Journalism is the business of building communities – so newsrooms must hire from within those communities

Can democratic communities survive without a newspaper to provide them the civic information they need? That’s the question on many journalists’ minds these days?

But I think it more enlightening to flip that question, and ask again: Can newspapers survive without the communities they need to sustain them?

That, I think is where so many news organizations have failed over the past generation. In a drive to professionalize the journalism industry (and, then, to cut costs), we’ve cut our publications off from the communities they are supposed to represent.

This issue literally has kept me up nights as I think about how it applies to the two websites my wife and I publish. Neither of us has a full-time job with any employer. Our websites are our livelihoods now. What will happen to our family if they same market forces that have turned against newspapers turn against our websites? What happens then?

Envisioning this scenario, I came to realize that what we’ve built is not a pair of websites. It’s not even the information contained within them. The most important thing that we’ve built is the two communities of individuals who read and communicate through the sites. That is our product. And that is what we must hold on to, to nurture and to cultivate, if media preferences change and Web publishing become the next newsprint.

That’s a liberating moment: when you realize that journalism is not the business of reporting, writing and publishing newspapers… or websites. It’s the business of community building. And to do that, you must build your publication’s community from within the broader geographical, topical or professional community that you wish to serve.

My wife and I in the past have hired freelance writers to report for our sites. None of them are still with us. Why? Their work didn’t resonate with our communities, either in page views or responses submitted, the way that other content submitted for free from our readers did.

And why was that? Because, I think, these writers were not from our communities. They were not violin professionals (on my wife’s violin website), nor were they theme park industry veterans (on my theme park travel website). When we hire writers in the future, we will insist that they not only have professional experience in the field that they cover, but that they be registered members of our publication communities as well.

Newspapers long ago quit doing that when hiring their staffs. My first paid job in news was a part-time reporting gig while I was in graduate journalism school. I covered country government for the local newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana. That made sense, because I went to high school in nearby Indianapolis, and thanks to many weekends at high school speech meets, music contests and summer events like Boy State, I knew people throughout the Bloomington area. I was part of that community.

My first full-time job after graduation, however, was writing editorials for the paper in Omaha, Nebraska, a community I’d not stepped foot in until the paper flew me up for an interview. I had zero business working that paper, mush less writing editorials for it. I wasn’t part of that community and didn’t know it.

When newspapers hire staffers from other cities and states, they further isolate themselves from their home communities. Here in Los Angeles (where I was born and went to elementary school, by the way), we’ve endured a string of publishers, editors and reporters from out of town shaping coverage at the rapidly shrinking Los Angeles Times. One need only read (LA native) Kevin Roderick’s LA Observed blog over time to discover some of the gaffes and groaners that have resulted.

Many journalists from outside a community, in time, grow to know it and become greater reporters within it. But others do not. And the coverage from those who do not know they community, or haven’t learned it yet, diminishes the value of that publication to the broader community. There are plenty of great writers, editors and business people in Los Angeles from the Times to draw upon. Including many from communities within LA that the Times traditionally has covered poorly, especially non-Anglo communities.

The same story has been repeated in newsrooms across the country. Newspapers hire fresh j-school grads from outside the community, reporters with great talent but little experience and no knowledge of the city they’ll be asked to cover. The result often is shallow, indifferent coverage that gives readers fewer compelling reasons to pick up their local paper each day. Or papers hire a hot-shot reporter from another city, thinking that experience in the newspaper industry is more valuable to their readers’ community than actual experience living and working within that community.

Hate to break it to some of you, but it isn’t.

How much better could coverage have been had papers instead identified students from their community who were going to j-schools around the country, and kept in touch with them? If they had offered internships only to students from their communities? And hired some of them when they finished school? Those rookies would have started with a much richer understanding of their community, and a much greater chance of producing content that readers wouldn’t find ill-informed.

Then, how much better still would that coverage have been if papers had paid a decent enough salary to these employees so that they could stick around to develop industry experience at home as their community experience deepened?

