I have some news

Not long before Thanksgiving in 2003, I boarded a plane to Orlando from Washington, DC to interview for a reporting job at Central Florida’s NPR station, WMFE. 

A late autumn chill had already enveloped the nation’s capital where I was working in my first journalism job, but Central Florida was at the height of its perfect season, when humidity drops, temperatures are in the high 70s, and everyone joyfully emerges from the long, hot summer. My day-long interview included lunch with the news director on a terrace downtown overlooking Lake Eola on a gloriously sunny afternoon. Orlando was pulling out all the stops for me. 

A few days later, I was back in DC when I got the call offering me the position. I was excited — it was the chance I’d been waiting for to get into public radio — but I was also worried. What would become of my nascent journalism career so far away from the northeast corridor, where all the action seemed to be?

I still remember calling my mom to tell her the news. “I just don’t want to get stuck down there,” I said. 

Today, nearly 18 years later, I’m writing this post from my house about a mile from that same lake where we had lunch, and words truly cannot express how honored I am to share the news that I have accepted an offer to become WMFE’s Interim President & General Manager. 

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I have some news

NPR’s revised Ethics Handbook leaves unanswered questions

The wait is over for NPR’s revised Ethics Handbook. The organization has been working on changes since last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests reignited the long-smoldering debate over journalistic impartiality. The revisions have been eagerly awaited, not only by NPR staff, but also by local public media organizations, many of which have adopted NPR’s ethics guidelines as their own.

The new version of the Handbook provides welcome clarity on who is and is not covered under its guidelines — a question many of my member station clients have wrestled with in regards to their own ethics policies. In other areas, however, including the revised section on Impartiality, NPR’s new guidelines introduce a degree of ambiguity and contradiction that have the potential to significantly muddy public media’s ethical waters.

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NPR’s revised Ethics Handbook leaves unanswered questions

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