Inside the Times: How to Cover One of the Most Powerful Companies in America

From an Inside the Times story by Terence McGinley headlined “Reporting From Amazon’s Hometown, and Seeing the Company Everywhere”:

Karen Weise is a technology correspondent based in Seattle who has covered Amazon, which is headquartered there, for The Times since 2018. With its e-commerce operation, line of web services and grocery businesses, Amazon maintains a vast reach across American society. The company has been on a hiring spree in recent years, including a large push during the pandemic, which has brought its role as a major U.S. employer into sharper focus.

Earlier this month, Ms. Weise reported with The Times’s Noam Scheiber on how employees at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island, N.Y., voted to form the first union of Amazon workers. JFK8 was also the focus of a Times investigation last year by Ms. Weise and her colleagues Jodi Kantor and Grace Ashford. In an interview, Ms. Weise described how she covers one of the most powerful companies in America.

How big a deal is the recent union vote on Staten Island?

It’s a really big deal. Facilities that have thousands of employees, like Amazon warehouses, almost never succeed in unionizing. The closest example people were pointing us to was from 2008, at a slaughterhouse, where it took 15 years to organize and win that vote. Labor historians are pointing us to 1937 for the closest similar scale of a win in terms of the size, but also the prominence of the employer. It will be tied up in legal battles for a long time, but it is undoubtedly a huge thing.

Did you have to adapt as a reporter to be able to cover a labor movement?

I would say, broadly, no. Reporting is always a mix of human- and document-based sourcing. The Times made a significant investment of my and other people’s time to investigate this warehouse. Starting in the early fall of 2020, Jodi Kantor, Grace Ashford and I did an investigation looking at this one building, trying to really understand Amazon’s employment model. I was in Seattle focusing a lot on the corporate side of the decision-making, and Jodi and Grace were in New York talking with workers, trying to understand the dynamics within that particular building. We published that investigation in June of last year. So we were well-positioned as an institution to cover this election.

What was it like developing a beat on a huge company like Amazon?

Amazon historically has been almost famous for not commenting to journalists. I cover Microsoft as well, and there’s definitely a difference in tone from Microsoft, which has been through the scrutiny cycle. Amazon has been opening up more, though it’s not their default, I would say.

For sourcing, you just report. You try to talk to people who work there. You ask, “Who else should I talk to you?” You talk to outside parties; you try to talk to inside parties.

I read a lot of the work from other reporters who are watching Amazon to stay up-to-date on stuff that I’m not actively reporting on. Sometimes I’ll learn things reporting and maybe six months later there’s a nugget that resonates. All of a sudden, it’s a good moment to write about Amazon.

How do employees react when you reach out, and how do you explain what you’re trying to do?

If it’s me trying to reach someone cold, it’s a low success rate, but it’s not zero. I say, “I’m here in Seattle, and I care about creating an informed public dialogue about this company.” People are more free to talk when they leave, but Amazon moves very quickly and their firsthand knowledge can become obsolete quickly. That’s a challenge.

Given Amazon’s vast reach across America’s society and economy, I imagine there are few things you can’t find an Amazon angle into. How do you view that challenge as a reporter?

There is opportunity everywhere to report. That is a great part of the beat. The most important thing with an expansive beat is picking what to focus on and how to allocate our time. In our coverage coming out of the pandemic, we really thought that Amazon’s growth as an employer was one of the critical things for the business, and a critical thing for society. We really devoted a lot of time to that.

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