The Role of the Alternative
by Mike Elk and Clarissa Leon
February 25, 2021
This interview with Mike Elk and Clarissa Leon of Payday Report, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Mike | We both come out of the alternative media world. Clarissa and I both have non-traditional media backgrounds. We both got our start in The Nation. Clarissa has worked at various places like the Daily Beast, some other groups in New York, and got her MFA.
One day, Politico reached out to me and said, how would you like to found our labor desk and make all this money? And I said, this is crazy. I don't know how I'm going to pay my rent this month, and you're offering me a $25,000 raise.
So I founded the labor desk at Politico. My thought was I would be there for a year or two, put Politico on my resume, and then I would be mainstream. Though my background isn't mainstream. My father was a union rep, and my grandparents were blacklisted. My family fought McCarthyism and the mob at the same time in organized labor. That is the background that I come out of. As a young kid, I started writing about unions for the union newsletter when I was 15, I grew up reading The Nation and other publications like that, so I have always viewed corporate media as part of the problem.
frank | Do you still view it as part of the problem?
Mike | Well, it was interesting to go to a world where they rent the Italian embassy for the Christmas party. It was like, wow, this party is probably the budget of most small publications on the left.
But what wound up happening was I was illegally fired and I won a big settlement, seventy thousand dollars. A buddy of mine who was also autistic, came to me and said I'll set up a website for you — why don't you see how much money you can bring doing your own newsletter? This was five years ago now. I like to joke Payday is just now going off to kindergarten.
I am really proud of the work that we are able to do. I don't know if you saw the Ben Smith story in the New York Times about how we exposed cover-up for sexual misconduct in our union, NewsGuild.
We made a tough call to not name the women who came forward, which I was nervous about. I felt confident that we would publish this story without having to name the women. I had spoken to five women who all knew the same story. Every reporter in town knew that story. There were things we knew were facts, so why should any women have to be named? Many of them had gone onto other parts of their career. Some had quite high-profile jobs. Some had kids. I remember thinking if I was at The Guardian or Politico, and I had tried to walk in the room saying let's do a story on sexual misconduct without naming names, they would absolutely have said no.
But who cares? We were above the liable bar.
Can you cover what you know to be true without overtly verifying that truth?
Mike | Well, there's an insecurity in the left press about this. The left press is always struggling to assert its legitimacy. When I worked at In These Times they would make us over source things to the point that it weighed down the story, in my opinion. At Politico, they were like, “Fuck it. Run with that source. We are Politico.”
Now, what do you cover at Payday Report?
Mike | The goal of Payday is to cover labor in news deserts. We focus on the Rust Belt, Appalachia, and the South. We also cover deserts in the sense that we cover stories others are not covering – things like sexual assaults in unions, and intersectionality among unions, which I think the left press does a really bad job of covering. I think the left press does a bad job talking about race in general. I went to a majority Black high school and when I hear these people talk about race, I'm like, you've never had any Black friends in your life.
These white academic types, these Jacobin types, have this class reductionism that says, "Let's not divide people on race. Let's avoid that." I'm like, I don't know, if you call somebody the n-word, there is no dancing around that. Sure, class issues will help simmer the tension a little bit, but it avoids the big conversation. Jacobin, at one point, wouldn't allow the word intersectionality to be used in the publication. They discard it as identity politics.
When we came out with our Strike Tracking Map we got in trouble with these types. There were several cities that decided to do things like a general strike after George Floyd was murdered. Black Lives Matter Seattle held a general strike, and 250 businesses shut down. The pushback we got was that organizing around it is so terrible because it can be co-opted. I mean, these people just don't understand how to organize.
Look at the stats. African-Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to be supportive of unions. Why? Because African-Americans aren't under the illusion about who the bosses are.
Most white people think that one day they can be the boss, so they decide to play on “team boss.”
Whereas, Black folks know who has the power. The same goes for other minority groups, the same goes for women. It also really upsets me as an autistic person, a lefty will make fun of someone who is autistic the same as a right-winger. A right-winger might even be nicer and offer to pray for you or some crap.
This whole idea of class reductionism hurts the left a lot.
The wages in the left press are so low that the only people that can work those jobs are academics or grad students or people who are trust fund kids.
And they all live in these big cities. They live in Brooklyn. They live in Philly. They live in LA. They live in San Francisco. They live in DC.
Clarissa | I would just add that it is not only how we're writing the stories, but in which stories we chose to cover in particular. We do have some added advantages in that I speak Spanish. And Mike has a long history with some of the unions in the South here. We have the ability to talk to the people on the ground, instead of hypothesizing about these things.
Do you see a link between media coverage of class and how class-oriented legislation gets viewed by the public?
