For 14 years, Peter Hogness edited Clarion, the union paper of the Professional Staff Congress. One of the first things he did as the paper’s editor was to spearhead a redesign effort, creating a very specific look for the publication: one that conveys urgency and speaks to the paper’s New York roots.
With the redesign, also came a vision of what issues the paper would address and how the stories would be covered. At Clarion’s helm, Hogness was involved with every aspect of producing the paper, communicating with photographers on what kind of shot would work for a story, writing countless stories as the paper’s lead reporter, and shaping Clarion stories as both pieces of journalism and elements of union campaigns. During Hogness's editorship, Clarion was recognized several times by the International Labor Communications Association as the best local union newspaper in the country. Here Hogness sits down with Shomial Ahmad, the paper’s current associate editor, who came to Clarion during Hogness’s tenure. They talk about how Hogness approached his job as editor, and how his own personal activism informed his work.
Shomial Ahmad: Clarion covers a broad range of issues. The paper isn’t just singularly focused. For instance, looking at this year’s May issue, there’s a good mix of articles, ranging from union activism around the contract to poetry inspired by newspaper articles to advocacy for the needs of CUNY in the state and city budget. How did you decide what to cover while you were editor at Clarion?
Peter Hogness: I’ve always thought that a good union paper should do more than one thing. There are a lot of union papers that are "house organs" in the narrowest sense: They convey the views and actions of the union's elected leadership, and that's about it. That's one important function of a union newspaper – members should know what the people they've elected are doing and thinking – but it's one of several. A union paper also needs to be a home for members’ voices. That takes many forms, but one is a regular letters to the editor column, which Clarion didn't have at the time I became editor. I've been glad to see that take root and become a sounding board for members, and the debate and range of topics you find there always keeps it interesting. It didn't just happen, either – PSC members have a lot to say, but they're also constantly overworked. So building the letters section things like required prominent and consistent placement for the letters section, an open-door policy as far as political content, and constantly inviting members to write in.
Beyond a letters section or in an op-ed, members' voices need to be a central thread in the paper overall, whether that's in a feature like a Roving Reporter or a member profile, or in how the paper covers a news event. The union at base is the members themselves, and it will only be as strong as the members make it. So whether it's a contract rally or a CUNY-wide computer meltdown, what members have to say is at the heart of the story.
Another task of a good union paper, which overlaps with others but is also distinct, is its basic news reporting function, so members have the information they need about what’s happening where they work. There aren’t many outlets where folks who work at CUNY can get in-depth reporting on their University and their workplace, and that's something we provide. That raises another important role of the paper, providing broader analysis of news events. For instance, to describe not just how CUNY was affected by the storms and flooding of Sandy, but also why, required publishing some broader analysis of climate change. Covering CUNY's funding means not just reporting the annual outcome in Albany or City Hall, but also looking at what's behind the drive for austerity and why people in Greece, Wisconsin, or the Bronx are facing similar trends. Not every local union paper publishes op-eds, but to me they're a basic part of what a labor publication should be about.
A union paper also needs to be an organizing tool. A union lives or dies on getting organized, and the newspaper can help with that goal. That means, for instance, that we may report on plans for a big union protest before it happens, rather than waiting and covering it after the fact. We want members to know about it ahead of time, so if they choose to, they can get involved. It's news, sure, but that's not a decision that's based only on news value.
SA: When I look at Clarion, it’s not just the content that calls to me, it’s the design. And that means every aspect of it, from the type to illustrations we use, the photos we publish, and the different typefaces on a given page. There’s a very specific look to the Clarion and it’s got your stamp on it. You were not only the paper’s editor but you were its art director. Can you talk about how you worked on carrying out Clarion’s look?
PH: I could never have come up with Clarion's design myself – that was the work of Tony Sutton, a Canada-based newspaper designer who was hired as the result of a search. Margarita Aguilar, our production designer who's won several awards for her work on Clarion, makes it look good issue-to-issue. But when I became editor I felt strongly that the paper needed a redesign, and it was important that we be clear about what we were after. The PSC's new leadership agreed – I think these ideas were part of why I was hired – and I led the process, working with a union committee on the key decisions.
