To stem the decline of local journalism, we will have to experiment with new business models and adapting old ones. Figure out digital subscriptions and membership programs. Find publishers’ place in an advertising landscape where programmatic tools and a handful of huge tech and social platforms are dominating. Battle disinformation, mistrust and apathy. There are endless takes, a universe worth of hand-wringing, and significant funding aimed at addressing these things.
What’s still missing is a focus on the people who are doing the work, and what we’re losing in this time of endless transition.
Consider the local reporters, editors and photographers over the age of 50 who have been displaced from the business in the past few years. Buyouts target exactly this demographic, dumping salaries that are at least slightly higher than the entry-level or early career journalists that are often chosen when there’s a new hire to be made.
And it looks like there will be plenty more buyout processes in local news in the coming months, with McClatchy filing for bankruptcy protection, Tribune being squeezed by its new largest shareholder (the vulture capital firm Alden Global Capital), and the newly merged Gannett-GateHouse operating under a mountain of debt. Even the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune, with a deep-pocketed owner committed to innovation and investment, announced a round of voluntary early retirement-type packages this spring.
“What’s Your Plan B?” is a Facebook group for journalists who have left the business or expect they will soon. Its membership has grown to more than 15,000 people—people in their 50s who are out of work but too young and with inadequate savings to retire, and who are finding it difficult to get any kind of job at their age, never mind one in journalism.
The loss to local journalism, specifically, is pronounced. Part of the expertise that a reporter or editor develops over decades on the job is knowledge of their community. The news outlets they’re leaving can’t replace it, and the people whose jobs are eliminated can’t make use of that knowledge if they have to move to another community to find another journalism job.
The lucky ones find new jobs teaching journalism at a local university or in public relations.
But shouldn’t we be talking more about how to keep our most experienced and most knowledgeable journalists doing journalism?
The gig economy could be one way, and some local journalists have pieced together a living from freelance work after their full-time jobs went away. But the industry is not oriented this way. Freelance rates at local news organizations in particular haven’t kept up with the cost of living. Some big newspaper chains have policies written by lawyers and corporate HR that ban people who’ve taken buyouts from freelancing for the organization for a year or even longer. A California law now being reconsidered limited the total number of freelance assignments a company could give to a single person. Both the waiting period on writing for your old organization, and that law, are attempts at protecting what should be full-time jobs from being contracted out and stripped of benefits. But they damage the ability of gig economy workers to make a living. And we’re still in the earliest stages of admitting the gig economy is a thing and taking steps to improve conditions within it.
Although it’s not for everyone, entrepreneurship can be one of the most promising ways to keep experienced local journalists doing local journalism in their communities. A large number of publishers who are part of the Local Independent Online News (LION) organization, and the Institute for Nonprofit News, call into that category of over 50 journalists who were displaced from a job at a traditional newspaper or other local news outlet.
They’ve found a way to leverage their journalism skills and knowledge of their community by starting up local news organizations that compete with or complement (or both) their former employers in many cases.
They need help in figuring out how to go from journalist to journalist/businessperson. They need help in navigating revenue discussions and technology stacks. They need business models and seed funding that make not just survival, but health insurance and retirement savings possible.
We need to talk a lot more about helping the people doing this work if we’re going to make the work itself sustainable. We should start with the highly-skilled, locally knowledgeable, gray-haired journalists who are walking out the door as we speak.
Matt DeRienzo has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including most recently as vice president of news and digital content at Hearst's Connecticut newspapers, and previously serving as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers, a national nonprofit that supports the publishers of local independent online news organizations.