Having two major news sources in the city owned by notoriously anti-worker management can’t be good. For local journalism to be good, local journalism jobs need to be good.
By Noelle Mateer, Belt Magazine
Local journalism is the best journalism, and I know this because I’ve seen its opposite.
I grew up in Pennsylvania, went to college in Pennsylvania, and wrote my first stories in Pennsylvania – and yet I began my journalism career in Beijing, China. This was never the plan. If it had been, I might have considered learning Chinese. In college, I had vague ideas about doing a year abroad after graduation, but those ideas turned into concrete plans only after I surveyed the grisly job market that awaited me upon my release from school. Internships in places like New York and Washington, D.C. were largely unpaid; entry-level jobs were only marginally better. My advisor tipped me off about an internship in Beijing that offered housing and a stipend. I didn’t know anything about Beijing. I ended up staying six years.
Ever since I moved back to Pennsylvania, I’ve been thinking about how that weird, life-altering chapter – the formative chunk of time I now just call “my twenties” – was the result of mostly boring economic factors. Sometimes I wonder, if the job situation had been tipped in another direction even a tiny bit – say if I graduated before the recession, instead of after it – would I be an entirely different person now? Would I live in a fancy coastal city? Could I have even avoided hassle entirely, and stayed in Pennsylvania? Because the irony of all this international job-seeking is that I eventually found the most fulfilling job of my life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And the irony on top of that irony is that three months after I started, my colleagues and I at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette went on strike.
The reasons for our strike have been well documented elsewhere (read about them if you’d like). I’m not here to rehash our issues, but rather explain how rare and beautiful a place like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is, and why local journalism in places like the Rust Belt, even in its old-fashioned, traditional form, is worth fighting for.
Within a few months of landing in Beijing, I became aware that getting stories published would be relatively easy. News sites back home didn’t want to spend their shrinking budgets on sending reporters abroad, but I was already abroad, in the country they increasingly wanted coverage of. I began stringing for a buzzy New York-based news company, and they ran pretty much whatever I sent them, twice a month. I still didn’t speak Chinese, but I got to write and be published, all due to the happy accident of landing in a place that was considered important, news-wise.
I look back on some of those articles and cringe. They’re not particularly insightful, and some even contain factual errors (the New York-Based News Company did not, apparently, employ fact checkers). Sometimes, now, I see the reverse of what I did – journalists from elsewhere coming to Pennsylvania and reducing it to cliches. But it took me a long time to make that connection.
I used those clips to get a full-time job, and then I began my slow ascent up the journalistic ladder. There was a pecking order in the international journalist set, with people like me at the bottom, and bureau chiefs for major news organizations at the top. I started as a writer for a small company, and then I became editor at the small company. Eventually I accumulated enough experience to apply for a better-paying job at a major international news corporation – one of the ones with a fancy bureau. I made it through a couple rounds of interviews, and then the Major International News Corporation said it was time for me to take a writing test.
At the time of the test, a hiring manager called to tell me there’d been a flood in Japan. She sent over a dossier that contained messy notes, weather reports and transcripts from eyewitnesses. I would have one hour to turn this into a story. Within that hour, I was also to rank a list of breaking-news headlines by order of importance. I would need to decide which is a bigger deal: the natural disaster in Japan, or the bombing in Sri Lanka? The political scandal in Myanmar, or the oil spill in the Philippines?
As I scrambled to cover the fictional flooding disaster for no money, just the hint of money in the future, I thought, I’ve never been to Japan. I thought, I’m a 26-year-old white girl. And then I thought, this is stupid. The job’s scope of coverage was “Asia” – an entire continent. A friend of mine had also just gotten a job for a different but similar Major International News Corporation, and he too covered Asia, only his bosses defined “Asia” as also including Australia and New Zealand. He was struggling with the fact that everywhere he went to report, he was a visitor – how could he be certain that what he was writing was good? If I took this job, I would be a constant visitor, too.