Instead, newsrooms went cheap, didn’t develop a “farm team” of local j-students, ran AP coverage instead of reports from locals stationed in bureaus around the state, country or world, and treated readers like ignorant consumers to be written down to instead of knowledgeable neighbors to be respected. Is it any surprise, then, that newsrooms ended up with “communities” built upon distressing levels of reader churn?

And when the U.S. federal “do not call” law took away paper’s ability to blanket the community with sales calls, papers didn’t have enough of the smart local coverage they needed to bring back readers they were losing. (By the way, I find it curious how so few news industry analysts mention the effect of the do-not-call law in contributing to newspapers’ current dire financial situation, given how dependent so many papers were upon telemarketing to sign up new readers in a high-churn business.)

All this, of course, creates an opportunity for online news entrepreneurs. Do not repeat the mistakes of your print colleagues. As you look to build a local news website, cover only the communities that you know – of which you are a part. Don’t go looking to expand into markets you do not know. When (or if) you look to hire help, hire only from within these same communities.

You might have to look harder. You might need to engage local students earlier in their lives, to help train them to be ready, one day, to work for you. But are these bad things? No, they’ll further tie you to the community that you cover – which is essential to protecting your business’s health and future.

We’re not in the publishing business. We’re in the community business. And to so successfully, we must build our businesses from within our own communities.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Just got this direct message, via Twitter: I like & agree w/ your article mostly, BUT what about journos like me, from [small town], [Midwestern state]? Should I be doomed to staying there?

    No. But I don’t think that journalists can, or should, rely on the industry to move them to another community. That’s going to have to be up to you now. Read, communicate online, then travel to decide where it is that you want to live. Then move there.

    Keep in mind that cities are just one form of community. You might be part of several topical, spiritual or professional communities as well. You could work writing for a publication representing one of those communities while you learn and make connections within your new geographic community. So you need not put your journalism career on hold while you become part of a new city or town.

    For students, think about this issue as you decide where to go to school. I lived in Bloomington for a year as a grad student before starting work at the paper, further developing my ties to the community. Ultimately, though, I wish that I’d gone to school (undergrad or grad) in Los Angeles, so I could have deepened my ties to my hometown earlier in my career.

  2. says:

    It isn’t that the “professionalism” of journalism created this carpet-bagger disconnect with communities. This started in the 1980s, with Reagan-Era media ownership deregulation. It was the beginning of chain newspaper ownership on a large scale, the closing down of papers in 2 or more newspaper towns (Tulsa, Little Rock, Anchorage, just to name a few).

    Thomson swept across the small-and mid-size paper landscape as well, scooping up papers.

    The result? Small dailies that turned into non-local wirecopy rags, one step off from shoppers. Now, nearly 30 years later, the transformation is nearly complete. Non-local ownership and 20-30% shareholder profits means those big supermarket ads and their money is siphoned right out of those communities, and worse, local copy can’t get in, nor can any but the most nominal local coverage.

    I know, cuz I fought in those battlefields. Maybe the local stories aren’t as idiosyncratically written as they were with local correspondents, but young journalism grads also entered communities, became part of them, bought homes, raised their kids there. They weren’t all using the small dailies as stepping stones to major metro dailies.

    And some of us saw the handwriting on the wall a long time ago, and gave up. Corporatization of newspapers, and now the editorial journalistic product as well, has completely taken over.

    Christine Boese
    (sorry, but I just didn’t have time to deal with your site’s obnoxious registration process)

  3. Angie Muhs says:

    I raised the issue of being from a small Midwestern town — in my 20 years of journalism, I’ve been at four papers in four states, none of them near my hometown, which I left at age 18.

    However, I think the issue is whether journalists who aren’t from a community recognize that themselves, and how they respond. One thing I’ve observed – and was guilty of – is that sometimes journalists, especially younger, single ones, tend to hang out mostly with other journalists outside work when they don’t have local ties.

    This time, my husband & I had known for years that we wanted to live in Maine. I’d been reading my paper online for several years before we came here. We’ve made it a point to travel & explore all over the state. I’ve gotten involved in volunteer work and my kid’s school, and we’ve put down roots here. I’ll always be “from away”, but I know that, and my job is to understand & engage w/ my community the best I can.

