This project is paying out-of-work journalists to keep covering Oklahoma

‘We need journalists more than ever to tell the story about this pandemic.’

April 22, 2020

This month, Berry Tramel was furloughed. Twice.

It’s his first furlough in the 28 years he’s worked for The (Oklahoma City) Oklahoman. And his first in the 12 years he’s hosted a sports radio show for WWLS.

Until recently, Tramel was an exception to the many and massive cuts that have been shrinking the local news industry for a decade. But he’s now in crowded company.

As the coronavirus closes businesses and puts people out of work, local newsrooms are laying off journalists, cutting pay, instituting furloughs and, in some cases, closing altogether. You can see Poynter’s tracker here.

Local newsrooms aren’t alone in this.

But many newspapers — ones that have spent years working to shift habits, adjust to technology and attract new, paying readers while counting on shrinking advertising revenue — have found themselves in a dangerous place. And many journalists who spent their lives covering local news, including Tramel, are now under- or unemployed when their communities need them most.

In Oklahoma, a new project is putting them back to work, five journalists at a time.

The Coronavirus Storytelling Project launched last week with a story from Tramel. Each week, the project chooses pitches from five journalists in Oklahoma, supports them with editing, publishing and makes their work available to other newsrooms. It also pays them $500 each.

Right now, the project has enough money to run for four months with five pieces each week.

“We need journalists more than ever to tell the story about this pandemic and to be a watchdog to government during this pandemic,” said Joe Hight, chair of journalism ethics at the University of Central Oklahoma and a longtime Oklahoma journalist. “Yet here they are facing all these other challenges.”

Hight worked with the nonprofit Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit, investigative site, to launch the $50,000 initiative. He hopes to see submissions from all mediums, including broadcast and podcasts. Work can be about the coronavirus, about the journalist’s own experience with the story, or anything else they want to pitch.

“We want to keep them engaged while they’re on furlough and make sure that our community is getting all of the news that they need and deserve,” said Tyler Tokarczyk, a program officer with Inasmuch.

Oklahoma newsrooms hit by furloughs include the Tulsa World, owned by Lee Enterprises, and The Oklahoman, owned by Gannett. Mike Sherman knows those newsrooms and the many tiny ones around the state well after years spent covering high school sports and working as a sports editor for the Oklahoman. Early last month, Sherman was one of the 11 journalists laid off by the Tampa Bay Times, which Poynter owns.

He’s now working as the Coronavirus Storytelling Project’s editor, and has 16 pitches in the queue.

The project, Sherman said, has been a touchstone in tough times.

“The thing I always loved the most about this job is talking to people about stories they love and figuring out a way to help them tell it. Not assigning things,” he said. “This is back to the basics.”

Around the country, several other projects and fundraisers are working to help furloughed and out-of-work journalists. They include:

  • Fellowships of up to $2,500 for narrative projects from the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information.
  • Up to $50,000 in $500 grants for laid-off, unemployed and under-employed journalists in Chicago from The Chicago Headline Club and Chicago Headline Club Foundation.
  • The New Mexico Local News Fund has emergency grants of up to $750.
  • And several journalists have set up crowdfunding campaigns to help out-of-work colleagues.

In Oklahoma, Sherman said, “the infusion of caring, purpose and cash have given this thing some wheels.”

The project’s first grantee, Tramel, didn’t take the $500. He figured there were a lot of people in a lot worse shape than him. But he did appreciate the chance to keep covering his community.

“It’s just nice to know that somebody said this isn’t good, and we need all the journalism we can get.”

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org and writes a weekly newsletter on the transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can subscribe here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.