What I learned in my great American newsroom trip
This was originally published Sept. 22, 2018 in the Society of Professional Journalists Quill magazine and its website.
I pulled up to my home in Alabama with my car covered in thick bugs and dirt. Its usual cherry-red color was a dream from months before. Glancing at the odometer I felt a sense of accomplishment: I just drove 10,000 miles.
The goal of my cross-country trip, dubbed #followmylede on social media and launched during Sunshine Week, was to chronicle journalism in America in 2017. I visited dozens of news outlets and carefully chose each stop, spending time at outlets big and small, for-profit and nonprofit, traditional and cutting-edge.
What people say about “the media” does not sync with what my experience has been as a journalist working in newsrooms in many states. Newsrooms are as varied as Americans. My brief stops across the country, which I approached much as I would any reporting assignment, backed that up. Journalists are rich and struggling, immigrants and U.S. natives, liberal and conservative, optimists and pessimists and everything in between. Much of the public has a picture in their heads of “the media,” but I wanted to explore that term, which can mean many things.
I could not have picked a better time to document journalists bearing witness to history. National news moved faster than I could digest, as I covered journalists while they covered the news. I immersed myself in the study of watching creative people work. Everywhere I went there was major breaking news. In Santa Fe, there was a deadly shooting spree. In Birmingham, a police officer was shot. In New York City, as I visited Buzzfeed, there was an approaching blizzard. The summer of 2017 was a summer of wildfires wherever I was. Fire in Sedona. Fire in Burbank. Fire in Breckinridge. I started to think the world was on fire.
As I traveled, I thought of old black-and-white photos of newsrooms. Margaret Bourke-White with her camera. Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post newsroom, leaning oh so casually on a desk. Edward R. Murrow at a microphone. I chronicled the (sometimes boring, always changing) reality of American newsrooms in 2017.
Our industry has some bright spots and some places where light needs to shine as much as we hope it will after we file an FOIA request. As a profession, journalism has clearly missed the window for the time to step back and take a breath. So it was important to me to document who gives us our news. It was enlightening, uplifting and sometimes very sad.
It really is a miracle. Against the odds we put out a product every week, day, hour or minute.
The minutiae it takes to push out a news product is stunning. At The Navajo Times in Window Rock, Arizona, when I arrived it was hotter than 100 degrees on the reservation. In the pressroom, press foreman Ron Livingston discussed the struggle of printing and distributing papers in the desert, which can reach temperature lows and highs that present problems. Even when the doors open to load papers onto trucks, the ink has to be cooled down, or warmed up, to stay functional.
Local journalists are heroes.
Local journalists often suffer the consequences of the national media’s reputation. There is a disconnect between what the average person sees in national news and boots on the ground locally. A community reporter does not do the job for praise or prizes, for publication or Pulitzers.
I visited Steve Southwell, a real-life Clark Kent at The Lewisville Texan Journal, a suburb of Dallas/Fort Worth, whose media outlets seldom cover his community. By day he is a computer programmer. By night he fights injustice in city hall (and school boards, etc.) through journalism. Back in 2015 when many newspapers were gasping for one last breath or had been six-feet-under for years, he started a print edition to accompany the existing Lewisville Texan-Journal website. When everyone else rushed out, he ran into the burning building with a rudimentary printer and stapled first edition.
If you’re at a tiny news outlet and start to get down, or think local journalism is dead or doesn’t matter, give Southwell a call. He will tell you about life and liberty in the Lone Star State.
Ron Livingston, press foreman at The Navajo Times in Window Rock, Arizona, talks in June 2017 about temperature challenges printing a newspaper in the desert. (Photo by Meredith Cummings)
Solutions and dialogue journalism is strong and can be profitable.
Much has been reported and researched on how journalists sometimes contribute to problems. We do, but we are also helping in many ways.
So many people want everything to be black and white, this or that, left or right. Good reporters know not to fall into that trap, but the public doesn’t always follow suit. Where is the nuance? What about those gray areas in between? Journalists know that life is almost never that simple. It’s messy and complicated, more Pollock than Picasso.
The nonprofit Colorado Independent takes solutions journalism to the next level while also making it financially viable. Editor and Executive Director Susan Greene, who was once a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative journalism, cut to the heart of the problem while also offering a solution. Every journalist needs an entrepreneurial spirit, not just the ones at the top of the newsroom food chain.
“Journalists suck at asking for money. We can ask the president questions. We can ask the governor hard questions. We can talk to anybody about pretty much anything, but when it comes to asking for money, we suck,” Greene said. “Wake up. This is not 20th-century journalism. You have got to be entrepreneurial.”
You don’t need fancy equipment or training to suss out corruption.
Some of the most impressive investigative reporting I saw was being done with very little overhead and, in some cases, minimal training. (The previously mentioned Texas publisher Southwell has taken one semester of high school journalism.)
Street Sheet in San Francisco is a newspaper and website produced by homeless people. There I met T.J. Johnson, a reporter who covered homelessness, then became homeless himself. At Street Sheet reporters and editors practice fearless journalism in the face of corruption and a seemingly unbeatable machine. They do this with pure grit and little journalism training. I’m a journalism instructor at an accredited university, so this is a humbling lesson both as an academic and a journalist: We are all replaceable.
