March 21, 2018

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.

Fifteen years ago, during a college fellowship, Keri Mitchell’s advisor told her that she’d make a great community journalist. It felt to her, back then, like an insult.

“Like many college seniors, I aspired to do great work at prominent publications, and his words made me feel as though I might be stuck at a small-town newspaper forever.”

Still, she followed his advice to start at a small daily. And she learned the essentials, including filling open records requests, reading crime reports and translating industry jargon. 

“I learned something else, too — I liked the work. I liked attending chamber of commerce meetings and visiting diners, and recognizing the faces around the tables. I liked that, once they learned to trust me, they sought me out with feedback and story ideas. I liked that, sometimes, my stories made a difference in their lives. It wasn’t glamorous work, but it was meaningful.”

After moving to Dallas with her husband’s job, Mitchell discovered she could do that same work through a local magazine. She emailed me after our last edition when I asked people to share why they stay in local. Mitchell’s now an editor-at-large at Advocate in Lakewood/East Dallas.

We’ve spent a lot of time here on how slow many newsrooms have been to change, and how easy it is to get stuck in doing things one way because that’s how they’ve always been done. That is not a problem in her newsroom, Mitchell said. Small publications have limited resources, she said, but that leads to a culture of creativity, collaboration and flexibility.

"Journalists are currently clamoring toward better engagement to increase transparency and trust; my entire career has centered on engagement, both out of necessity and by choice. It’s who I am and, therefore, it’s what I do. I don’t want to be a 'drop-in' journalist. I want to go deep, not broad,” she wrote. “My advisor was right.”

Here are a few more thoughts about staying in local. They come from a local journalist, a local editor, a freelancer and a former local journalist.

Give us benefits

“Benefits, even the small ones, like free parking at the workplace, cell phone stipends and mentoring,” said Kelsey Ryan, an investigative reporter at The Kansas City (Missouri) Star. “Those make you feel like your employer values you. Benefits like paid parental leave are huge, and I'd personally like to see a survey of news organizations and what they offer. My guess is the lack of paid parental leave in our industry helps contribute to women leaving the field.”

(We’ve covered this and workplace flexibility a bit, as have Nieman and CJR, and she’s right.)

Give us autonomy

“Retention has been a challenge lately because of mostly stagnant wages combined with a shrinking staff, which leads to more work for those who remain,” said David Little, editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record and Oroville Editor and the Northern California editor for Digital First Media. (Digital First Media cut a huge part of the staff in Denver last week and earlier this year in California.)

“Young people particularly worry about the future of the industry. If they are just starting out -– say, 25 years old – and they see a job in another industry with higher wages, annual increases and a cushier workload, few people are going to pass that up."

In Northern California, he said, they're losing a lot of journalists to government jobs.

"We can't outbid them. I've been in the business 38 years and it's always been a problem, but it's gotten worse the past three to five years."

But there are people, Little said, who still stick around. 

"They could work elsewhere but they don't want to because, at its best, there's nothing like daily newspaper journalism. We can't offer the things those government jobs do, but we can offer excitement, autonomy, the ability to experiment and learn, and the self-satisfaction of going home at the end of a long day and knowing what you do makes a difference in your community.”

Give us a way to keep up

"Dedication to diversifying staff, keeping up with and being enthusiastic about new technology, and remembering that people have a life outside of work," said Lyndsey Hewitt, a freelancer who's currently looking for a job.

Give us resources so we can actually do our jobs

“Several factors contributed to my leaving a 35-year career as a newspaper visual journalist,” said Russ Kendall, who left the Bellingham (Washington) Herald and now runs a wood-fired pizza business. He also started the plan b Facebook group for journalists, which currently has more than 12,000 members. 

I asked that group for their thoughts on this conversation, and they shared a lot of anger and sadness at what local newsrooms have lost and can't replace. Kendall's response wrapped it all up most succinctly. 

“The plummeting newsroom morale and loss of anything like job security were the two biggest reasons. (Layoff after layoff after layoff, knowing that all the while the laughing suits at the top were giving themselves obscene bonuses for their brave leadership. I bear no ill will against my immediate boss. What's worse, losing your job or watching all your friends and colleagues lose theirs? And then comes that awful realization that you are quietly hoping that if you don't make waves maybe they'll take someone else first. Imagine the chain of self-loathing that that sets up…)

"The next biggest factor for me was what an awful job we were doing covering the community with fewer and fewer and fewer resources. We used to have a government reporter, a police reporter, an enterprise reporter, an education reporter. They were all laid off, much to the relief of politicians, cops and others in positions of power. (Relief because they knew that one was watching them anymore.) And I really came to loathe self-serving words like ‘rightsizing’ and that awful announcement that followed every round of layoffs, you know that one that always started off with the phrase ‘In order to better serve our readers…’ Important stories either did not get covered or were paid scant lip service. Pieces of PR fluff that might not have even made it into the paper once upon a time were now likely to be on the front page, especially if a free handout photo accompanied the press release.

"Truth is, I was ever more embarrassed by the plummeting quality of the work. It used to be important, even exciting work. It was fun once in a while. Money was probably the least important factor, even though I did suffer eight pay cuts the last four years I worked in a newsroom. I had made far less in the past at far bigger newsrooms but had felt far better about my connection to the paper we published every day.”

Thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts on this. Next week, we’re talking with Patti Dennis, a newsroom boss who has spent 40 years with the same company.

In the meantime, check out the two new cities that WhereBy.Us is launching sites in and how they’re tracking impact. Last week was another rough one for local newspaper journalists, this time in Chicago and Denver. (I’ve written a lot about what comes after layoffs, bosses who have left because of them and how newsrooms can continue transforming through them.) Also, check out this Webinar from Poynter’s News University about something we’ve spent a lot of time on here – What every journalist needs to know about the news business.  

See you next week!

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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