Mike | Well, certainly. I've worked at The Guardian for a couple of years. The Guardian is interested in covering Amazon. They're interested in covering Uber. They are interested in covering these big tech companies because of the SEO magic of those tech companies. In Georgia, six workers, primarily Latino, were just killed from a liquid nitrogen leak at Foundation Foods Inc. Most SEO-oriented media companies don’t cover that because that is a no-name company.
I hate thinking about web traffic and things like Google analytics. My favorite thing to do is hit a company 12 times. Most publications won't do that. Most publications, even the good ones, are sitting there and thinking, we need to sell “poverty porn” about some big consumer brand because that will give us traffic.
They said, you know, you call yourself a union activist. How do you divide being a union activist, and a labor reporter? I said, at the end of the day, I feel that they’re the same job, if done right, it’s letting workers speak for themselves.
If you grew up in a place like Pittsburgh, you grew up in union culture. Everybody's grandfather was a coal miner or worked in some union factory. Your parents probably did too. I grew up five to six blocks away from a factory that closed in the early 90s where my dad was a union rep. Everybody in my immediate social world was involved in unions. It wasn't until I went away to a junior Ivy, that I met anti-union people. And the perspective of unions in most leftist publications is, “have you heard of this union thing?” 40 million people grew up in union households. 40 million people have a relatively positive association with unions.
In the newsrooms, there are so few people of color, there are so few people from union backgrounds. You end up with these explainer pieces, which I call “yuppie-splaining”, about how a union works. I don’t know any working-class people that need this sort of thing explained to them.
Do you feel there's a path forward for your kind of reporting and the small newsrooms?
Mike | You have to write things people care about. We put out a fundraiser last night. We want to go down to Alabama to cover Amazon. We raised $1500 without even trying. There were probably three to four dozen folks that gave Payday about $300-$400 a year. Most publications struggle to get $20 for a subscription. Why? Because they don’t speak to people's experience.
Why should we save the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, when it supported Trump, covered all sorts of racist topics for years, and covered up sexual misconduct? Let it die, in my opinion. Let it die and use the energy to build something new. It's like banks where they are too big to fail. You don't have to fix these things, you can let them die. Obviously, there are some good small newspapers out there, but it's not the majority.
I think what Payday does well is that we lay the breadcrumbs for the rest of the corporate media to follow. And that's really the role of the alternative.
There should be an effort to make sure journalism doesn’t come only from elites with elite backgrounds.
Clarissa | This is something that has been a problem within the left media that’s been going on for decades now. I think these publications don’t want to face the fact that the forces they are fighting are also contributing to the growing inequality within their own ranks.
Another reason why Mike and Payday Report are getting the kind of traction they are is because people are looking for authenticity. They're looking for people to throw the curtain aside and be like, this is who I am. There is no question Mike will say what he wants.
So often we don't know where people stand. People are becoming more suspicious and less trusting of what they're reading. I think that is why people are turning to Payday. We are seeing a turn towards individual journalists or individual, independent publications, as opposed to maybe the larger ones who aren’t doing the work.
Mike | Not just individual journalists, but also marginalized communities. I am a white guy, but I am also autistic. So I have some small window into marginalization.
I've written about being autistic and growing up, with, on my grandmother's side, Italian family, and my dad's side, Jewish family, I learned to be blunt. I grew up in a neighborhood that was Italian, Jewish, and Black. It wasn't until college, at a pretty white junior Ivy that I really understood what passive-aggressive behavior was. I am serious.
As an autistic and growing up around so many Black folks and so many Jewish folks and old school Italians, very blunt cultures, it's considered disrespectful not to tell someone the truth. You're doing someone a favor by being honest with them. This passive-aggressiveness is from a very white, suburban culture. Throughout my career, I’ve gotten in trouble with those folks because sometimes they'll be like, well, this is too blunt. In my view, solidarity is about telling the truth. We can't really learn from one another without that.
I think in the left press, so much of it is based on being a viral internet personality that becomes this narcissism. These kids come out of heavily affluent, heavily white suburbs. They know how to work within these passive-aggressive games.
I have read so many stories from these people who end up covering about labor and the pieces are lazy. Everybody went to the same picket line in Philadelphia of a hundred workers during the GM Strike. They couldn't get on a plane to Rochester or go to Buffalo or go to Cleveland or go to Nashville or go to any of these places. It is all about one little warehouse of a hundred workers outside of Philly and we can take the train there, so that's just what we're going to do. It's lazy. It's uncreative.
Not only that, I read three different stories by three prominent people where they went out to the same picket line and they didn't quote a single worker.
There is this thing of unrooted elitists. Working-class people tend to stay in the communities they grow up in. Their communities are defined geographically by the people around them, whereas intellectuals see their community as all over – like, I know this person here in Boston and in Chicago and in London. That is not the way most people in the world define their community. If you look at who Teen Vogue or The Nation or Jacobin is targeting, they're targeting high-income people that they can sell ads to. I think it's time to get rid of that corporate media model.