When we first started work on the redesign, the first step was looking around at different newspapers and thinking what would be a good look, and that was something I really enjoyed. The old Clarion cover was mostly type, and the whole thing was kind of cobbled together – the look of it could put you to sleep. We needed something different, but what?
At the time, a number of union publications had shifted from a newspaper to a magazine format, but to me that meant it conveyed less urgency. So I wanted to stick with the tabloid format, but give it a sharper and clearer look. To start with, I thought we needed a cover that was more photo-centric, but still said "news" loud and clear. The old Clarion cover was mostly type, and the whole thing was kind of cobbled together – the look of it could put you to sleep.
Possible models included the New York City tabs, other union papers like UNITE's Justice, and some smart tabloids abroad, like Libération in France. For our purposes, I especially liked the look of Libé and Newsday, which both combined a big photo on the front with a row of teasers on the side or across the bottom. I thought the teasers were important, to offer a wide range of people a reason to open [the paper], according to their interests.
The result of the redesign was strong, and I've enjoyed putting it to use ever since. I'm kind of a typography freak, and I’ve always been interested in posters and print design. One thing I love doing when I'm traveling is looking for old vernacular typefaces that catch my eye, on storefronts or building entrances. It might be a one-off thing that some guy did in a sign shop or maybe something that was mass-produced fifty years ago but has a distinctive look you don't see any more. There's a great neon-sign museum in Berlin, that place was a blast.
In both the redesign and issue-to-issue, I liked figuring out what should be the rhythm in the paper's organization: what goes in the front, what goes in the back and how much flex you have inside. So our viewpoints and op-eds tend to go in the back, benefits stories just before that. The back page is often a good place for a feature or a member profile, as a change of pace from the cover, which is usually news-driven. Producing a paper is like solving a jigsaw puzzle, and one of the things I miss about being editor is that problem-solving. It's a deliberative process, but also requires sudden improvisation, like if an important story suddenly breaks, or you get a call telling you that a promised article won't be arriving after all. I liked thinking about the relationship between stories and how that should shape placement on the page – what stories would make a good spread, what articles should face each other, how a given placement affects the rhythm for the reader as they turn that issue's pages. And how to make it all fit in layout! That was probably my biggest weakness, design-wise; I sometimes should've been more hard-line about cutting text when things got crowded.
SA: You were always connected to what’s happening in the larger world, and that connection informed the stories that you were working on. I’ve always had a sense that journalism, art and activism are all inseparable for you. It’s probably why you came to work at the Professional Staff Congress.
PH: Well, being Clarion editor's a demanding job, and it was definitely my main form of activist work for that decade and a half. But there were a lot of other things over the years I felt moved to do – not usually in any leadership role, just doing my part. It just felt like part of life.
My politics were shaped to some degree by my parents – particularly my mom, who for example was very involved in farmworker support through her church when I was in high school. Probably my first political act was tagging along with her to lick envelopes in the campaign office of a Stanford professor who was running for Congress as an anti-war candidate. That must've been in 1966. She died last year.
My mom's attitude towards politics was very direct and personal. It was like, if your neighbor fell down in the street, you'd go help them out. Of course you'd do that, why wouldn't you? I came to activism through a path that went in a more theoretical or ideological direction, but but one thing that certainly carried over from her was that sense that acting politically is just part of living. That when things happen around you, you’re moved to respond. Where you live, you've got neighbors; where you work, you've got co-workers. And you've got some responsibility to support them, it's part of being there.
My dad is a retired professor at Stanford, a developmental biologist, turning 90 this year. He did a postdoc at the Pasteur Institute in Paris with Jacques Monod, who'd been a leader with the Resistance during the war. Dad always admired the way Monod combined a path breaking scientific career with active interest in politics and culture, and that idea that you should pay attention to the wider world, that you shouldn't just burrow into a hole in your career, was something that rubbed off on me also.
