Woe is us

Chi Trib’s page one-er is not the ultimate weeper, but it’s competitive.  The story “Will Work for Less” — that’s the head, in inch-high type, with its Buddy-can-you-spare–a overtones — is all about a guy in Decatur who is making less than half the $27/hour he made six years ago.  The pic (of the guy) is an art shot, 6x9 with forehead cropped, chin in hand, looking dramatic.  It can fit on his mantel, if he still has a mantel.  We learn in the second ‘graph that he can barely afford a $3 slice of pizza.

That is, the story seems all about him.  But by the 6th ‘graph, it enters discussion of the “underworld . . . now the reality. . . for thousands of workers as the industrial Midwest undergoes the most wrenching economic transformation since the bad old Rust Belt days of the 1970s.”  That’s how you write such a story.  You start with the emotional grabber, you see, carry it a few paragraphs, then smack-dab your topic lead with as much drama as you can muster.  It’s classic newspaper journalism, done perfectly by Stephen Franklin, with maybe some help from his desk and copy editors, though at the Trib it seems sometimes that those guys and gals just stand around and watch.

The story continues: “ . . . forces of globalization . . . slash costs . . . move out or go under . . . [no] competitive advantage . . . pay cut.”  It moves to the man’s employer filing for bankruptcy, and then to “any number of industries where American factory hands are competing against the Chinese or the Cambodians . . . and the fallout is the same: The standard of living for the Americans slips.”  Then one expert, an economist:  "For the United States, it's the end of labor as we once knew it.” 

And then Decatur and the human-interest side of it, including one man’s complaint about "corporations” and how they “want the American worker [collectively considered] to tread water or sink so other workers around the world can catch up with us.”  Now we are at the down and dirty, hearing the man on the street — actually on his 10 acres with a 13–foot pond — talking like we talk, you know. 

Again, perfect performance in accepted daily-paper style.  Art department supplies graphs, charts, and boxed, oversize figures that cite government bureaus.  It’s all there.  We read of the union’s losing battle.  And cases.  The man with two kids in college and one headed for college makes do with an old car and buys day-old bread.  Bang, bang, bang.  We get it.  His college-educated young bosses make him feel like “a second-class citizen.”  Ouch.  That phrase still around? 

But Herrnstein and Murray said this 12 years ago in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.  A “cognitive elite” is emerging.  There’s “cognitive partitioning by occupation” and “economic pressure to partition” and “steeper ladders, narrower gates” for employees.  Is it therefore news that in Decatur people used to get along on “two strong arms and a willingness to put in a hard day” but can’t do that now?  If so, to whom? 

The story’s last eight inches are pure human interest, hard luck reiterated in Saul Alinsky rub-raw-sores-of-discontent manner without a hard edge, but rather the obligatory aura of disinterest.  The writer has to be cool about it.  People don’t like rant.  But ah, the closer, in a quote from the last-described sufferer, gives us true-blue classism:

 "We're in a cycle right now where corporations have the advantage, and unions don't," he said. "But soon the cycle will change."

This is Franklin’s last word on the subject, for now.  This is designated a “Tribune special report,” which means, as reporters used to type at the bottom of their hard-copy, there must be more more more to come.

Meanwhile, at Columbia School of Journalism, Nicholas Lemann is “trying to teach a new generation of journalists what he calls ‘power skills.’ By this he means the capacity to discover and analyze data through sophisticated research and analytical skills,” reports Paul Mirengoff at Power Line: Too little, too late?, citing Hugh Hewitt in Weekly Standard. 

But there’s the old-dog, new-tricks problem.  The piece by Franklin, done just right by conventional standards, is this morning’s best shot from the major, major media outlet Chi Trib.  But it’s at best a preliminary snippet toward understanding what’s going on, devoid of context except what’s supplied by various OK words, some them tired and abused.

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