Beyond the parachute: Newsrooms rethink centralized model

Freelance journalist Abigail Edge was at an Online News Association conference in Los Angeles in 2015 and found herself chatting with the head of a prominent national trade publishing association. The woman asked where she lived. “When I told her Denver she laughed and said ‘that’s not really America. Only the east and west coasts are America,’” Edge recalls. The reporter found the comment irritating, but says that “it seemed that that attitude was not uncommon.” She often had difficulty getting national media executives and editors to care about stories outside of the coasts and was getting the impression journalism higher-ups considered her choice of home base as a career impediment. Not wanting to ruffle feathers, Edge smiled and walked away.

She wonders whether the woman has changed her attitude. The media’s collective misfire on the 2016 election has led to an acknowledgement of our own “media bubbles”—insular elite worlds in a handful of coastal cities where journalists congregate and lose touch with … everyone else. The bubbles exist, in part, because legacy publications and new digital outlets still rely on a centralized newsroom model that requires editorial staff comes into an office—typically located in the most expensive cities in the nation.

The digital age, rather than fostering a new era of remote work, actually increased our profession’s geographic concentration. One out of every five media jobs was located in New York City, Washington, DC, or Los Angeles in 2014, up from one in eight 10 years prior, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data crunched by The Washington Post. Journalists outside major coastal cities say that the damage of geographic concentration goes beyond a disconnect with swaths of the population. It also contributes to a lack of diversity and may help explain the public’s diminishing confidence in our work.

A few national media outlets are shifting their policies, showing more openness to hiring journalists outside their headquarters cities and even seeking out geographic diversity as a hiring priority. Those rethinking their national coverage range from established players such as The New York Times to digital upstarts like Mic. Though the shift is, at this point, slight, such adjustments could help correct one of the troubling elements of the current model: relying too heavily on parachute journalism, says Kristin Roberts, who recently resigned as Politico’s national editor.

“You can’t just send a gifted reporter to a far-away place and get anything much more than an archaic portrait of rural or red small-town America,” says Roberts, who blamed the media bubble problem for her departure from Politico. “We need to, as journalists, know these communities, be there to experience them, and write accurately about them and for them,” she says.

Anne Trubek, a Cleveland-based writer, says that parachuters have trouble grasping nuance, intricacies—and sometimes glaring facts. During the lead-up to the election, she says, “there was one article after another about the white working class steelworker in the Rust Belt.” The problem is, health care is the No. 1 employer in Cleveland. Factories are 8th and 9th. “Your average voter here is an African American woman making $11 per hour in health care,” says Trubek, the founder of Belt Publishing, which runs Belt Magazine and a small press focusing on the Rust Belt and Midwest. “People who live here would never think that typical Trump voter was a factory worker,” she says.

Beyond coverage that misses the mark, parachuting is predicated on a belief that the rest of the country only deserves spot coverage: Ohio during a Presidential election; New Orleans after a terrible hurricane; the Mexican border whenever there’s an uptick in immigration discussion in the Beltway. The reality, says Sarah Kendzior, a freelancer based in St. Louis, may be the opposite. “We in the Midwest are often ahead of the curve in terms of crises—economic, political polarization, racial strife,” she says. Her city witnessed an early rise of the Tea Party and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. “The idea that [the middle of the country] is some sort of boring wasteland is really fraudulent,” she said.

Representatives of national outlets interviewed for this story stress that they keep tabs on the nation’s pulse through freelancers. The Washington Post, for example, has a network of 2,800 journalists worldwide, most of whom are US-based. A Post spokeswoman said in an email they rely on these reporters to “pitch us story ideas, respond to news assignments, and keep us abreast of what is happening in their communities and regions.”

While individual story assignments are valuable, they become problematic when that’s the only option for outside-the-bubble journalists. “It seems crazy to me that there are a lot of good journalists who don’t live in major cities of America, and they are not able to find work,” says Denver-based Edge, who’s a native of the UK. She has been offered four jobs at national publications since coming to Denver, but she refuses to relocate to DC or New York on a salary that would force her to live with a roommate. Kendzior, in St. Louis, says she’s had more than a dozen offers for full-time gigs that would have required relocating herself, her partner, and two kids to the nation’s most expensive cities. The few times she asked for flexibility on the residency requirement, she says her editors were sympathetic but ended up saying that “company policy” didn’t allow for special arrangements.

To be sure, there’s a reason newsrooms have always been the backbone of journalism. Centrality facilitates the hallmarks of a strong news operation: a high-energy environment, camaraderie, collaboration among reporters, relationship building between writers and editors, and quality control of the product. In-house newsrooms weren’t created with the goal of excluding certain people from the journalism profession, but the model may have that de facto effect. Along with other media customs, such as unpaid internships and higher degree requirements, newsrooms based in the most expensive cities in the US effectively limit the ability of people who aren’t coastal urban, elite-university educated white liberals. Latria Graham, a long-form writer of color who’s from and lives in South Carolina, has no desire to live in New York because she loves the South and considers her location an advantage for unique reporting. “People are like: ‘Oh, Trump’s America what does that look like?’ I’ve been in it for 30 years,” Graham says.

