United States Project

You can go home again

June 5, 2019
Cincinnati Enquirer Executive Editor Beryl Love, a former top editor at USA Today. Photo courtesy of University of Cincinnati / Joseph Fuqua II

It’s quite possible that Caitlin Dewey owes her career in journalism to The Buffalo News. She grew up  in the suburban town of Wheatfield, just outside Buffalo, and first honed her writing chops in high school, when she served as a regular contributor to NeXt, the now-defunct News section aimed at teenagers. “I reviewed emo concerts,” Dewey says. “That was my main journalistic role.”

So there was added significance when, last summer, she began working as an enterprise reporter at the News, having previously covered digital culture and then food policy at The Washington Post. Dewey, 29, was comfortably ensconced in DC before she moved back to Buffalo. But she had always resolved to return to her hometown, where her family lives. From a professional standpoint, she also felt that she could make more of an impact working in a smaller locale.

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Her trajectory from the country’s capital to a mid-size Rust Belt city may seem curious—analogous, say, to a major-league baseball player who voluntarily returns to the minors. But Dewey, who has already published some important stories in her time at the News, doesn’t see it that way. And she is just one of several journalists, young and old, who are going back to their hometowns or home states to report on local matters after having spent some time away.

Returning home has several advantages, both personal and professional, say those who have done it. “I grew up reading The St. Louis Post-Dispatch every morning,” says Lauren Weber, 28, a former HuffPost reporter who now works in her hometown as a Midwest correspondent for Kaiser Health News, the nonprofit that runs on a partnership model. “So it’s been a dream to see my stories on the front page.”

There is also a built-in context to news events that out-of-towners just may not be aware of, says Christopher Rickett, a government and politics editor at The Indianapolis Star who went back to his hometown paper last year having worked in Baltimore, Chicago, and Denver. “Beyond that,” Rickett, who is 49, says, “because I’m from here, I can’t help but care more.”

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That’s been the case for Carlos Ballesteros, too. He began working at the Chicago Sun-Times, his hometown tabloid, a year ago, thanks to a Report for America grant. Previously Ballesteros, 26, wrote about immigration for Newsweek’s digital team in New York, but he says the position was demoralizing and mostly focused on clicks—characteristic of many desk-bound, nationally-focused journalism jobs, which, in their emphasis on aggregation, can leave reporters feeling as though they are producing shallow work.

Journalists who return to their hometowns are serving a vital need, says Sarah Baird, the founder of Shoeleather, a database that connects editors at national publications with local journalists. Such reporters are ‘critical for the survival’ of local news ecosystems, Baird says.

Joining his hometown paper has given Ballesteros the chance to do meaningful, on-the-ground reporting at a “pivotal moment” in Chicago’s history, he explains, as a number of black and Latino neighborhoods are gentrifying. “I strive,” he says, “to highlight stories of those who are on the losing end of the new Chicago.”

These boomerangers are part of a national trend in which “homecomers” are moving back to the areas they grew up in. Derek Robertson, 29, is a former news assistant at Politico Magazine who now lives in Lansing, not far from his hometown of Grand Blanc, a suburb of Flint. He works as a reporter and editor at The Michigan Advance, a nonprofit news site covering state politics and policy.

Though Robertson says he didn’t pay close attention to local issues in Michigan until the Flint water crisis began in 2014, he has a natural sense of curiosity about the state because he is from there. “There can be more of a sense of agency and genuine discovery” than writing for a nationally-focused outlet, he says.

Journalists who return to their hometowns are serving a vital need, says Sarah Baird, the founder of Shoeleather, a database that connects editors at national publications with local journalists. Such reporters are “critical for the survival” of local news ecosystems, Baird says, adding that there is “a level of intimacy and trust with sources that’s deeply beneficial for telling more thoughtful, nuanced stories” than national reporters, who often parachute in rather than living in the communities as correspondents used to do in better times, can produce.

Reporters who work in their hometowns simply understand their readers’ concerns better, says Julia B. Chan, who recently left her role as the director of audience at Mother Jones to take a position as the digital managing editor of KQED News, a public media outlet in San Francisco.

In some cases, they may even go way back. “The Cincinnati chief of police is a high school classmate of mine,” says Beryl Love, a former top editor at USA Today who took the helm of The Cincinnati Enquirer not long ago, after years away from his hometown.

“Even though the Enquirer’s attorney just made arguments at the Ohio Supreme Court in an open records lawsuit we filed against the department,” Love adds, “the chief and I still smile when we see each other and laugh about where life has brought us.”

Love, who is 53, says his decision to move back to Cincinnati was a difficult one, as he enjoyed the broad scope of his previous job. But ultimately he went for it because he believes that local journalism can have an immediate and consequential impact on a community. In order for that to happen, he says, “I believe you must be invested.”

That’s a belief that Sarah Anne Hughes, an associate editor for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, a nonprofit news site, subscribes to as well. Hughes, who is 30, worked as the editor in chief of DCist and then the managing editor of The Washington City Paper before making her way back to her home state a few years ago.

“Despite its many flaws, I feel a real connection to Pennsylvania and want it to be a place that lives up to its lofty founding ideals,” she says, adding, “Every community, no matter how small or remote, deserves reporters who really care about it.”

Dewey, who recently returned to Buffalo, says it has been easier to relate to locals because she really cares about her hometown. But, she says, “something that’s been profoundly effective for me is I tell people I used to work at The Washington Post.”

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Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Slate.