Advice for women in local news from women in local news

A few times a year, a group of women who are leaders in newsrooms around the world comes to Poynter for a week. One of the things that strikes me with each class is how much better it is because of the women there who work in local news.

Most of them work in newsrooms with very few resources. And most of them love covering local news despite that. They’re entrepreneurs, they’re talented journalists and they’re leading change in their newsrooms.

Before the next class of the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media started on Wednesday, I reached out to women who’d previously taken part in it or in ONA’s Women’s Leadership Accelerator and asked them one simple question:  What’s your best advice for women in local news?

Here’s what they said via Facebook and email, with thoughts from a few women who work in national news, too.

Local news needs you:

“Local news jobs — like most jobs in journalism — are demanding and they can be thankless. But they need talented, dedicated journalists like you! There's value in resisting the draw of the big-city, big-name outlets to stick it out in the local jobs. I've become a part of my community — they trust me, they value me. And my bosses feel the same way. That's allowed me to experiment and learn on the job in ways that I'm not sure I would have been able to at a national organization. My work may not get the attention it would if I were somewhere else, but I can see the impact it has on my neighbors in real time. You really can't beat that.”  — Sara K. Baranowski, editor, (Iowa Falls, Iowa) Times Citizen

Take care of yourself:

“Learn to let go and unplug. We all feel like we have to work 15 times harder than the men in our profession and always be on top of things, but that leads to burnout, health issues, the expectation that we will always be available, and that’s just not fair to us. The expectation part, especially. We deserve our downtime. We deserve our vacation time. We shouldn’t have it interrupted just because we’re constantly making ourselves available.” — Stephanie Backus, national editorial manager, Hearst Television, Pittsburgh

“Be a person first and a journalist second.” — Diana D'Abruzzo, freelance editor, designer, and writer, Arlington, Virginia

“Local women reporters are statistically at a bigger risk of harassment and gender-related violence because people in the community know them well … Look for kindred spirits, build a support team around you.” Luisa Ortiz Pérez,  CEO and Human Innovation Lab Director, NVA Labs, Montclair, New Jersey


Applications for the 2019 Leadership Academies for Women in Digital Media are open Nov. 1-30, 2018.


Come with solutions

“…Be a solution-maker. If something isn't working for you or your team, don't just bring that problem higher up. Bring it with a solution of what can be done to change it. 99 percent of the time when I tell my boss what I plan to do about some issue, she agrees. This is huge when I see a change I want to make in the organization and feel empowered to bring that forward.” — Shannon Murphy, public interest team lead, MLive, Lansing, Michigan  

“Moving up in a career in local news — especially in one newsroom — might mean that you have to create the path you want. Find the problems and pitch yourself to solve them. I’ve grown up in the same newsroom and I’ve written the job description of my last three jobs. Doing that means you can have real and lasting impact on a newsroom and a local news ecosystem because you have the time and dedication (it’s your town and your future at stake) to spend fixing local news problems.” — Irene McKisson, editor, This is Tucson 

“From a newsroom perspective, accept that teaching/training is going to be a big part of the gig, especially if you work in digital. If you want your organization to embrace new strategies, it’s likely you’re going to be the one to have to show them how.” — Deblina Chakraborty, editor, CNN, New York

“Ninety percent of your job will be managing people and relationships, building buy-in and justifying digital resources.” — Kari Cobham, senior manager of digital content, Cox Media

“I work in a national outlet now, but my first 18 years were in local media pushing digital forward with very few resources, so this advice goes specifically to people leading or working with innovation in legacy newsrooms: Champion people. Invest time and resources in journalists and their development. Understand what journalists need, learn what motivates and incentivizes reporters and editors to tell stories differently, to connect with different audiences. Ask where the pain points are and how you can help bridge the gaps in training, communication, tools, etc. Also, don't try to boil the ocean! When there are a lot of changes to be made, start with one thing, then the next. Otherwise, it becomes overwhelming and you risk not accomplishing much because you tried to do everything at once.” — Charo Henríquez-Scaia, senior editor, digital transition strategy, The New York Times

Think about your community

“Think ‘Who is the article/project/video, etc. for?’ when creating a piece. It is so important for local news to report on the good and the bad in all communities — not just the popular ones. We can fall into a trap of only reporting in white-majority communities and/or only reporting crime in minority communities and it's up to us to change that narrative.” — Emma Patti Harris, director of content/editing and design studio, The Baltimore Sun

“A story's life continues after publication. Follow up on stories, pay attention to what type of conversation or questions they may prompt and go back to missed angles to provide further context. Makes for better journalism and helps build trust with audiences.”  — Colleen Shalby, community engagement editor, Los Angeles Times

“Remember how much everything you do matters directly and personally to your audience. It's much more difficult for national and international publications to build that intimate connection with readers.” — Emma Carew Grovum, product manager, The Daily Beast

“Think about your audience first and foremost: How are they experiencing the news? What assumptions are you making about their understanding? Be humble. Be empathetic. Be a listener. Encourage your teams to experiment and grow. Set goals and measure them. Celebrate their successes and remember that someone invested in you and your success, now it’s your turn to do the same for someone else.” — Hannah Wise, audience development editor, Dallas Morning News

“One big thing for us is, ‘What is our audience asking?’ or ‘What's the most obvious question that will be asked about this story at the dinner table?’ Trying to answer that type of question instantaneously makes your question relatable, and you're making a connection with your audience. We use our team meetings ahead of our show to brainstorm the big audience question and try to answer that as best we can through our four hours … and pass the torch on to the next show.” — Kira Hoffelmeyer, producer, KSL Newsradio, Salt Lake City, Utah

You have to represent your community:

“Here’s my case for representation in local news: Coming out of grad school, I wanted to be an international correspondent. ‘There are so many uncovered stories abroad,’ I thought. But then I came back to the U.S. and landed at The Seattle Times, and I realized there are SO MANY unreported stories right under our noses. In local news, we have this crazy power to influence the lives and decisions of the people we live among.

“One example of how that plays out: last week, I spoke with a woman who works in historic preservation. They determine what’s historically significant and what’s worth saving in part by looking at Seattle Times archives — so today’s coverage will have huge implications in the future as the city grows and changes. Here’s where representation comes in. Are we covering a neighborhood park in a formerly redlined neighborhood as a community gathering space for celebrations? Or are we only mentioning it in the blotter when it’s the site of a crime?

“As a local news outlet, we get to decide what’s important enough to be remembered and what’s important enough to be preserved. We also have the power to decide what’s allowed to be erased. If we don’t have journalists who belong to these underrepresented communities and who are aware of the cultural significance of people and places, are we shaping our community responsibly?” Corinne Chin, video editor, Seattle Times

Do what you can do best

“You can’t cover everything (at least not well). Play to the strengths of your outlet and discover where you fit into the local news ecosystem. What pieces are resonating and how can you duplicate that success? Chances are you can offer something that no one else in your market can. Also, I think local news outlets have a unique opportunity to truly connect and engage with readers. Use that to your advantage both in terms of content and serving the audience.” — Erin Skarda Ake, digital editor, 5280 Magazine, Denver

“… Know what value your organization brings to the media landscape, and push to do work that only your org can do or can do the best. Also, local can also be national! What can your coverage of your community teach the nation or the world? Don’t be afraid to OWN a topic that your locality uniquely knows or experiences better/more than anywhere else.”  — Kelsey Proud, managing editor, digital, WAMU, Washington, D.C.