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Why being a community newspaper reporter is too easy

July 13, 2012

God knows I’ve moaned enough about different aspects of community journalism, but I think it’s time to admit something: being a reporter or editor at a community paper can be pretty damn easy.

Now there are the usual caveats: we often have to work irregular hours, deal with difficult people (including difficult colleagues), and adhere to strict and inflexible deadlines; the future of community newspapering only looks half-decent because we compare it to the state of daily newspapers, which are dying quicker than the hopes of Toronto Maple Leafs fans in spring; our newsrooms are often dark holes filled with obsolete equipment; our budgets are nil and our pay middling.

But despite all that, community journalism is easy and usually low-stress.

This is a problem, of a sort. But if it’s not easy, that’s also a problem, because it kind of should be.

If you find the basics of the job hard, you’re probably new. Because after you have written a couple hundred stories, the next thousand become blindingly easy to write. Finding them can be difficult, depending on the day, but there is usually something to fill that hole.

And when it comes down to community newspapers, it is all about filling holes—or at least it can be, if you’re not careful.

(Another note: All this is not to discount the fact that finding a full-time, permanent job may be extremely difficult; in fact, it may be one of the reasons that very good reporters often can’t find work.)

This job is easy because it’s exceedingly rare for reporters and editors to be dismissed because they’re not good enough. Sure, the three I’s—idiocy, incompetence and insubordination—may be enough to get you fired. But if you’re an OK reporter or editor, you’re not going to be replaced by a good reporter or editor.

And that is what makes this job easy. If you are a good reporter, it is easy to work at an OK level and not tax yourself. If you’re a fair reporter, it’s still not that hard.

Lead, explanatory paragraph, human element, quote, repeat. That’s all you’ve got to do.

It’s up to editors, of course, to get a high quality product out of their writers. But editors are often just as guilty of taking the easy way out as their reporters. It’s up to publishers to get their editors to produce good content. But many publishers don’t seem to care about the actual editorial content of their paper. And the bosses at the chains don’t—can’t—read all their papers enough to enforce high standards they don’t have in the first place.

So in the end a paper’s editorial quality can only be as good as each of its journalists are willing to make it.

It’s easy for an editor to accept his or her staff’s writing as good enough. It’s more difficult—especially when head offices always want to focus on online shovelwork—to actually work with those reporters to improve their writing and news-gathering skills.

It’s also easy for a reporter—especially one who (probably justifiably) doesn’t envision a career at a daily newspaper—to bang out stories quickly and spend the rest of their time surfing the Internet. God knows I’m not all that innocent on that front. Filing freedom of information requests, spending hours with interview subjects, and polishing a story until it shines aren’t nearly as soothing.

The payoff, though, for taking the difficult route is, well, not as clear.

It’s sure the fuck not bonuses or pay hikes. Sometimes the payoffs come in the form of awards and half-decent free meals. But more often your hard work will get the exact same reception as your half-assed work.

And yet, taking the easy way out is just too easy.

And there are some rewards, lame as they may sound. Making your job a little bit more difficult WILL improve your skills and—maybe not today, maybe not this year or even next—eventually lead to something good: a story you can hang on your wall, a shiny award you’ve never won, a sense of accomplishment, or a positive public response.

Failing all that, just be guilty. Be guilty that you have a job and occupy a position that might otherwise be filled by somebody who would work hard and—maybe not now, but probably down the road—contribute a hell of a lot more than your lazy ass.

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