When I quit The Sacramento Bee after nearly twenty-five years as a reporter and columnist in 2007, I looked like a fool. Who would leave a great job at a fine paper, without a buyout or even unemployment insurance?
But I was restless and bored, and two years later I looked less foolish: after my departure from The Bee, waves of buyouts and layoffs left dozens of my colleagues without journalism jobs.
By contrast, I had become editor-in-chief of the cutting edge “hyperlocal” Sacramento Press, launched in late 2008 and instantly one of the country’s model pro/am hybrid websites. I had been hired by a trio of smart, idealistic young entrepreneurs who were suddenly appearing on J-school and new media panels from California to New York and beyond, preaching the hyperlocal gospel.
With a variety of sites popping up across the country, “citizen journalism” was on. A new era in journalism had arrived. There was, suddenly, hope for a troubled industry. And I was a part of it.
I am still a part of it—and, yes, still hopeful. But I am also, if not exactly sadder, then at least a good deal wiser. Two years after my career peak as editor-in-chief, I find myself again unemployed: laid off this time, along with the Sacramento Press’s marketing director, in a “cost-cutting measure.” At least this time, I have unemployment insurance and an enhanced resume.
But I’m left with the uneasy knowledge that the economic ills to which “legacy” media are painfully subject these days are an equal or greater threat to “new” media. And that vulnerability is complicated by the brutal efficiency and lack of contract-based protection of workers that journalists at big newspapers have traditionally enjoyed.
We brave new media journalists serve at the pleasure of our owners.
The owners of The Sacramento Press are good guys, and the remaining staff at the online paper enjoys good salaries, health insurance, and excellent working conditions. Two other vacant positions will not be filled soon, and no one there has job security. But who in journalism does these days?
In any case, a professional staff was not part of the plan at The Sacramento Press, which was instead envisioned as an open platform for “community contributors” (CCs) to post their work. The idea was that CC stories would be amended by other readers in the “Conversation” section, which was to be managed more closely than the no-holds-barred “comments” sections of most online papers. Reporters were encouraged to respond to readers’ comments. And that has worked, for the most part.
But soon after my hiring I suggested to the owners that a core of professional journalists would anchor the site’s journalism, providing a good example to the amateurs. And I had an ulterior motive: Without dependable content, laying out the front page every night with whatever came in—which often wasn’t much, or very good—was a challenge.
We did have a revolving cast of young interns whose work was of wildly varying quality, but only experienced journalists would give us something I could be confident of. And only professional journalists could give our readers something to return to the site to read.
To the credit of co-founder Ben Ilfeld, whose family’s wealth seems to be the lifeblood of the enterprise (though his partners, especially Joel Rosenberg and Geoffrey Samek, contributed both cash and thousands of hours of start-up time), the money was forthcoming. With the money, I hired three reporters. An early intern, Colleen Belcher, was hired and soon became managing editor.
With my slightly tongue-in-cheek but nevertheless practical motto of “no story too small,” these young reporters and Belcher lit a fire under the local news media, focusing on stories that The Bee, the local alternative weekly, and the Sacramento Business Journal either didn’t notice, ignored, or couldn’t afford to cover.
We could afford to cover so many stories in part because my staff worked long hours, wrote quickly, and would file at least one, sometimes two, and occasionally three stories a day. It was not uncommon for reporters to do ten stories a week.
We could also afford it because we got a lot of free work from interns and, increasingly, from the community. But this was where things got unpredictable. This is where the revolution has yet to be realized—and may not be.
“Citizen journalists” are almost always citizens, but they are rarely trained journalists, hence our use of Ilfeld’s coinage, “community contributors.” Perhaps in a larger, more media-savvy city such as New York or even San Francisco, there would be a larger pool of excellent writers dying to write for free—perhaps not. But in Sacramento, even in the downtown core around the state Capitol, there is a dearth of such folks. And consequently, we got a lot of weak work.