Who Said Local Muckraking is Dead?
A new generation of non-traditional reporters and start-ups dare to suggest the graveyard rumors are overstated.
By Thomas Maier
In Boston, the wise-cracking Haley Hamilton serves up cocktails to support her reporting work for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, including a sobering six-month investigation into the politics of state liquor licenses. In New Mexico, after watching the collapse of her local daily, Julie Ann Grimm joined a Santa Fe website that depends on donations to conduct in-depth government reporting. And in New Orleans, journalists like Gordon Russell — disaffected after a series of layoffs and down-sizing at the longtime daily owned by the billionaire Newhouse family — join an upstart challenger called The Advocate which this year won a Pulitzer Prize.
The three present different faces of the same new breed of journalist — one battered by the sharp decline of traditional print newspapers during the past decade, but determined to find innovative ways to keep an eye on government and other important institutions vital to democracy. On their shoulders rests the uncertain fate local journalism.
Some are baby-boom veterans who found or created new jobs after being laid off. But many are millennials who are pursuing journalism without illusion, working at and often launching web start-ups, nonprofit foundations and alternative print publications. Each face their own career obstacles and financial difficulties. All endure a constant struggle to inform their fellow citizens about their schools, health care, environment and City Hall in an era of public distrust and diminished resources. For many, journalism has become more a vocation of high ideals and low wages, rather than the cushy upper-middle-class profession it was for those employed by media conglomerates a generation ago.
“People under 35 are getting shafted left and right, and it’s up to us to hold people accountable,” says Hamilton, 31, with the fervor typical of this generation of reporters. Last year, Hamilton earned half of her $45,000 total income by bartending.
Keeping local journalism alive often means making personal sacrifices such as long hours in day jobs or second careers. “I believe in journalism — we want to keep an eye on what the government…