An email arrived today that illustrates why I remain optimistic about journalism despite being worried to death about its future.
It started last week, when I asked my journalism students at the University at Albany to read the work of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner of their choice and email the writer some questions. Four students chose the investigative work of Eric Eyre of the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette-Mail, who won, as explained on pulitzer.org, “For courageous reporting, performed in the face of powerful opposition, to expose the flood of opioids flowing into depressed West Virginia counties with the highest overdose death rates in the country.”
Today, Eyre sent me this email: “Hi Barbara: Just trying to figure out the best way to answer these questions from your students. Our paper filed for bankruptcy last week and things are a bit hectic right now.”
This Pulitzer assignment was intended to inspire the next generation of reporters, not scare them into public relations.
Niraj Chokshi summed up the situation in a Feb. 2 New York Times story about the bankruptcy: “For decades, The Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia has exposed corruption, greed and incompetence with a tenacity that was rewarded last year with journalism’s highest honor, a Pulitzer Prize. But the newspaper now faces a painful reality: No matter how strong its journalism, no publication is immune to the economic pressure on the industry.”
Don’t I know it. My heart aches as the hedge fund that owns my hometown paper continues to squeeze the life out of the newsroom I managed for more than 30 years. Granted, we didn’t win a Pulitzer. But in 2017 the East Bay Times in Oakland, Calif., owned by the same fund, did – for exposing the city’s culpability in a fire that killed 36 people. Yet the staff there is also shrinking through buyouts and layoffs.
Journalists are doing awesome work at every level, not to win awards but to give voice to the disadvantaged, the overlooked, the ordinary citizen. Doing that takes people to report the news, owners committed to journalism, and a public willing to pay for it.
Chokshi’s article offers hope that the expected buyer of the Gazette-Mail will continue to invest in its newsroom. Meanwhile, as Eyre and his colleagues wait uncertainly for what’s next, he told the Times, “The news goes on, and we’re there to cover it.”
Yet with all that going on, a thoughtful Eyre still found time to reach out to me, concerned about responding to a handful of college students 600 miles away in upstate New York. That’s class. So, while I worry about the business of journalism, I’m not worried about future journalists – not with people like Eyre to inspire them.