I spent part of Saturday at a conference for recovering journalists. Oops. I guess I mean journalists in transition.
And there were a lot of them at “Spring Training for Journalists,” held at City College. There were current and former reporters and editors from the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Contra Costa Times, the Oakland Tribune, and elsewhere. The bulk of the crowd seemed to be people 35+, although there was a smattering of young reporters as well.
In the past few years, Bay Area newspapers have shed 400 reporting and editing positions, which means there are a lot of people trying to reinvent themselves. And that’s what the conference was about – how to survive in this somewhat hostile, yet very interesting, media environment.
I missed the opening statement by Steve Fairinu, who has just taken over the managing editor position of the Bay Citizen, the new, not-yet-launched website that will cover Bay Area news. Apparently he was upbeat and inviting, and told the gathered reporters that he has a freelance budget and he intends to use it.
It’s a smart move, because there is a great depth of talent in the Bay Area.
There were workshops on how to do multimedia reports using slides and sounds, and a keynote address by Davia Nelson, one of the “Kitchen Sisters,” on creating compelling radio documentaries. There was a panel on writing books and on revamping your resume.
To survive nowadays, journalists have to wear multiple hats. Not only must reporters write and produce traditional pieces for newspapers, magazines, and radio -- usually on a freelance basis -- they also have to write for websites, start their own blogs, or even create their own small businesses by producing neighborhood websites.
One example of the new entrepreneurism is the explosive growth of nonprofit journalism organizations. The Bay Area now has the highest concentration of these new businesses in the nation. Mother Jones, New America Media and the Center for Investigative Reporting have been around the Bay Area for more than 30 years but have completely reinvented themselves in recent years.
Mother Jones has a vibrant website. New America Media has formed partnerships with thousands of ethnic journalists around the country and has brought their work to a central website. CIR, which has long partnered with CBS, recently created California Watch. Mark Katches and his team, which includes some longtime Chronicle reporters like Lance Williams, have seen California Watch stories appear in dozens of newspapers and websites around the state. San Francisco Public Press is a new consortium of journalists reporting on San Francisco news. Two of its stories recently appeared in the Bay Area section of the New York Times.
Individual reporters are also experimenting with new forms of journalism, making life as a reporter much different than the days when one went into work at 10 am, found and reported a story, and went home at 7 pm.
My experience is probably fairly common. I worked for the San Jose Mercury News for nine years. Since I left, I have freelanced for a number of news outlets including the Los Angeles Times, People Magazine, the Chronicle, and San Francisco magazine.
Most recently I have been writing for the new Bay Area edition of the New York Times, but that opportunity will soon go away as The Bay Citizen will take over that section at the end of May.
I blog for City Brights on SFGate and for Ghost Word, my site about the Bay Area literary scene.
What I am most excited about is Berkeleyside, a local website I have started with two friends, Lance Knobel and Tracey Taylor, both veteran reporters. It is what they call in the business a “hyperlocal” site, which means it focuses on a defined geographical area.
There are a lot of these sites popping up, like The Island, a site run by Michele Ellson about Alameda, Coastsider, run by Barry Parr, which examines life in unincorporated San Mateo County, and OaklandLocal, a nonprofit site started by Susan Mernit.
We write about issues large and small, and that it why it is so much fun. I recently wrote a story about the closing of Mr. Mopps, a beloved toy store on Martin Luther King Way in Berkeley. The post got dozens of responses and even prompted a few people to try and buy the business. (Nothing concrete has happened yet, but it may)
My post on why San Francisco Magazine had not included any Berkeley sandwiches in its list of the region’s top 40 sandwiches drew a heated exchange about the best places to eat lunch in town.
I wrote those more light-hearted pieces while I was writing about the closure of the NUMMI plant for the New York Times and still doing talks about my book, Towers of Gold, which came out in paperback in January. Oh, yes, and also trying to sell ads for Berkeleyside.
Tyche Hendricks is another example of a reporter who has multiple jobs. For years she covered immigration for the San Francisco Chronicle but recently left. Since then, Hendricks has taught a course on international reporting for the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, has just taken a new position with KQED, where she will be the special projects editor for The California Report. She will publish her first book, The Wind Doesn’t Need A Passport: Stories from the US-Mexico Border, in June. And since immigration is such a hot topic now, she is pitching op-ed pieces for various newspapers.
Sarah Henry is another example. A former reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting, she went on to report for the health magazine Hippocrates, and then wrote for a number of websites like Babycenter, Caring.com, and WebMD. Henry recently helped write someone’s memoir and was a contract writer for Chronicle Books. Her website, Lettuce Eat Kale, about food issues, is very popular. Henry also writes a column on foodies for Berkeleyside.
Fortunately for all of us, there is a great resource; the Knight Digital Media Center at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism. It, too, has evolved as the news business has changed. Its main focus had been on training reporters in newsrooms to do multimedia reporting. Knight still does that, but it also has started to train independent journalists as well. It offers conferences and trainings to independent reporters and its website has a great collection of videos on how to produce multimedia, set up a hyperlocal site, and more. The journalism school has also been welcoming to this new batch of independent reporters.
My talk at the “Spring Training for Journalists” conference, which was co-sponsored by the California Media Workers Guild, the SF City College Journalism Department, and the Bay Area Media Training Consortium, was on writing nonfiction books. I told the audience that journalists are well equipped to write books, because it takes a lot of perseverance to succeed. And journalists have that quality. We are trained to track down information, even in the face of daunting odds, and not give up until we get that information.
I think perseverance is the reason so many reporters will work hard to make the transition from the old media world to the new.