I went to the Oakland Book Festival last weekend. While I thought the panels and talks I went to were very good, the name is misleading. This event is really the Oakland Ideas Festival.
Very few of the program items focused on books, authors, or literature. There was a poetry reading, but otherwise the only readings were for children. Even the programs that featured fiction writers – there were a couple of them – didn’t include readings.
As a writer, I was disappointed that the festival doesn’t do more to promote books and authors, especially local authors. But since I’m also an idea junkie, I had a good time.
A panel called “Free Press and Fake News,” with Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery, The Nation senior editor Sarah Leonard, The Intercept deputy editor Roger Hodge, and East Bay Express editor Nick Miller, left me chewing over a lot of ideas.
Two things in particular caught my attention. The first was that there has been a forty percent drop in the number of journalists in recent years. That’s mostly because there’s been a drop in the number of newspapers as well as a tendency by the ones that remain to reduce the size of their staffs and “do more with less” – that absurd idea of modern management.
What this has meant is that there are many fewer reporters covering state government – not just state legislatures, but also the many agencies of state government, some of which are very powerful. Worse than that, there are many fewer people covering city councils, school boards, and other local government entities, especially in smaller towns.
The Washington Post’s current motto is “Democracy dies in the dark.” That’s true on the local level as well as on the national one.
As I may have said before, I was practically born on a copy desk. My mother always said she wasn’t the first woman copy editor on the Houston Chronicle, but she was the first pregnant woman on the copy desk. When I worked on the Chronicle as a copy girl one summer, I worked with people who had known me before I was born.
My parents started each day by reading the paper and commenting on it in detail. I grew up learning not just to read the news, but to parse it, to analyze the editorial decisions that went into making up the paper, to question things. That means I grew up understanding journalism with all its flaws, while still believing in the absolute importance of thorough reporting as part of our democratic system.
I still believe in that.
It occurred to me while listening to this panel that the most important thing someone who is interested in journalism could do right now is to move to place with no serious newspaper and start one. If done as an online venture it could be done on the cheap. And I have noticed that there are a number of non-profit news outlets doing great work these days. There’s no reason you couldn’t fund local news that same way; some people already do this. Of course, it would be a hell of a lot of work and there wouldn’t be much money in it even if you did get some grants.
People who’ve retired from bigger papers and have a little pension or a severance package are in a position to do this, but it would also be good if some younger people would create their own jobs this way.
Of course, for those without much experience, there aren’t enough small papers out there where aspiring journalists can build their skills before starting their own pubs. I mean, it takes the guidance of a good editor to learn how to cover a city council or police station. The only answer I have to that is that folks should study journalism at a good school that also publishes a good student newspaper.
My alma mater, the University of Texas, and its superb student paper, The Daily Texan (where I worked when I was in school), come to mind, but I’m sure there are others. Obviously, the best choices are state schools with modest tuition (if there are any left), since you’re not going to make a lot of money doing real journalism. Also it would probably be good to pick up some tech skills while you’re at it.
My parents started their own paper forty-five years ago – with a print pub, since that was pre-internet. They each had twenty-five to thirty years of experience when they did it, and they were fed up with working for the Houston newspapers. They started a weekly in our small town (which was fast becoming a suburb) and then did two more companion papers in nearby communities.
They were hell on wheels when it came to covering city councils, school boards, and water districts, and smart enough to make sure they also got lots of photos of high school sports. They were also stony-cold broke – so broke that my father made most of his drinking money by doing a bit of low key pool sharking at a local bar. (Old guy wearing trifocals, how good could he be?)
Fortunately, my father also figured out how to run a newspaper business office and got some good ad clients, because they sold the paper for a nice chunk of change and were able to retire. Unfortunately, without their passion behind it, the news coverage went to hell after it was sold. But at least I didn’t have to support them in their old age.
The financial side of all this brings me to the second thing the panelists said that stuck with me. They all said, “Subscribe.” The advertising model doesn’t work well any more. They need the money.
I see this repeated everywhere: pay for the news or we won’t get any. And while I think that’s a good idea, it’s also true that most of us can’t afford to pay for all the different publications we’d like to have access to. So it’s still a difficult situation.
It reminded me a lot of the Patreon program that many fiction writers and other artists (and probably some freelance journalists) are using to bring in income these days. The changing landscape of publishing, just like the changing landscape of journalism, is making people come up with creative ways to getting paid.
Of course, there are only so many artists one can afford to support. But clearly it’s a time for creating new ways of paying people to bring us news and insights, whether they’re reporters or scholars or artists.
Thinking about the similarities between journalists and fiction writers when it comes to making a living made the Festival resonate with me. It was a good event.
But it still wasn’t about books.