    I’ve worked with people who hailed from the coverage area, but were indifferent, shallow journalists. And some of the best reporters I’ve worked with weren’t natives.

    Newspapers should consider where an applicant is from, sure. But mostly they should consider who they are.

  4. Could not agree more! I want to go back to my home market of Buffalo, N.Y. more than anything in the world, a place I love and understand like the back of my hand. But not sure if the job opportunity will be there. If only newsrooms hired based on where you were from, I may have a serious shot of returning. That only makes sense too.

    As for Angie’s point though, it depends on the person too. And a journalist should be actively learning about the new community they join if it isn’t one they’re familiar with. Good on you, Angie, for doing your research.

  5. I have a friend who worked for the NY Times as a journalist for 30 years. He said that because he came from the south, he brought that extra edge to the newsroom which brought in more ideas and articles to write about.

    Ambit Energy

  6. Yes you shall get connect to number of people while you are in the Journalism.

    dixons voucher code

  7. says:

    I think newsrooms do in fact hire locally, especially on the TV side. Many reporters are from the area they cover. The stations go out of their way to do this, so they can trumpet how connected they are to the university.

    But I think it actually is to the detriment of most people in this business. Good reporters can get a feel for a new place pretty quickly, especially if management at the station makes them want to stay and become a part of it. But the tendency to hire locally means better reporters are passed over because they’re not from the geographic location, and it makes it more difficult for people from big cities to get their start, because there aren’t entry-level TV reporting jobs in those markets.

  8. Steve Satchit says:

    I totally disagree with your view that ‘Journalism is the business of building communities must hire from within those communities’ for the following reasons:
    First, journalism is defined as a profession involved in newsgathering, newswriting or producing and news dissemination which is underpinned by its ideals of impartiality, diversity, accuracy, timeliness and plurality.

    This traditional journalism is being reshaped with the advent of digital era enabling more and more people to express themselves on news content, and encouraging others to add the discourse by churning out opiniated writings.

    Let journalism be re-enunciated and redefined to emcompass the new media and transcend the ‘Reithian’ view of journalism.

    I have no problem with that. Let’s be clear about this – citizen journalism cannot replace traditional journalism but has the potential to kill it. Who is going to bring you the trusted news from the traditional and reliable sources?

    Secondly, the key-word or perhaps the ‘holy grail ‘ of journalism is objectivity which forever remains a contentious issue in the perception of the consumers.But journalistic profession demands unswerving dedication to objective writing.

    Thirdly, reporting demands the same professional skills and accuracy irrespective of who is originating the stories. If they are subjectively reported from one’s point of view or interest it is stultifies journalism.

    Belonging to an interest group and subscribing to its collectivism or communal environment or activities it is impossible to report about it without colouring your judgement or being influenced. This is treading a dangerous ground. You risk debasing journalism because that is not to close to home to report accurately, if you do report the truth about a negative story you are going to pay the price or excommunicated as a member of that community, if you don’t you are failing in your duties … I don’t think it is the function of journalism. Most importantly, you will not be trusted as a news source without credible news reports.

    If you want to build communities there are many ways for such social networking.

    In all fairness one should refrain from using the concept or the word ‘journalism’ just like you would not use the notion of ‘surgery’ when butchering a carcass to sell meat to the public.

    News reporting demands a professional sense of responsibility and accountability.

  9. Robert, you blog a lot! I just went through the archives from several years ago and I must say, Im impressed with the effort that you put forth in this blog. Keep up the great work!

    Blogging with WordPress

  10. brandon 111 says:

    For More Details Please Visit Me Here

  11. Tom Grubisich says:

    On the hyperlocal news level, it makes good sense to use people from the community. Westport Now, in suburban Connecticut, has been doing that for some years, and with terrific results. Westport Now makes the system work by teaming experienced editors with plugged-in community residents who may need some help, at least initially, to research and frame their stories for online publication.