She believes that high-profile media outlets tend to fill unspoken “diversity” quotas, measured in tallies like the VIDA count—an annual scoring of gender, race, and other demographic disparities in the nation’s leading literary publications—with freelance submissions, “instead of supporting these people with benefits and the space to breathe.” Graham does not have health insurance (South Carolina’s governor blocked the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid) and she sometimes churns out 10,000-word pieces in a weekend to make ends meet. “This is why writers burn out or do something else,” she says.

Some national outlets do have virtual newsrooms. Jodi Jacobson, who is president and editor in chief of Rewire (formerly Reproductive Health Reality Check) built her staff—currently based in 11 states—first by “hiring the best people no matter where they were and not forcing them to move,” and then through a bureau model of hiring in the places she really wanted coverage. “There are days when it’s a bit frustrating to get everyone together and not be able to see them,” she says. But, for her, the benefits of having people reporting on issues facing their home communities far outweigh managerial annoyances.

Rewire and Snopes—another outlet that uses a virtual-newsroom model—rely on Slack, video conferencing, emails, phone calls, and texts for communication. Jessica Wakeman, former lifestyle editor at the Daily Dot (headquarters in NY with employees in DC, Minnesota, Oregon, Europe, and elsewhere) says the company has two video editorial meetings per day to keep communication flowing. The best part of having far-flung staff, says Wakeman, is the range of perspectives, which you can’t get with “the same old crew of NYC media people who play musical chairs at the same companies.”

The best part of having a far-flung staff is the range of perspectives, which you can’t get with ‘the same old crew of NYC media people who play musical chairs at the same companies.’

Some centralized national media are making changes. ProPublica recently announced ProPublica Illinois, which will be less like a bureau, and “more analogous to a newspaper, which is ultimately owned by a parent,” says ProPublica President Richard Tofel. The project—the planning for which got underway before the surprising election results—seeks to beef up local and state accountability reporting and, if successful, could be replicated in other states.

The New York Times is also rethinking its national coverage. National editor Marc Lacey says that the Times is more dedicated than ever to its 14 domestic bureaus but that he’s assessing the locations, to make sure staff is “in the right places” for the upcoming years. He recently posted  job descriptions for new positions where “I’m actually saying I prefer that you not move to Manhattan and come into this building every day. I’d rather have you living somewhere else,” says Lacey. He added that while he doesn’t want to sit in the New York office alone, he wants “as many people as make sense” to be in other areas of the country, “listening to, talking to, and having dinner with non-New Yorkers.”

New York-based Mic is moving in a similar direction. Executive news director Kerry Lauerman wrote in an email that he is “keen to find either staffers or full-time contractors in more far-flung locations.” Mic is seeking issue reporters for which “location doesn’t necessarily matter, but probably would benefit by not being in the heart of a big liberal city,” he says.

As for the rest, it’s anyone’s guess. Buzzfeed, Vice, and Politico declined requests for interviews. Think Progress initially answered an email request, but never arranged for an interview. Vox and Bloomberg did not respond at all.

Those who ignore this issue could eventually regret a lack of self-reflection. Because geographic diversity is connected to something crucial to what we do: audience trust in our work. “The most hurtful thing [about the 2016 election] was how little American people care about the facts that journalists were giving them,” says Kristin Roberts, who is now executive editor of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau. She adds, “We have to own that. We have a role in this and we have to have to figure out what we did to contribute to a broken relationship.”

Having more full-time jobs outside media bubbles won’t fix it all, but it could be part of the repair. Consider the experience of Washington Post data reporter and writer Christopher Ingram, who moved to Minnesota in Spring 2016, not to get to know “real America,” but because he wanted a calmer and more affordable life for his family. He says the move has improved his writing. A conversation with a man at his local gas station, for example, caused him to think twice about referring to the white working class as a monolithic group. “Lived experience infiltrates your reporting in many subtle ways,” he says. (A Post spokeswoman says they are open to considering other staff relocations on a case-by-case basis).

Those subtleties are likely to be noticed, says Latria Graham, the South Carolina writer. “Often people outside of these major city bubbles see themselves depicted in print and on television in a sensationalized way, without any nuance,” she says. “The thought is ‘well, if they’re getting depictions of us wrong, what else are they getting wrong?’ People start distrusting or simply stop paying attention to the information presented to them.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Anne Trubek’s home base. It also mischaracterized the South Carolina governor’s action on the Affordable Care Act. 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky has been a freelance journalist for 11 years and is based in Philadelphia. She is a Vice Magazine contributing editor and has written for outlets mentioned in this article, including The New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @jean_F_R