Making a Career in Community Journalism

Making a Career in Community Journalism

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The following is a piece about a recent PCLI discussion panel about community journalism written by PCLI board member and Long Island Herald executive editor Scott Brinton … 

The March 15 panel discussion sponsored by the Press Club of Long Island and Herald Community Newspapers, “Why a Community Newspaper Is a Great Place to Start — and Make — a Career in Journalism,” was personal for me.

I have been a community journalist for nearly a quarter-century. I cannot imagine practicing any other form of journalism, not full-time at least. That is why I wanted to organize this talk.

It featured Steve Blank, editor and publisher of Blank Slate Media; Carolyn James, editor and publisher of CJ Publishers Inc.; Stephany Reyes, editor of the East Meadow Herald; and me, executive editor of Herald Community Newspapers. Bill Bleyer, the PCLI’s treasurer and a retired Newsday reporter who started his career at The Oyster Bay Guardian, moderated. About 25 people attended the forum, held at the Heralds’ Garden City office.

Credit Christina Daly / LI Herald

Community newspapers are “little gems,” as one of my first editors, Randi Kreiss, described them. Media critics often underestimate their importance or confuse them with the weekly circulars that arrive by mail. A real community paper, however, is the furthest thing from them.

Fiercely independent, community newspapers tell America’s story, school district by school district, village by village, town by town. Readers have taken notice. According to the Reynolds Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, community papers boast a combined nationwide readership of 150 million, or 47 percent of the population.

Through the panel discussion, I hope to spark a wider discussion on community journalism — and why journalists of all ages should consider it a viable career path.

Community newspapers, Steve noted, are growing in number and expanding their coverage, unlike so many daily papers that have disappeared or reduced their staffs in recent years. Steve, who was once a daily reporter, explained that community papers are “niche publications.” No other outlet produces what a community paper does. World, national, state and regional news can be found in myriad publications. What if, however, you want to read about what’s happening in your neighborhood? Only a community newspaper addresses the specific issues and tells the stories that are vital to the people there each week.

Community journalists, Steve said, are closely connected to their readers, whose appreciation for your work is palpable. Folks tell you point-blank that they love your coverage. In my experience, they might walk up to you in the local pizza place or on a ball field to say so.

Credit Christina Daly / LI Herald

People are also quick to call you out when coverage goes awry, Carolyn said, and there is no hiding behind a phone at a distant office when it does. Community journalists, she said, must be ready and willing to face their readers in the supermarket checkout line — because, chances are, they will. They thus feel an added responsibility to ensure that their stories are reported the right way — that their facts line up, that their data makes sense, that the discipline of verification is followed.

Stephany spoke of the challenges that community journalists face in covering their assigned neighborhoods with limited time and resources. There are night meetings and weekend events to cover. You’re often in the field interviewing people. You’re the one writing the copy and shooting photos and video, uploading breaking news to the web and streaming it through social media. You might even oversee layout of a paper — or lay it out yourself.

Despite the challenges, all of the panelists agreed that community newspapers are wonderful places for journalists to begin their careers. The best community papers are training centers and proving grounds, providing an educational foundation to last a lifetime.

Later the discussion turned to how one can make a career at a community newspaper, given that salaries are often lower than at other media outlets (though that’s changing, to a degree). I pointed out that it is possible to have a fulfilling, financially rewarding career at a community paper (I am proof of that).

The best advice I received early in my career came from a top editor at a major Manhattan-based business magazine. I spoke with him the week that he was returning to the small newspaper down South where he started out. After working posts around the globe, including as far away as Japan, to reach journalism’s pinnacle, he wanted his old life back. Like so many career-oriented journalists, he had married late. Working 70-hour weeks at a big-city magazine, he rarely saw his wife and children. He cautioned me against pursuing that route.

He asked whether I liked working at the Herald. “I love it,” I replied.

“Then stay,” he said.

He suggested that I freelance for larger publications to supplement my income, and so I did. In the 1990s and early 2000s, I freelanced as a feature writer for Newsday and as a photographer for The New York Times. Then, in 2009, I started teaching journalism part-time at Hofstra University. All the while, I have reported for the Herald full-time.

Working at the Herald has enabled me to stay close to home — and close to my wife and children. I have been able to achieve a work-life balance that is hard to come by in journalism. And that, as they say, you just can’t put a price on.

Metropolitan dailies and magazines do tremendous work on a macro level. They change the world for the better. Community newspapers do as well, only on the micro level. Community journalists are much like Peace Corps volunteers: They think globally, but act locally.

I have the utmost respect for journalists who pursue the “daily route,” moving across the country from one daily newspaper to the next, until with a little luck and a lot of talent, they can land jobs at The New York Times or Washington Post, Los Angeles Times or Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe or Newsday, the industry’s “destination papers.” Their work is vital to our democracy. So is the work of community journalists.

And that was the point of the discussion: The newspaper industry has more than one career path. Journalists should feel good that there is.