a vacuum,” he says. “There’s an echo chamber in this city, consisting of Sykes and Belling, and, to a large degree, to my shame, the Journal Sentinel.


He contends the early coverage elsewhere misjudged 2012 Senate race between Tammy Baldwin and former Gov. Tommy Thompson. “There was an assumption that Tommy was going to completely destroy Tammy,” he says. “I was not only covering Tommy events, I was covering Tammy events, and often found I was the only journalist there.”


At times, there was pushback – but Noth says he was never told what to write or what not to write.


He recalls some unhappy responses when he took to task a campaign flyer for a union-endorsed candidate that he argued had made exaggerated claims about a rival candidate’s political positions. When he wrote skeptically about the plans for the Penokee Hills mine – a proposal that some union leaders and their members strongly favor and others strongly oppose – mining proponents were upset with him.


And one union leader, he says, was angry when he wrote a story that said the individual would “take Scott Walker at his word” that he wouldn’t seek a right-to-work law that would further weaken private-sector unions, and in the same story pointed out ways in which the law could still pass without Walker’s active support.


Noth’s response? “That’s what a journalist does,” he says. “I did what a journalist does.”


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