the news frontier

What I Saw at the Hyperlocal Revolution

Without journalism jobs, we don't have journalism
November 17, 2011

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.

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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.

The way we tried to hold the line on quality was by laying out the front page each night, choosing the best stories and letting the rest fade away. But we had to have five or six good ones—which we sometimes did, half of them written by our reporting staff—and when we did, I was proud of what I saw in the morning.

But many times we didn’t have enough stories, and we were forced to layout some pretty heinous pages. Press releases from the city (which we accepted as “primary documents”), journalism assignments from a local junior college (a flurry of stories on cupcakes was one memorable result), and the adventures of a local self-promoting “ghost hunter” with a penchant for interviewing attractive women were among what came.

We took ‘em. Unless they violated our fairly loose terms of use—local (defined broadly), not profane, not self-promotional, etc.—they stayed on the site.

This got us in some trouble with our fellow local journalists. Some had minimal journalism credentials themselves, so they were fairly easy to ignore. Others seemed willfully to ignore everything good my staff did, and focused on the junk that showed up, of which there was, admittedly, plenty.

Our weaknesses were certainly clear, but I felt that what we provided in terms of increased coverage, as well as a greater depth—particularly in city government and business coverage—was worth the trade-off.

What concerned me most was that, other than a system of “badges,” placed on stories to identify who was a pro and who was a CC, the casual reader had no idea who was a journalist with journalism training and who was…not. On our front page, the stories all looked equal.

But they were not equal. Despite today’s proliferation of sites that are open to anyone, not everyone is a journalist, let alone a good one. Journalism is hard work, and finding good sources, quoting them accurately, and putting a readable story together without letting one’s biases influence the telling takes skill and a grounding in journalism standards. This should be apparent, but even now, the average reader is not particularly sophisticated when it comes to what they read.

On the other hand, a handful of our CCs were actually better informed, and better writers, than a lot of the journalists I’ve read. They knew their topic and they wrote marvelous pieces out of the best amateur impulse: Love of the subject. They remain one of the best reasons to read The Sacramento Press. But they are a minority.

Some of our critics had another good point: Writers who write well should be paid. I usually have been, and it was always hard for me to talk to good writers and ask them to contribute for free. Or for $25. Or $50. This is, in some ways, the new reality in journalism, and many start-ups and even established publications pay poorly.

But in general, here’s another “legacy” adage that holds true: You get what you pay for.

As quality control continued to be a problem, we hired one of our interns to manage the CCs—at least to the degree that they would allow themselves to be managed. It was ultimately their choice. But under her watch, we offered copy-editing (to take it easy on readers) and insisted that CCs who wanted to review a play or a concert go through us, after promoters started getting two or more requests for free tickets from people claiming to be reporters from The Sacramento Press.

And we dealt with divas wanting to cover all of the plays or comedy shows or baseball games in town. It’s a wonder the CC coordinator didn’t go completely mad. I would have.

And then there was the whole issue of deadlines. When someone is writing for free, enforcing a deadline is nearly impossible. So we had stories showing up eight hours late. Or two days late. Or four. Or never.

Nevertheless, our professional staff got kudos for their work from the people who mattered: our subjects and others who were watching closely. Members of the city council, the mayor’s office, homeless advocates, and the artists and business people about whom we wrote were pleased with the quality and attention to detail of my staff, and with our responsiveness to their concerns.

It is this of which I am most proud: we brought local coverage back. “No story too small” turned out to be a pretty good credo, and despite the faddishness of the term “hyperlocal,” the return to community journalism that websites allow worked, journalistically. The readers of The Sacramento Press feel an ownership of the site, and protect the civility of “The Conversation” zealously. And they are not pushovers when it comes to journalism. They appreciate what The Sacramento Press brings to our town, and they are engaged. And this is every bit as important as making sure every quote is accurate and word is spelled correctly.

It may also make this form of journalism profitable yet, for advertisers want, above all, an engaged audience. So while it is still losing its founders money every month—and making it hard or even impossible to pay people like me—The Press may still turn a profit and become sustainable.

But this much is still clear, whether for new media or old: Editing costs money. Citizen journalists are cheap and they can even be good. But even great journalists need some editing; citizen journalists need a lot of it.

Much of this piece, which was intended to be about journalism, is instead about money. Perhaps that’s the ultimate message, as journalists everywhere are discovering. As journalists, we’re nothing if we don’t tell the truth, backed up by solid reporting. But unless someone, somewhere, is bringing money to the table, our political insights or critical acumen or familiarity with the machinations of city hall are mere dinner party—or Facebook—fodder.

Without the money, we don’t have jobs. And “citizen journalism” notwithstanding, without journalism jobs, we don’t have journalism.

Journalists like to say, “Follow the money.” Where that leads us might not be pretty or encouraging. But that, ultimately, is the promise of good journalism. Only by facing reality do we have a chance of changing it.

David Watts Barton is a multimedia journalist who divides his time between northern California and New York City.