This is how I learned the paradox of the modern journalism career – the higher up the ladder you climb, the more you have a bird’s eye view. That is, the more prestigious the role, the more the reporter is asked to see people as populations and not individuals; data points in stories about broad, sweeping trends. It’s the opposite of what most of us start out doing in college journalism classes, hyperlocal stories on local car wrecks and lagging social services. Those “smaller” stories, which require us to interact with people in our own communities, in person, are the reason most of us fall in love with reporting. And yet, due to mostly boring economic factors – such as which media companies have the most resources and therefore prestige – the aspirational among us are encouraged to leave all that behind.
And when it comes places like the Rust Belt – in particular its more rural areas – the shrinking job market lures young journalists far from home. Over the past nine years, I’ve seen my classmates from journalism school bounce from one news market to another, going from small town to bigger town to small city to big city.
Eventually, I landed in Pittsburgh.
When I joined the staff of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I encountered, for the first time, people who’d made lengthy, enriching careers out of news that was close to home. The journalistic ladder was different before the recession; they stayed in one place, and in journalism, thanks to the power of good union jobs. And that made their work better. My colleagues who’ve worked here for decades have roots in the communities they cover. They have deep expertise and long lists of sources. They can be sure that what they’re writing is good because they’re the ones most qualified to do so. And they get to do the best kind of journalism – local journalism.
Before we went on strike, I had some of the most fun I’ve had reporting in years and plans to do more. One afternoon, I met some local roboticists at a garage in the East End to strap on their new robot shoes and wheel around with tiny engines on my feet. I did an interview with a guy who steers a floating tiki bar up and down the Monongahela. I had plans to meet a group of Carnegie Mellon engineers at a slag heap where they test self-driving off-road vehicles (journalists who think local news is boring simply do not know what they’re talking about). This is a misconception I’ve encountered repeatedly since going on strike – People assume you’re striking because you hate your job. I’m striking because I love my job. I want to protect it.
Not every city our size has such a large and talented newsroom. And in the future, I fear even fewer cities will. The shrinking market has already devastated news sources in rural areas; it’s coming for Pittsburgh, too. Organizing is a way of fending all this off, because without unions, the faulty decisions of media’s wealthy owners go unchecked. Earlier this month, the owners of the Post-Gazette – who could end our strike by reinstating lapsed healthcare for production workers for measly tens of thousands – bought Pittsburgh’s beloved alt-weekly, Pittsburgh City Paper (the purchase amount hasn’t been disclosed, but I think it’s safe to assume it was more than the cost to end the strike).
None of us are sure what this will mean for the two publications going forward. But having two major news sources in the city owned by notoriously anti-worker management can’t be good. For local journalism to be good, local journalism jobs need to be good.
This has an impact beyond the workers who make newspapers happen. I’ve been thinking lately about my early-career freelancing luck, and how it boiled down to living somewhere considered newsworthy. Journalists clustering in national news hubs on the coasts has had the opposite effect for Pittsburgh; stories here only rarely make national news sites. The Major International News Company I once applied to wrote about the New York Times’ one-day strike in December, calling it “historic.” It has not covered the strike at Pittsburgh’s largest newspaper at all – and we’ve been striking for three months.
We can’t expect national news services to fill in the gaps left open by shrinking local news. When local journalists leave, news goes with them. My colleagues and I are striking because Pittsburgh deserves good journalism.
Your city deserves good journalism, too.
Noelle Mateer is a writer in Pittsburgh. Her work appears in Wired, Defector, The Economist and more, and she currently writes for the Pittsburgh Union Progress, the publication of striking Post-Gazette workers.
Belt Magazine is a digital publication by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest. Founded in 2013 as an antidote to shallow, distorted representations of the region, we challenge simplistic national narratives by paying local journalists, writers, photographers, and poets to cover their communities with depth, context, and the kind of rich insight that can only come from a deep relationship with a place.