For local journalists, money isn't everything — 'but you've got to be able to live'

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.

When Eric Eyre first started at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, he didn’t think he’d stay in West Virginia for more than a few years. The newsroom was known for powerful investigative journalism. But he had no connection to the community.

That was 20 years ago.  

Last year, Eyre won the Gazette-Mail its first Pulitzer for coverage of how, as he wrote, “in six years, drug wholesalers showered the state with 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills, while 1,728 West Virginians fatally overdosed on those two painkillers…”

This week, he and his colleagues await news on the new owner of the newspaper, which declared bankruptcy in January. The rumor-a-day cycle is making it pretty hard to work, he said.

“We’re all working full steam on our plan Bs.”

Eyre’s situation is a nearly perfect sketch of what a lot of local journalists are dealing with right now – a commitment to covering their communities as the places that employ them to do just that shrink, change owners and strategies and, sometimes, just close.

For the next month, we’re talking about something a lot of you have emailed me about. What can/should newsrooms do to keep journalists in local? What should editors do? What should local reporters ask for if they want to stay? How can local newsrooms keep people when so much is uncertain? I’ll share your thoughts on this in two weeks, so let me know your ideas/questions/complaints/solutions.

One note: This starts with the idea that it’s not a bad thing for journalists to move around and on to bigger, national publications. But there are a lot of us who like where we live and want to keep covering our communities.

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In 1998, he waited with 17-year-old April Kisamore on a December morning to board the school bus to Pendleton County High School. In 2002, he stood with 4-year-old Tommy Evans on top of a 4,848-foot mountain one August morning waiting, again, for the bus.

When he first started at the Gazette-Mail as an education reporter, Eyre spent a lot of time riding around in school buses with kids, telling the stories of rural schools.

Back then, it felt like he could cover the whole state.  

“Now, if you want to leave the county that we’re in, you gotta get special permission.”

(Eyre followed up with an update: You only need special permission if it's far away and requires a hotel stay.)

A lot has changed in the past 20 years, both in his newspaper and in the industry. But one critical thing that he got then, and still gets now, is the support to do watchdog reporting.

No one got into journalism to be a stenographer, he said. If local newsrooms want to keep journalists, make time and space for that work to happen. (Remember when the Clarion-Ledger’s Jerry Mitchell told us that it’s all the stories that keep him in Mississippi? The Florida Times-Union's Ben Conarck is staying in his shrinking Florida newsroom because of an editor he believes in.)

Here are some of Eyre’s other basics for giving journalists a reason to stay in local newsrooms:

  • Pay them a living wage.

“You’ve got to pay people at least enough, and it’s never about the money, I mean my gosh I get paid nothing hardly, but you’ve got to be able to live," said Eyre, who has gone into a Michaels or Kohl's before and found fellow reporters who work there on weekends.

  • Don’t be a nanny, be an editor.

There are also simple things newsrooms can also do to keep their journalists, Eyre said, including getting rid of story quotas. He doesn’t have those, but he knows it’s a trend. It’s also great to have analytic tools, but Eyre doesn’t think journalists should be punished for missing pageview goals.

  • Talk to them.

Eyre sees a lot of younger reporters move on to other newsrooms. He’s often a reference for them. And one thing he thinks they need is constructive feedback.

“More than that, I would just say be nice to people. You’re not going to keep people around very long if you’re constantly calling them in.”

There used to be a conference room at the Gazette-Mail that reporters renamed the “scolding room.”

“Don’t have a scolding room.”

  • Do have ambition. And perspective.

After he retired, one editor told Eyre that it’s easy to get caught up in producing copy. Don’t. Will you rock in your chair on the front porch and tell your grandkids about that year you had 350 bylines?

“No, you would be telling them about stories that made a difference in people’s lives,” he said, “that maybe changed something for the better – stories that make a difference.”

Executive Editor Rob Byers and reporter Eric Eyre celebrate Eyre's Pulitzer win in 2017. (Photo by Kenny Kemp, Charleston Gazette-Mail)

What would make a difference to you and keep you in your newsroom? I’m off next week, but we’ll pick this back up in two weeks with your thoughts. If you’re an editor and you’ve had success keeping good people, tell us how. If you decided to stay where you are, what’s made that worth it? Please let me know.

In the meantime, here are a lot of things to keep you busy: API’s report on how people become subscribers is fascinating. Christine Schmidt has a great read in Nieman Lab about how one woman created a way to keep a community informed. Hey North Carolina journalists, you should apply for this. Here’s a cool job alert for ProPublica’s Electionland. LION Publishers has local news reporting grants. And Block Club Chicago has just a bit of time left in its Kickstarter.

See you in two weeks!

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story got Ben Conarck's newspaper wrong. He works at the Florida Times-Union. We apologize for the error. 

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