Speaking of being replaceable … … we have such high turnover in newsrooms that our products suffer. I saw it time and time again. As one editor told me, “You don’t want to be the old guy in the room.”
Our business is ageist, and it’s no secret that the casualty of that is the loss of institutional knowledge. Yet a seasoned reporter or editor who knows her craft well will bring more nuanced reporting and, as a result, more eyes to the page/site/screen. Even for young people, turnover in newsrooms is so high that by the time my year-long project was complete, many of the people I interviewed had played musical chairs, moving from one news outlet to another.
That’s not new to our business, but what if we incentivized young reporters to stay put? What if we made it worth their while to put down roots that go deep into the bedrock of the community, reaching more stories and cultivating more sources instead of doing the industry shuffle every two years?
That turnover, in part, leads to a little-addressed mental health issue in newsrooms.
So many journalists are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Some are waiting for their company to be bought or sold. Some are being pushed out to hire less-expensive recent college graduates. Yet those young journalists don’t get paid enough and worry about finances, leading to mental stress.
High turnover leads to loneliness when journalists have to constantly start over in a new community with a new job and new people. Many told me they feel like they are in this alone. I’ve never seen a more lonely group of people. Even when we work together on a final product, so many jobs are done alone. Writing is a solitary job. Editing video is a solitary job.
I think of Elina Shatkin, KPCC Southern California Radio digital producer, back in the shadowy downstairs at 5 a.m., sitting alone in a soundproof booth in Pasadena. It is there in the quiet that her important work is done. There is no commotion. Nothing to hear or see. Just the tick, tick, tick of the clocks on the wall.
I saw more pets in newsrooms than children.
Bleacher Report had a pet fish. In Colorado I met a cat who runs a Twitter feed for the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. I saw dogs in newsrooms everywhere. But not one child. Not one.
It’s true this is an American problem, not just a newsroom problem. Newsrooms need better maternity and paternity leave and child care on site. The fact that this is not a widespread practice gobsmacked me, after seeing the toll our profession takes on families.
My own child is a newsroom baby – her father and I both worked at the same newspaper when she was born – so it’s personal for me, but she’s 16 now. In an environment where decisions are made and implemented in seconds, this seems like a change that is well overdue.
Let’s stop talking in code.
Journalists often spoke in code. For example, the phrase “with everything going on in the world” became code for “since Donald Trump was elected.” I have a list of these that are too numerous to mention here, but as professional communicators, we can do better.
This is a difficult topic to tackle, but newsrooms have a bigger sexual harassment and assault problem than anyone thinks.
In June — before the #MeToo movement took off, before Weinstein, before our industry’s own Press Forward campaign, I arrived home from an over 8,000-mile leg of my trip and was stunned by what I had learned. So many women told me (both on and off the record) about their experiences in newsrooms with sexual harassment and assault. I sat with this. At first, I was surprised. Why were these women — sometimes complete strangers — confiding in me? Because as reporters, editors and print and visual storytellers, they saw the value in my documenting these things. They have their own stories to tell.
In one case I literally found myself in a back alley of a newsroom discussing the details of one editor’s sexual harassment because she did not want her co-workers to overhear. An alley. The icing on the cake was when, as a visitor to a newsroom, I was blatantly sexually harassed.
So far, much coverage has focused on large, well-known, national, corporate newsrooms, but we cannot forget the thousands of newsrooms in smaller towns and communities that also have a problem. Their voices are not loud, but they are there and the sheer number of them is unconscionable.
Diversity has not grown fast enough in newsrooms.
This is no secret. At almost every stop I asked about diversity in newsrooms. Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report both want more women on staff. At Vidcon I attended a session called #YouTubeBlack. Many places said they need more diversity of thought, as well as Hispanic or Asian journalists.
There are too many facets of this issue to cover in these pages, but the bottom line is that everyone agreed we have a broken system, but there was little agreement on how to fix it. From what I witnessed, places that actively recruit minorities starting early – when students are in college or even high school – have the best success rates. I consistently saw employees struggling to reconcile their city or town’s surroundings with their work environments. They may live in an extremely diverse place but go to work and see mostly white faces.
It’s not a process problem as much as a thought process problem. Also, as one journalist pointed out, “it depends on where you are, what you need to be diverse.”
Truth is in the job description.
I have a vivid memory of waking up one morning, ready to visit a news outlet. My daughter, my partner in every single newsroom stop, let out an audible groan.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Mom I just can’t do it. I cannot visit one more newsroom and hear people talk about truth and justice and telling stories that don’t get told.”
It was a humorous moment, but also moving. After months of visiting newsrooms, even she (a non-journalist) had the themes of what we do overwhelm her. It was nice to see those tenets of truth and objectivity repeated on a loop.
Yet we don’t get bonus points for it. Truth is in the job description. We can’t, as I saw some journalists do, pretend we wear superhero capes and wait for praise from the citizens of Metropolis.