By Patrick Lynn
Community news is a contradiction.
Almost simultaneously, it is an item of sentiment and utility: a platform for emotion, thanks to humorous columns, heartwarming feature stories and “remember when” musings. It also operates as an information distribution center for voters and other residents, reporting the goings-on at city council, county board, the school district, and public safety issues.
It is sometimes the bearer of bad (or ridiculous) news. But at its heart, the primary function of shining a spotlight on those in local government who determine why and how to use our tax dollars.
Community news survives via subscription dollars and ad revenue. Without the community’s financial support, it dies, and quickly. In essence, we’re asking advertisers and readers for their hard-earned money; yet we insist that this act not influence our reporting.
Community news holds whatever prestige it has, largely, through consistency. Done well, it is consistently accurate and constantly present, no matter the weather or hour of the day. It connects readers with the names, faces, and events supporting the infrastructure of their community.
With that in mind, how strong can any community be when journalism jobs are eliminated? In the face of ever-shrinking advertising revenue to pay its employees, can community news continue to serve its community for long?
Before you answer, consider for a moment why community reporters do what they do in the first place.
The job doesn’t make us rich. News reporters are notoriously underpaid—in Wisconsin, the average starting salary hovers around $30,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—and many reporters need a second or third income just to make ends meet.
The job doesn’t come with a lot of friends. Most of the time it’s just the opposite. We’re constantly asking uncomfortable questions of people who don’t want to talk to us; taking photos of defendants who often do not wish to be photographed, or publishing information someone wants to be kept hidden.
The public cries “Sensationalism!” when we cover a story that happens to be dramatic; then gripes when our schedules, due to lack of staffing, don’t allow us to cover a girls’ dance competition because we’re covering a big city council vote on tax increases.
We don’t do this job for the compliments. Sometimes they do come but it is rarely pertaining to skills we spend years honing. More often, people criticize a story as being biased, unethical, accusatory or unimportant—sometimes, without ever having read it.
Sometimes we can crank out a story in 30 minutes; other times, it’s 30 days before we can connect with a source essential to completing our work. We play phone tag with 15 people every two weeks, and in the meantime, we interview 10 people a day for an entire month.
Because there are fewer working journalists than ever, often a newsroom has only one or two reporters to cover five simultaneous municipal meetings twice a month—and independently maintain relationships with hundreds of local police officers and firefighters, electeds, administrators, secretaries, and business owners.
We have to pull information essential for public consumption from open records requests, cranky clerks, annoyed electeds and over-worked chiefs, while simultaneously fighting the rumor about a new parking ordinance you heard down at the bar, and the Facebook meme you shared about the last city council vote because—even though it’s not true—you thought it looked cool.
Typically, there are no days off. It’s long hours, high stress, little sleep, poor social life, and terrible insurance benefits (if you’re lucky). Many in our profession suffer depression, anxiety, chronic cardiac/neuropathy issues, dexterity problems and carpal tunnel syndrome, drug abuse, alcoholism and chain-smoking.
Good journalists undergo hundreds of hours of professional development each year to keep our skills up-to-date and up to peer standards. Despite this, most of us have an editor constantly telling us we can do better, and a social media troll or two looking for an easy target.
Okay, so, we asked for this. Even if we didn’t know what we were signing up for when we took the job (and few do), we continue to show up every day for more.
We do this because we’re called to serve the public. That’s really what news reporting is: a public service. We do this for you. We like telling stories. We’re trained to recognize important news that affects the public, and we go through all of this to bring it to you.
And then you complain when we charge you for our work. Unfortunately, it’s the only way we can survive.