As the editor of a nonprofit news site in New Orleans, I occasionally receive emails from young, earnest college grads who have recently moved to town and want to do work that matters. They sometimes have a bit of journalism experience. They’ve discovered The Lens, which focuses on investigative and government accountability reporting. They ask: Can I freelance, do an internship or even make coffee so I can learn how to do this work?
I usually don’t have money for freelancers. I know how much time it takes to teach the fundamentals of reporting. And I make my own coffee. But I usually offer to sit down with them so I can learn about their interests, explain what we do, and perhaps offer some advice on how to embark on a career in journalism.
New Orleans is known as a good “news town,” which is journalist shorthand for “bad things regularly happen.” Yet I usually suggest they consider leaving New Orleans if they want to get into journalism. We have news in New Orleans, but few news jobs—like most mid-sized cities.
A couple of years ago, Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton described how media jobs were becoming concentrated in New York and Washington, D.C. We all know why: While local newspapers have cut staff, online news orgs on the East Coast are expanding.
What’s less evident is how this affects the labor market: Journalists who start their careers at digital outlets on the East Coast will do different things and learn different skills than if they work in local news. Many of those skills aren’t transferable to local journalism.
The work young journalists do in New York or Washington isn’t like the daily cops beat. Maybe they’ll become web producers, coming up with search- and social-friendly headlines and making sure every post has a photo. Some will aggregate stories from other outlets, usually without any original reporting.
Some will be encouraged to write stories that are a mix of opinion and reporting (or, more likely, aggregation); others will do hot takes on the biggest stories in the news cycle. They may write about a Supreme Court nominee one day, a mass shooting the next day, an Apple product announcement the day after that.
And in doing so, they will be better positioned for other digital jobs in New York or Washington—but probably not in New Orleans, Minneapolis, or Raleigh. Local editors value reporting more and voice less. They want people who can sift through reports and make sense of spreadsheets. Someone else—actually, many someones—will cover the latest iPhone release.
It’s as if local and national news—or more precisely, local legacy media and national digital media—reside on separate islands in the Galápagos, evolving with their own needs and characteristics.
That wasn’t true before the Great Recession kicked the legs out from under an already struggling newspaper business. Young reporters started in small markets doing cops or another daily beat. They exercised their reporting and writing muscles every day, learning how to interview, build sources, develop a beat, and frame stories. They developed specialties and moved to bigger markets, and some made it to the large national papers.
Now there are fewer jobs at every level, and many digital news outlets have different values. Some offer opinionated takes tailored for their readers’ politics. By aggregating the news, young journalists help digital sites achieve scale—a low-cost presence on many different stories—which allows experienced journalists to focus on a few of them.
When I meet with these aspiring journalists in New Orleans, I lay out their options: Compete for one of the few local news jobs against people who have internships and deep resumes, or move to New York or Washington, where there’s a relative abundance of entry-level jobs.
When Benton looked at this in 2016, he found that about 10 percent of newspaper and TV openings were in New York or Washington. But for digital media, it was almost 40 percent. I looked at job postings recently, and it was pretty much the same.
Federal labor data, he wrote, showed that the share of reporting jobs in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles had doubled in 10 years, with 20 percent of all reporting jobs in the country.
So what does this shift mean? It means there’s less mobility in the business as reporters grow up on one island or the other. It means journalists work in newsrooms that value different things. It means you could rack up five years of solid newsroom experience in New York and not know what it’s like to write for the people you’re writing about.
Long-term, it probably means more of a disconnect between the journalists who have their heads down doing local news and the journalists in New York and Washington who are expected to have some idea of what’s going on nationally.
This shift is the result of the new economics of the news business, and I don’t know how to change the dominant business model. But there may be ways to bridge the divide. Report for America is placing talented, young journalists in newsrooms around the country. Local news editors could loosen up on the types of writing they look for. They could value skills that young journalists learn at digital outlets, teaching them the reporting skills they lack rather than relegating them to web production. Digital outlets could encourage original reporting in all types of content, which would benefit their audiences, too. Both would require cultural changes, and they’d probably slow down the types of work that each type of news outlet produces regularly.
I suspect some of those young journalists in New York and Washington would welcome the opportunity to do local reporting. But there probably will be fewer jobs in local news next year. There will be less news to aggregate if local outlets aren’t doing original reporting. But we’re talking about different species on neighboring islands; one can thrive while the other dies out. Which is the sort of thing that deserves a hot take.