Let's stop talking about how we value local journalism and do something

The conversation so far:

It’s our final week focusing on what keeps journalists in local newsrooms. So far we've learned that pay matters, but it's not just about pay. We heard from a journalist who stayed in local because she loves the connection to community. And we heard from a newsroom leader about the importance of getting journalists involved in the process of transforming their newsrooms. Last month, we focused on events. Starting next week, we'll be talking about membership.

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.

As a profession, we spend a lot of time at the very top and bottom of the ladder of abstraction. Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark writes about using this concept in writing. You get gritty details, that’s the bottom, and you follow them to universal truths, that’s the top.

But when I hear people who aren’t in local journalism talk about local journalism, especially lately, most of the time is spent up at the top. Here’s what that sounds like:

  • It’s critical to protecting local democracy.

  • It’s done by people who are passionate about making a difference.

  • It’s in crisis as it faces the forces of change from Facebook, Google and digital disruption.

Those things are all true and we mostly agree on them. But after more than a year covering this beat, I think we need to spend a heck of a lot more time at the bottom of this ladder. Here’s what that sounds like.

  • Most newsrooms are half to a third of the size they once were. The communities they serve aren’t shrinking. That means there are fewer people watching the people running local government, schools and civic life. But there are also online non-profits and for-profits cropping up and doing pieces of that work in many places.

  • Local journalism is a tough way to make a living. In any other industry, paying people low wages and encouraging them to work for change is a concept we’d cover the hell out of as dubious, at best. (Check out how widely pay varies by state.)

  • Newspapers figured people wouldn't really change their news habits and waited way too long before making institutional changes. Many are still in a tailspin, and few have mastered the two things that are critical for success – audience and technology.

We've spent the past month talking about what keeps people in local, but one thing I heard the most about was what turned them away. In addition to what feels like never-ending layoffs, those things include the inability to make an actual living and loss of faith in newsroom leaders and owners who keep promising they’ve figured things out but clearly haven’t figured things out.

When people voluntarily leave journalism, it’s not because they’re less dedicated to covering their communities or protecting democracy. It is, often, because you can’t buy groceries, pay bills or save for college with ideals.

Here’s another reason: As a profession, we’re (generally) evidence-based people. If people leave their local newsrooms after a decade of being told that newsroom was going to figure things out after this next layoff, buyout, furlough, consultant, profit margin, pivot to video or young star, they’re making a tough, but evidence-based choice.

So how do we keep people in local newsrooms? Here’s what we heard in the past month:

First, we have to stop making the case that the work is worth it because it’s worth it.

It is worth it, but so are a lot of other careers where people aren’t expected to get by on fumes. Local journalists:

  • Have to be paid a living wage.

  • Need benefits.

  • Need mentors.

  • Need transparency from their bosses about what’s working, what’s not and what those bosses plan to do about it.

  • Need a voice in that conversation.

  • Need flexibility (I spent 10 years in local newsrooms, and in both, they let me work fewer hours and remotely after I had kids. I’ve stayed at Poynter for nearly five because of that same approach.)

  • Need to push themselves to continue learning and growing. It’s on us if we get stale.

  • Need to consider other ways they could cover their communities. (It’s entirely doable.)

  • Need to accept that we now live in a time when things will never stop changing.

  • Need to care about the business of this business and what role their work plays in supporting it.

  • Need the training to help them change as everything around them changes, too.

  • Need to talk with the community instead of at the community. 

  • Need the freedom to do work that matters to their communities.

  • Need to be part of newsrooms that look like their communities

  • Need for national journalists and publications to stop treating them like the little league. (Share their stuff, don’t rewrite it. Work with them, don’t bigfoot. Etc., etc., etc.)

A lot of us think of journalism as a service. For what it’s worth, I spent two years in service with the Peace Corps. It never felt like a sacrifice. It was thrilling, scary and rewarding. I learned a new culture, navigated my role in it, and made enough money to pay my bills and have weekend adventures.

Okay, let me try to get back on that ladder of abstraction.

Local journalism is critical to our democracy, and so are the people who create it. It’s your job, editors, bosses, publishers, owners and journalists, to do more than talk about what you value.

I could actually have written this whole essay in one sentence, and here it is: If we want to protect the value of local journalism, we have to value local journalists.

That’s how we keep them.

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