Experienced, retired journalists are powering the industry forward


Experience, skills and a track record for excellence are essential characteristics of successful people in any profession, including journalism. Today, journalism is experiencing a historical transition from printed newspapers to digital platforms as well as a generational transition.

Newspapers of all sizes have contracted, and thousands of journalism jobs have disappeared. Nonetheless, there are also more fresh, young faces in newsrooms while many veteran journalists are accepting buyouts or retiring. An even newer trend is more of them still want to contribute to the profession in some capacity.

Many Americans 65 and older continue to work, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic. Some need the income; others are adding to their retirement assets as high earners, and many are healthier than their parents.

Report for America expands support to experienced journalists

Report for America (RFA) is known for its Journalism Corps and the financial support and training it provides to place early-career journalists at news outlets. RFA also educates news outlets about how to find and attract additional financial support within their communities.

According to Kim Kleman, executive director of RFA, approximately 10% of recent Corps member applications have been journalists with experience — some in their 40s or 50s. To encourage their hiring, RFA will pay half their salaries to a maximum of $30,000. For early-career journalists, RFA’s support is $25,000. News outlets pay one-fourth of corps members’ salaries and obtain the remaining 25% from local funding sources.

“Our newsrooms love these experienced journalists. As reporters, they can tackle tricky, nuanced stories, help mentor less experienced staffers and do some editing, too,” Kleman said. Seventy percent of recent newsroom applicants to RFA said they were interested in seeing applications from experienced reporters, she said.

Kleman added that although few retired journalists have applied to RFA to become Corps members, many of its volunteer mentors and advisory board members are former journalists. Plus, RFA is partnering with other organizations that utilize the expertise of retired investigative and business reporters.

Rose Ciotta, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, founded the Investigative Editing Corps in 2017. It receives funding from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. It has developed a corps of retired or semi-retired investigative reporters who work as freelancers with newspapers and news outlets, which don’t have the staff for in-depth reporting.

RFA received a grant from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation to work with the Investigative Editing Corps to share the availability of its investigative editors with RFA newsrooms.

“Working with these experienced, prize-winning editors is a huge opportunity for our Corps members and their newsrooms — many of which have great ideas but not the bandwidth or expertise to direct investigative projects,” Kleman said. Four projects have been launched; others will publish in 2024.

Kleman added the Local News Advisory Team is a group of former Wall Street Journal reporters and editors with extensive business reporting experience that helps some RFA newsrooms. They offered their services free of charge to RFA host newsrooms, and several are now working with these retired journalists and editors to improve their business coverage.

Two tales of retired journalists becoming news entrepreneurs

Asheville, North Carolina, is an attractive community for retirees. Some arrivals before the pandemic were retired journalists, many of whom had won or been nominated for Pulitzer Prizes and had distinguished careers at The Miami Herald, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other major news outlets. By happenstance, several of them were guests at a party hosted by the general manager of the local public radio station.

During their conversation, several of the former journalists agreed there was a lack of in-depth news coverage in Asheville. The Asheville Citizen Times is the major newspaper in the city, but being Gannett-owned, the staff has been reduced so much that there is no time for investigative reporting.

Four of the retired journalists, Sally Kestin, Tom Fiedler, Peter Lewis, Barbara Durr and Kestin's husband, Bob Gremillion, recognized an opportunity to contribute their journalistic expertise and their available time to the community and launched the Asheville Watchdog in April 2020.

Bob Gremillion, publisher, chief executive officer and co-founder of the Asheville Watchdog

“The community has embraced us incredibly. Our story about the city trying to clean up downtown received many comments crediting us with bringing the problem to light, as investigative reporters do, and caused the city and the county to react,” Gremillion said.

The retired journalists are all volunteers, and The Watchdog is free — without a paywall. Initially, the Citizen Times published The Watchdog’s stories, but that collaboration ended when the Citizen Times wanted to put those stories behind a paywall, which conflicted with The Watchdog’s mission.

Peter Lewis, former senior writer, editor and columnist at The New York Times and with tenures at many other newspapers, joined The Watchdog as its managing editor. He and the other volunteer retired journalists quickly realized they needed new and younger journalists to boost The Watchdog’s reporting and prepare for a future without the retirees.

Peter Lewis, reporter and former managing editor of the Asheville Watchdog

“We’ve hired two paid, full-time reporters, one of whom is John Boyle, a well-known reporter at the Citizen Times. We have recently hired Keith Campbell, the retired vice president and managing editor of The Dallas Morning News, as our full-time managing editor. The board named me executive editor, a volunteer position that will give more time opportunities to report and write,” Lewis said.

A similar tale is being written in Greenup, Kentucky, a small town on the Ohio River. Cathie Shaffer was the editor and general manager of The Greenup News-Times since 2004, the longtime hometown newspaper in Greenup. The loss of advertising during the early days of the pandemic forced The News-Times to close, and Shaffer suddenly was unemployed. She had planned to retire at age 72 and become a freelance reporter and editor for other newspapers in the area. 

Her son, who is also in the newspaper business, his wife and Shaffer decided Greenup still needed a paper and launched The Greenup Gazette in July 2020. Mason Branham, who had been the sports and features writer at The News-Times, is the other member of the staff.

“There had been a newspaper in Greenup County for 150 years, and people considered it a utility. They didn’t realize it could be shut down. I started The Gazette with my stimulus money and some of my unemployment. From the first day, we had many people come to the office and subscribe,” Shaffer said.

Cathie Shaffer, founder, publisher and editor of The Greenup Gazette

Shaffer added The Gazette is a countywide newspaper with subscribers throughout the county and the largest number in Greenup. Even before the first issue, many local advertisers said if she started the paper, then they would advertise. The plan is for her son to leave his current position and assume many editorial duties while Shaffer focuses on selling advertisers until she is ready to retire.

When asked what advice she would share with other longtime journalists who might consider launching a newspaper, she said, “We don’t do it for the money or the glory. We do it because this is what we do, and age should not stop us. If you still want to be a journalist or editor, then you should do it.”

Bob Sillick has held many senior positions and served a myriad of clients during his 47 years in marketing and advertising. He has been a freelance/contract content researcher, writer, editor and manager since 2010. He can be reached at bobsillick@gmail.com.


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  • enigma58

    >>...few retired journalists have applied to RFA to become Corps members...<<

    Several decades ago, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote, "“To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.” My experience in journalism has been all too similar. For more than four decades, I have witnessed newspapers destroy themselves, dashing from one failed concept to another. Now nearly gone from the American scene, I witness the survivors double down on failure, pursuing web-only and nonprofit models which never worked and never will work, will ignoring or denigrating those concepts which built the industry and might lead to their recovery.

    If called upon to mentor young journalists, I could only advise them to run, not walk, from the industry, because, in the end, it will break your heart.

    Friday, July 14, 2023 Report this