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?

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

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

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

What my wine blog is teaching me about digital media: Part 1 – Localism

I have a wine blog.

Yes, in addition to being a public media nerd, I’m also a wine nerd. I go to at least a couple of tastings a week, I hang out with sommeliers, I sniff, I swirl, the whole bit.

Last year, under pressure from – and with the encouragement of – a small group of wine enthusiast friends, I started the blog.

It was called My Wine Blog. (Scribbles & Scruples is the only clever blog name I will ever dream up.)

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What my wine blog is teaching me about digital media: Part 1 – Localism

New Overtime Rules Inspire Necessary Newsroom Soul-Searching

New overtime rules that go into effect next month are forcing newsrooms to do some much-needed soul-searching.

(I can speak with authority only about my own field, but I know these conversations are going on in many organizations, particularly nonprofits, which also pay relatively low salaries to passionate people who usually aren’t in it for the money.)

There’s been a lot of consternation about this change, from news managers and employees alike. There’s no doubt implementation will be painful at first, but if the next administration doesn’t reverse the new rules, I think they could begin to correct our society’s longstanding and extremely detrimental work-life IMbalance.

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New Overtime Rules Inspire Necessary Newsroom Soul-Searching

Good Journalism Doesn’t Come Cheap

Despite the swirling criticisms of “the media” these days, there have been several recent examples of high-quality public service journalistic efforts. They provide good opportunities for a closer look at how this important work gets done.

News flash: It’s not cheap. It involves big investments of people, money, and time.

Here are a couple of case studies.

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Good Journalism Doesn’t Come Cheap

How long does it take to edit a story? I can tell you. And I have proof.

I’ve written plenty about the importance and craft of editing – about how it’s a collaborative process that starts with helping the reporter shape the pitch and plan the story, continues through the reporting process, and doesn’t end until the facts and audio have been checked and the text and photos in the digital piece are in place.

I’ve also written about how editing tends to be undervalued. After all, it happens behind the scenes, and managers rarely understand how time-consuming and labor intensive it can be.

I now have data that sheds light on the time question.

Continue reading “How long does it take to edit a story? I can tell you. And I have proof.”

How long does it take to edit a story? I can tell you. And I have proof.

Don’t ignore pubmedia core values in podcast debate

Public media has become obsessed with podcasts in recent months. Many think they may be the silver bullet that will finally bring coveted millenials into the public media fold. Many more feel threatened by the success of podcasts in the commercial world and fear public media is missing the boat.

I’ll be honest. This conversation is making me nervous. Not because podcasts are bad or because I’m scared of new things, but because the debate and many of the resulting actions seem to be minimizing three core public media values:

Unbiased news, localism, and public service over profit.

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Don’t ignore pubmedia core values in podcast debate