That sense of politics as a connection to your neighbors was at work in one of the things I got more heavily involved in, supporting the right of Muslim New Yorkers to found an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan. Opposition to the center, led by some really hateful and bigoted people, started not long after the PSC office moved to downtown Manhattan. So that was probably one reason I got involved, but there was something broader: the opposition to the center offended me in a very personal way as a New Yorker. I felt like, "Not with my city, you don't!"
Most New Yorkers are proud of the fact that we're a world city, full of people from everywhere. New Yorkers brag about it. That pride in the city's inclusiveness often isn't honored in practice, but it's one of the great things about NYC – it sets a very different tone on the politics of immigration, for example, than you'll find in much of the rest of the country. It's part of why I feel at home here, even if I've only been a New Yorker for about half my life. So I couldn't stay silent.
We built a very broad coalition, and I ended up on the steering committee. The NY Civil Liberties Union, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Community Voices Heard, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Common Cause, Pax Christi – it was a long list. We organized a big rally on the eve of the anniversary of September 11, a crowd of a couple thousand people, that certainly dwarfed what the haters turned out. We produced a t-shirt based on a conversation I'd had with Dania Rajendra, who'd been associate editor of Clarion, a riff on the classic "I ♥ NY" design by Milton Glaser. Ours was on three lines with religious symbols — the Star of David, the cross and the crescent moon — to replace the heart in "I ♥ NY." That t-shirt was so popular! We sold out fast the night of the rally – which was great 'cause I'd fronted the money for the printing. Afterwards when you'd wear on the subway, people would want to know where they could get one. It was very gratifying to see.
Over the last 15 years I've also volunteered on electoral campaigns and got arrested a couple of times in protest actions, always on my own time and my own dime. On my 50th birthday in 2005, I joined a sit-in at the White House against the Iraq war, and in November 2011 I joined Occupy Wall Street's big direct-action protest, sitting down to block traffic at Pine Street and William. I wasn't super-active with Occupy, but it was like a lot of other things: I felt I had to put my grain of sand on the scale, do my part to help tip the balance. When Bloomberg announced that cops would clear Zuccotti Park that October, I was one of a couple thousand people, including a lot of unionists, who showed up at dawn and got that plan cancelled. The sign I brought probably reflected my mom's church background: "Rich man, camel, eye, needle. 'Nuff said!"
SA: One of the things that I’ve seen Clarion do is build solidarity across labor struggles. Not everything in the paper is about academic work and the disinvestment in higher education. For instance, we’d publish a brief story or a photo of a Fight for $15 rally or a picket line of carwash workers. And the paper gave deep coverage to public unions' conflict with Scott Walker in Wisconsin. So solidarity shows up in the paper in both big and small ways.
PH: You could say everything you just said and use the word “community” instead of “solidarity.” The two words aren't exactly the same thing, but they share that consciousness of stepping up when your neighbor needs you, whether it's because their home's been flooded or in a political fight. Both are about building community.
There are a lot of ways to find community, but one of them is in having a shared set of problems, needs and goals, whether it's in the labor movement or in the neighborhood where you live. When you work together to solve those problems, you really do get to know people who you might not know otherwise. .
In academic life I’ve seen people get very split up and isolated in their profession, their field, and their sub-specialty within that field. Departments can be little worlds unto themselves. I've heard a lot of members say that one thing they value about getting involved in the union is getting to meet people from other disciplines, with other job titles, and from other colleges at CUNY. It brings people together in a way that they might not otherwise experience.
Especially in very large cities like New York, building community is a very active process. You have to commit to it; you have to make it happen. It doesn't just happen because you're sitting there. It's an act of construction.
That's true of all kinds of ways to build community, many of which are not political. But definitely common struggle is one big way that community gets built in a twenty-first century city. And we need more of it. We need a lot more of it.
SA: Did you find that at the PSC?
PH: Yeah, definitely! There are a lot of wonderful, crazy people in this union, many of whom became part of my world. Some are now close friends. It's been one of the best things about the job. And the best part is that those connections continue after the job is over.