7 Tips and Truths for the Independent Journalist

Have you noticed a lot of folks in your journalism networks ditching their full-time jobs and going independent lately? Me too.

It’s part of a national trend across industries, about which plenty of ink is being spilled and airtime spent. Over the course of the pandemic year, millions of people realized they wanted more out of life than to be tied to a workplace, a boss, and a daily grind — and journalists were no different. They spent the past year responding to a news cycle that was impossibly demanding, physically and emotionally, often without adequate staffing or support from their organizations. Many are now jumping ship.

News organizations should take heed — and quickly — if they want to hold onto their people. But that’s not what I’m writing about today. Today, I’m writing to all the folks who’ve already taken the leap into self-employment and to those considering it. Because I’ve been there. 

Almost eight years ago, I left a perfectly fine job — and a spectacular view — at Colorado Public Radio to launch my journalism consulting and editing business, Smelser E&C. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It hasn’t always been easy, though, and I’ve learned more than a few lessons along the way. Today, I’m sharing seven truths and practical tips for those just starting out on this exciting and sometimes daunting journey.

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7 Tips and Truths for the Independent Journalist

Podcasts vs Local News: An Either-Or Proposition?

Two local reporters from a small organization launch successful podcasts, garnering national attention and bolstering fundraising. Sounds fabulous, right? Except for this: Those two reporters make up about half their organization’s full time reporting staff.

The organization looked around one day and realized it had almost no reporting capacity left. 

For more than five years, I’ve been warning public media stations about the dangers of starting podcasts without properly resourcing them, robbing their already understaffed newsrooms in the process. The trend has continued nonetheless, and it’s not likely to abate, given last month’s announcement that NPR is partnering with Apple and Spotify to offer paid podcast subscriptions. 

The model could benefit local member stations too, though I’d be shocked if the revenue were enough to allow most station podcasts to be self-sustaining. Whether or not the potential money is worth chasing, though, more and more stations believe the potential audiences are. So I’d be shocked if stations didn’t continue to raid their newsrooms to feed their podcast ambitions. 

The proliferation of station-produced podcasts may well be an inevitability. Local news coverage may well be the casualty. And in some cases, that might actually be ok. 

Continue reading “Podcasts vs Local News: An Either-Or Proposition?”
Podcasts vs Local News: An Either-Or Proposition?

If we throw out Objectivity, do Journalists become arbiters of Morality?

The Black Lives Matter movement has reignited a long-running debate over the principle of objectivity in journalism. If you work in the field, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re a close friend or family member of a journalist, you’ve probably heard more than your share of existential angst about it over the past month. 

If you’re not in either of those categories, you should still care because you are a consumer of journalism, whether you like it or not. So here are the basics of the debate:

Most professional journalists and newsrooms operate under a strict code of ethics, which includes the principle of objective reporting. This means a journalist reports the facts of the story and all relevant context and perspectives without regard to the reporter’s personal opinions or any other outside influence. Journalists are expected to recuse themselves from stories they are unable to report in this way. In addition, to avoid the perception of bias, journalists are generally required to refrain from publicly expressing their personal opinions on potentially controversial issues and from participating in or contributing to political campaigns or causes. 

These principles – objective reporting and perceived lack of bias – are distinct but closely related. They are frequent subjects of passionate debate, particularly as American society has grown more and more polarized since the rise of social media and the election of President Trump. The current national discourse on race has raised the stakes and the emotional pitch of the debate even further, with the suggestion that the traditional journalism ethics code may be yet another societal institution created and enforced by white men and deserves to be, if not entirely tossed out, significantly revamped.

Ironically, I cannot write about this issue objectively. Like many journalists, my professional ethics have become deeply entwined with my own personal moral code, much like I imagine doctors might feel about the Hippocratic Oath. Seeing this debate play out over the past month has been gut-wrenching on a deeply personal level, for me and for many other journalists. I have been listening, reading, and thinking about these issues, trying to remain as open as possible to new ideas and perspectives. I am to the point where the only way I can process my thoughts is to write them down – a symptom of the profession, I suppose. I offer them here for anyone else who may be struggling, for interested bystanders, and for anyone in between.

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If we throw out Objectivity, do Journalists become arbiters of Morality?

COVID-19 exposes limitations of local pubmedia journalism

COVID-19 has been a slow-moving disaster since the beginning. There was no terrorist bomb or mass shooting or natural disaster. The virus was a creeping, insidious mole slowly burrowing into our consciousness and then into our lives and our news agendas. And unlike any crisis in recent history, it will be with us for a long time to come.

Whether we like to admit it or not, there are “scripts” for most types of breaking news. There’s a big event followed by a period of special coverage that’s intense but relatively short – usually a couple of days to a couple of weeks. Then, there’s an off-ramp of aftermath coverage when newsroom operations and schedules can get back to normal. 

