Local newsrooms have always had trouble keeping local journalists

The conversation so far:

It’s week three in our conversation about what keeps journalists in local newsrooms. We started with Pulitzer winner Eric Eyre on what motivates him. Last week, local journalists and former local journalists shared what works and what doesn't. Today, we talk with a newsroom boss. Last month, we focused on events. Next month, 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.

Patti Dennis has been at the same company for nearly 40 years.

Her titles now include vice president of news and executive director of recruiting for Tegna. But 40 years ago, Dennis was way, way, way behind the scenes at Denver’s KUSA TV.

“I cleaned the weather maps, I dusted the studio floor and I emptied the trash for $2 an hour,” she said, “and I thought it was the coolest job ever.”

She volunteered her way into a job that took her from reporting to producing and, in 1992, into management. The past 15 years of her career have been in senior leadership.

Local newsrooms have always had trouble keeping journalists, Dennis said. Part of it is the demands of the job and the unpredictability.

“it doesn’t fold into a family life as easy as some other careers.”

What’s changed, though, is there are so many ways to participate in the news. Local stations and publications aren’t all there are now. And that means local newsrooms have more competition for journalists than ever before.

“Our goal is to make local news have its own sweet spot for these people,” she said, and that sweet spot falls into the ability to know and connect with your audience. “When you’re in local news, you’re connected with people who live and work and feel in your community.”

Dennis said there are probably 1,000 things newsrooms could do to keep good journalists in local newsrooms. We talked about five:

Get them involved in the transformation process

We’re in a time when the audience itself is redefining what it needs and wants from local news, Dennis said.

“For many, many decades, we set the news agenda, and that has completely flipped.”

Whether someone’s been in the newsroom for 20 years or 20 months, she said, get them involved in the process of transforming your newsroom. What do they see? What do they hear from their peers?

“Everyone wants to make a living,” Dennis said. “But more importantly, you want to make a difference.”

Tegna created a process for getting journalists together to brainstorm questions including “if this was better, what would it look like.” It sounds broad, Dennis said, “but you’d be surprised what’s come out of that process.”

She didn’t want to get too inside-Tegna, but it’s led to a culture shift, Dennis said.

Managers, don’t just talk to each other

Some of the smartest leaders in the company surround themselves with people who know things they don’t. That means newer people, younger people, but also people with different skills.

“Listen to what people are telling you.”

Give staff the chance to try something new

When Dennis was running KUSA, she tried something that a lot of people thought was crazy. They taught everyone to shoot and edit.

“I never got to go out in the field,” she said. “I spent 20 years of my life in the newsroom.”

It was a messy process, one that some people were afraid of, but they wanted people to push themselves. (Important: Dennis said it wasn’t a change that came out of newsroom cuts and it didn’t result in staff reductions.)

Instead, they pushed people to develop multiple skills.

Keep asking for new things

“I’m probably the poster child of staying in one newsroom,” Dennis said.

But that doesn’t mean she just did one thing. She kept asking for new assignments and pushing to try new things.

“I remember producing the Pope’s visit,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about it. I’m not Catholic. but I wanted to be part of something that was historic and interesting.”

If you want to stay in your newsroom, that’s great, she said. But you have to keep asking yourself how you’re engaging with your audience. Ask for projects. Ask for challenges. Ask for training. It’s easy to get stale.

“Journalists don’t have mandatory continuing education,” Dennis said. “You have to push for that yourself.”

Play a long game

Good journalism still starts with valuing the story and the writing. If you want to stay in local journalism, you can’t just be in it for the Twitter followers or traffic or TV spots.

“You have to fall in love with the whole process,” Dennis said.

Meetings are part of that process. So are reporting, editing, shooting and sharing.

“If all you like is the 90 seconds your story is on the air or the number of followers you have because you’re famous on TV, the longevity tools aren’t there. That’s sort of the short game. You have to tall in love with the process,” she said. “You have to fall in love with news.”

Next week’s our last week to talk about what it takes to keep journalists in local. Then, we’re shifting to talk about membership.

To get ready, check out Membership Puzzle Project’s database of public radio membership models. See how paper and postal rate increases are kicking the print industry while it's down. And if you’re in L.A., check out Poynter’s Women’s Leadership Symposium this Friday.  

See you next week!

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