Eight of my Weekly colleagues and I just returned from the national meeting of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. It was an inspiring conference in the fabulous small city of Boulder – a place where the weather is hot, the local craft beer is cheap and where live music is loud and plentiful late into the night.
There have been occasions over the past decade where a gathering of journalism professionals felt more like a wake than a party. And for many in the field this year may be no different. In fact, the Save Journalism Project reports that over the last 10 years, newspaper newsrooms have declined in size by 45 percent, and in 2019 so far, the media has shed more than 2,400 jobs. (That’s a much steeper job loss trend than coal miners, for those of you keeping score at home.)
At the Weekly, we’ve long known we are a bit of an outlier. Our business is stable, we’ve grown our headcount rather than issuing layoff notices, and we’ve been frequently recognized for our success. This past year I had the honor of being named the California Newspaper Executive of the Year by the Cal Press Foundation, and our editorial team placed in 10 different categories at the California Journalism Awards. We’re both lucky and we’re good.
It turns out, however, that at the midpoint of 2019 we have peers around the country that are also telling success stories. From Burlington to Salt Lake, Rochester to Nashville, Denver to Durham, Memphis to Boulder and San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara, the reports from the editors and publishers were encouraging. And the journalism was inspiring.
Indy Week from Durham earned a fellowship to send two reporters to Central America to see the conditions on the ground where many North Carolina immigrants come from. Seven Days from Burlington, Vermont has embarked on a year-long reporting project on opioid addiction and treatment in rural communities. (A side note: While Seven Days is the largest paper in the state, they can’t get Senator Bernie Sanders to return their calls. Seems their reporting on his wife’s failed school has made that paper the enemy of the presidential candidate.)
There was a commonality among many of the successful papers gathered in Boulder: The papers are local fixtures, they bind the community and they reflect the aspirations of the readers back to the leaders. They engage and challenge those leaders, whether they are in politics, the arts, food or music, and together help frame the conversation on what kind of community they want to call home.
Over the course of three days there were sessions on sales strategies, seminars on circulation management, brainstorming about recruitment and retention.
The best programs were the first and the last of the conference. At the welcome keynote, host paper Boulder Weekly introduced Motus Theater Artistic Director Kirsten Wilson, who does something aligned with the mission of journalism: She helps people craft their own stories for the stage. As part of their UndocuAmerica series, four Colorado “dreamers” – all undocumented immigrants, all presenting on the eve of the Trump administration’s planned ICE raids – delivered powerful monologues. When a young evangelical Christian mother addressed fellow church-goers about preparing an emergency plan to ensure that her children would be cared for in case she was deported, it seems everyone in the room was moved.
The last event was the annual awards luncheon, honoring the best in design, sales and writing.Monterey County Weekly earned the national first-place award in the Free Speech and Open Government category. Editor Sara Rubin, senior staff writer Mary Duan and First Amendment attorney Kelly Aviles were recognized for reporting on Greenfield City Hall – including the publication of internal memos city officials fought to keep secret – and waging a successful legal battle when the city sued the Weekly. The city’s lawyers tried to force our reporters to destroy documents, but Aviles successfully argued on the paper’s behalf that the First Amendment has priority over secrecy.
The real victory was winning the lawsuit, but earning an award for that fight is a great way to cap a newspaper conference.