To the extent newsrooms have prepared for breaking news at all, they’ve prepared for that kind of breaking news.

COVID-19 is not that kind of breaking news.

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COVID-19 exposes limitations of local pubmedia journalism

PMJA Will Not Renew Contract for News Manager Training After Successful Six-Year Run

Workshop’s Co-Creators Reflect on Past, Present, and Future of the Training

Judith & Mike 2014 PRNDI Training
PRNDI News Manager Training co-creators Judith Smelser and Mike Marcotte pause for a photo before the start of the inaugural workshop in 2014 at NPR Headquarters in Washington, DC. Credit: Megan Verlee

By Judith Smelser & Mike Marcotte

This summer in Washington, D.C., the PRNDI News Manager Training & Certification program graduated its sixth jam-packed class. Two months later, the organization, now called PMJA, informed us that it would not renew our contract to lead the workshop. Terry Gildea, who last year became the organization’s first full-time Executive Director, cited cost considerations as the reason for the decision. 

We’ve poured a great deal of time, effort, and dedication into the workshop since we created it in 2014, so of course it was a sad day for us. But we humbly believe it was also a sad day for the public media leaders who now may not get to experience it.

“This has been the most helpful event in three years of attending PRNDI, and the most diverse,” said WKAR News Director Reginald Hardwick after completing the 2019 workshop at NPR Headquarters in June.

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PMJA Will Not Renew Contract for News Manager Training After Successful Six-Year Run

How much are local and regional pubmedia journalists paid? Here are a few answers

Recently, I went looking for reliable data on local and regional public media journalists’ salaries and came up frustratingly short. Here’s what I found:

  • The CPB salary survey is no longer readily available.
  • My friend and colleague Mike Marcotte was commissioned to do an extensive salary survey in 2010, which he updated in 2015 based on the inflation rate, but even those numbers are out of date now.
  • RTNDA’s annual local newsroom salary survey groups public and commercial stations together. The most recent report says noncommercial salaries are almost 50% higher, so the median and average numbers aren’t too helpful for public media employers.

There’s no doubt it’s time for a new system-wide comprehensive salary study, but in the meantime, I decided to do a little research of my own.

I created an informal survey and shared it through my mailing list and Twitter feed, as well as on several public media Facebook pages. Between February 19 and March 7 of this year, 121 people from over 70 public media stations and collaboratives took the survey. While not scientific, its results provide a snapshot of the situation on the ground.

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How much are local and regional pubmedia journalists paid? Here are a few answers

Crisis Coverage: Making (not Finding) the Time to Plan

I just got back from a two-hour hurricane supply run, as we Floridians watch Hurricane Irma’s slow march towards our state.

In this brief lull between Harvey and Irma, I’m reminded of the many clients and trainees over the years whom I’ve encouraged to make a plan for covering disasters and other breaking news. I can think of only one or maybe two that have actually done it.

Of all the barriers to crisis coverage planning, the one I hear most often is, “Where do I find the time?”

You won’t find the time. You have to make it.

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Crisis Coverage: Making (not Finding) the Time to Plan

Congrats on your award! Now thank your editor.

Three years ago, I wrote a post called “Editors Often Left out of Journalism Awards Bonanza.” Another awards season is upon us, and the situation is pretty much the same.

Kudos to PRNDI for trying to change things with its first-ever Editor of the Year Award. Nominations are due TOMORROW (April 14) at noon. If you know a great editor, a nomination is the perfect – and let’s face it, pretty much the only – way to send some recognition his or her way.

Continue reading “Congrats on your award! Now thank your editor.”

Congrats on your award! Now thank your editor.

Firewall Shmirewall: Three warnings from the WUTC case

For the second time in as many months, I find myself writing about the firing of a public media journalist over matters related to journalistic integrity.

Last month, it was Marketplace reporter Lewis Wallace. This time it’s Jacqui Helbert, fired from WUTC in Chattanooga after state lawmakers complained to the station’s license holder, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, about one of her stories.

The lawmakers said Helbert hadn’t properly identified herself as a journalist in meetings they’d held with high school students about a proposed transgender bathroom bill. They said they were unaware the meetings were being recorded for broadcast, although multiple accounts suggest Helbert was wearing press credentials and carrying conspicuous recording gear.

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Firewall Shmirewall: Three warnings from the WUTC case

In Defense of Objectivity

When reporter Lewis Wallace was fired from the public radio business show Marketplace, public media’s simmering debate over the principle of journalistic objectivity came to a boil. (For those who don’t know, Wallace was fired for writing a blog post questioning the objectivity principle.)

The key question he raised is whether journalists must adhere to traditional rules about objectivity in an age of “alternative facts.” Do we have to sit on the sidelines of gatherings that aim to defend values and principles that many thought were settled in American society, issues that some see as questions of human rights, not political policy?

Some journalists are starting to say no. My answer is still yes.

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In Defense of Objectivity