The turmoil in the journalism business over the past decade-plus has placed a lot of attention on business models, and a lot of attention on the health and fate of the companies and organizations that employ the people who report the news.
Comparatively, we talk very little about the well-being and status of individual journalists. That’s a mistake and missed opportunity. When we talk about the loss of journalism due to economic factors or business model turmoil, we’re really talking about the loss of employed journalists. These are real people with expertise and knowledge that could still be used to protect democracy. That’s particularly pronounced when there are cuts in local journalism, where deep knowledge of a particular community isn’t just transferable to another place, even if an individual journalist was able or wanted to uproot their life and family.
Beyond job loss, individual journalists are more likely to have to switch jobs multiple times within the industry as newspaper ownership consolidates and the landscape of local digital media is in a still-early and volatile state.
It’s about financial security, for sure, but this dynamic, combined with the polarized and fraught state of our politics and press freedoms, takes a toll on the mental well-being and mindset of journalists.
We have experienced not just a loss in the amount of journalism that’s being done. In many cases, the journalism that’s left has gotten worse as we’ve done a poor job helping reporters and editors adjust to depleted resources, an environment of constant change, and a radically different political climate.
Conscientious publishers and others with a stake in the health of journalism business should make some basic commitments to the individual journalist, including:
- Transparency. Bring journalists into the loop of revenue and profit-and-loss discussions.
- Entrepreneurship. Teach them an entrepreneurial mindset, and the opportunity to use it. This is important not only for the health and growth of your business, but the skill sets that they’ll need in their next job and as the industry shifts in part to a legion of solo-operator, self-employed local news businesses.
- A living wage. Criminally low pay has long been an elephant in the room for local journalism, exacerbated greatly by a decade of wage stagnation since the 2008 recession. It’s not fair or healthy to ask of a workforce under greater stress and required to have more varied skills than ever.
- Equity and inclusion. Our track record on giving people of color and women a seat at the table and power to influence and make decisions has always been awful and has gotten worse in many places that are under economic duress. We can’t say we’re making a commitment to the well-being of individual journalists without fixing this.
- Safety and wellness. Post-Annapolis and Donald Trump, newsrooms have to plan for and put into practice basic measures to make sure that journalists’ physical safety is protected. We have to acknowledge and do something about the fact that both isolated and cumulative exposure to violence and trauma can impact a journalist’s mental, emotional and physical health. And we owe them a workplace with zero tolerance for harassment, in both policy and practice.
- Space to be human. No journalist who ever lived was an unbiased robot, able to put aside every circumstance of upbringing, life, privilege or grievances that colored their perspective. Give journalists the space to be the human beings they are. We can be fair in our coverage, and transparent about where we’re coming from and how we do the work. We can’t be totally unaffected by who we are and where we came from.
- Repudiation of arrogance. The best reporters know what they don’t know, and realize that in many situations they don’t know what they don’t know. The most common reporting mistake, and sometimes the most egregious, is missing context. Genuine listening, including to our fiercest critics, is an antidote.
- Rigorous editing. We owe it to journalists, whether they’re right out of college, or a 25-year veteran of the newsroom, to be merciless and heavy-handed with editing that questions assumptions, insists on rigorous attribution, and aims for the best writing possible under the time constraints at hand.
- Endless learning. If today’s journalists are not absorbing new things every day about tech, about social platforms, about the communities and topics they are covering, they are falling behind. Publishers should expect learning, and facilitate it in formal and informal ways.
- Branding. Finally, publishers and others with a stake in the health of the journalism business and a vibrant democracy should be taking concrete steps to lift up the reputation of the profession of journalism in the eyes of the public, for their safety and the good of the industry. They are teachers. They are artists. They are first responders. They deserve to have a similar place in the American psyche.
Matt DeRienzo is vice president of news and digital content for Hearst’s newspapers and websites in Connecticut. He has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including serving as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers, a national nonprofit that supports the publishers of local independent online news organizations.