When he was still the managing editor for this newspaper, Ray Holley, had a hand lettered sign on a piece of cardboard like you’d see in the hands of a homeless person on a street corner. His sign read: “Will write for food.” He meant it is a visual joke but he also intended to impart a message that local journalists need to get paid. Holley has moved on and, like two other of his predecessor managing editors, is now working in the public sector and getting paid with taxpayer funds.
Meanwhile, the current editors and reporters at this newspaper and Sonoma West Publishers’ other three community papers still write for food. Just like there’s no such thing as a free lunch, local news doesn’t come free either. That is why we are changing our website pay model to limit how much news we still share at no cost.
Nobody forced us to become journalists so why do we do it? Newspaper work offers low wages and poor job security. Every week we read about another newspaper closing or a newsroom staff being cut in half. We face more criticism and pressure than ever before. We are called the “enemy of the people” by our president and others. We face increased local demands, too, on our resources and time. When we fail to report all sides of a story we are quickly accused of being biased, instead of just overworked. If we miss publishing a press release from a local group or business we get verbally bludgeoned even as the same group or business just bought an ad in another newspaper but not with us.
We dutifully cover local teacher strikes where there are demands for wages and pay increases sometimes double what we make. Yet local journalists are expected to know as much about local school budgets as school board members and superintendents. (Entry level reporters earn $15 an hour here.)
Why do we do it? Because the truth is, if we did not have to eat to stay alive, we would write for free. We care. We care about our community and all its members even when we are not asked to. We can’t help ourselves. Being a journalist is like that. It’s a “calling” like being a cop or a preacher except police are paid with taxes and preachers get to pass a collection plate every Sunday.
Imagine if doctors didn’t get paid and carried signs that read, “Will heal for food.” Instead of having insurance payments or co-pays, what if doctors had to sell advertising to keep their medical office doors open and their nurse assistants paid? Most doctors we know also answered a “calling” and couldn’t imagine doing anything else with their lives except to heal the injured and cure the sick. Lucky for them our society says they deserve to be well-paid.
Journalists also heal the injured and afflicted and we seek to cure sicknesses that threaten open government, social justice, equal rights or fair play. Journalists don’t have blood in their veins. Instead we have ink and we bleed for the public’s right to know. We bleed and we work too hard even when nobody notices or keeps attacking us.
We tell as many local stories as we can because that is how a local community gets to know itself and define its problems and ambitions. Doctors heal our physical bodies while preachers and teachers care for our minds and souls. Police and government leaders make and defend the laws. Journalists do all of the above.
In these times at newspapers, journalists are seeking to do much more than just write for food. We are trying to figure out how to save our jobs. We know our food gets paid from newspaper advertising and reader subscriptions. It’s either more of that or we start passing the collection plate on Sundays.
— Rollie Atkinson