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The Shoestring Participates in Local News Shoptalk Conference

Co-editor Brian Zayatz traveled to Eden Prairie, MN to convene with fellow nonprofit outlets.

By Brian Zayatz

Late last year, The Shoestring advisory board member Alice Dreger, founder of Michigan’s East Lansing Info, a local news publication, realized during a conversation with Steve Schewe, Publisher of Eden Prairie Local News, that their organizations faced many of the same hurdles. 

This realization inspired the organization of a “local news shoptalk gathering,” hosted in Eden Prairie, MN during the weekend of February 24-26. Dreger and Schewe secured funding for the conference courtesy of the Institute for Nonprofit News and a generous anonymous donor and began inviting peer outlets — nonprofit newsrooms founded in the last ten years with coverage areas of less than 100,000 people — from across the Northeast and Midwest. The final roster included their own outlets, The Shoestring, North News from northern Minneapolis, The Red Hook Daily Catch from New York’s Hudson Valley, and NancyonNorwalk, from Connecticut.The Shoestring is a member of INN. 

The expertise that Dreger brings to her advisory role with The Shoestring was sufficient to convince us that attendance at this conference would be time well spent. Though my flight was grounded for a night in Milwaukee, I still caught the latter half of day one and all of day two, and came away impressed at what can be accomplished in a short time when nonprofit outlets come together in the spirit of collaboration and sharing experiences.

The first day was organized around three discussion topics: demonstrating positive impact, improving organizational resilience, and ensuring financial health. The sessions were expertly moderated by Eden Prairie local Fred Baumer. Each topic was then revisited the following day, with a larger group including more reporters and stakeholders from Eden Prairie and the Minneapolis metro area, as well as representatives from INN. For each topic, we reviewed together the agreements and ongoing issues raised during Saturday’s discussions, then at small tables of mixed company, discussed a question crafted by Baumer, Schewe and Dreger.

Below are some of the key takeaways I am bringing back from this weekend, as well as some thoughts about how they might influence The Shoestring’s plans for the future. As the three topics of discussion had a fair amount of overlap, my observations are not organized in this way.

The Shoestring is a comparatively young organization and relies comparatively little on donated time. Several participants wondered aloud over the course of the weekend at how to attract young people to this work. This has never been an issue for us: the editors and writers that make The Shoestring run are solidly millennial. In fact, we have often wondered the opposite: how do we attract elders to join in our work? 

The other outlets at the conference rely significantly on donated time, largely from retirees or people from single-income households. While this is obviously an asset to these organizations, it also raises other issues: when a volunteer role starts creeping into full-time territory, it can lead to burnout and big holes in an organization if someone decides to reduce their workload.

It is not a point of pride to us to refuse volunteer labor: the fact is, we have never been offered much and haven’t sought it. However, we are proud to have done our best to pay the people who make The Shoestring as close to a fair wage as possible. With a clearer picture of the way our peer organizations utilize volunteer labor, we will be exploring this possibility with renewed interest in the future. If you or someone you know has spare time on their hands and skills in bookkeeping, business planning, web development, writing, or anything else you think could be relevant, shoot us an email!

The Shoestring’s staffing and output is in the neighborhood of our peers. This is important because several outlets shared issues of unsustainable growth leading to cuts to services, which of course is ideal neither for the outlet nor the community it serves. The Shoestring has grown relatively slowly and steadily over our five years of operation, and while it is tempting to look at a case like VTDigger, who have grown to cover the entire state of Vermont with over two dozen reporters in a little over a decade, a success story at this scale is complemented by far more stories of rapid expansion followed by contraction or collapse. These discussions served as a potent reminder that shoring up existing coverage and making sure those who produce it are adequately supported is always a good use of time and resources.

Local news is community work. I was highly impressed by the numerous and creative ways our peer outlets had of showing up in their communities. Admittedly, this is something we need to work on! You may know that we’re covering an event, or how to reach us with a tip or a question, but having a visible, physical presence improves our responsiveness to existing readers and gets us in front of new ones.

But just as importantly, participating in this conference has highlighted the importance of collaboration among similarly situated outlets. Taking time to zoom out and understand the work we do in regional and national contexts opens the door for sharing wisdom and innovations gained through doing this work, and for bringing an ecosystem-level lens to our local contexts. How can we avoid competition between organizations who want to see better local news coverage everywhere? What are trends to watch out for in funding cycles, and how can we prepare for them? Are there ways for us to share resources and advocate for ourselves together as a group? We could only begin to touch on questions like this in one weekend, but we feel compelled to build our capacity to revisit them together more often.

We need to stress more to our communities that local news is critically important and not free. As one attendee pointed out, local news is the same work as national news, but for less pay and with different psychological costs: after all, the people we report on are our neighbors. We all agreed that cases where you can point to direct, causal impacts of reporting are few and far between, but impact can take many different forms, from increases in civic engagement, to highlighting stories that simply never would have been brought to light by other outlets. So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to practice my pitch, right here, right now.

One way to think of our job is to be our community’s long memory. Two pieces we’ve published recently have reminded me of this fact. The first is our coverage of Hotel Northampton owner Mansour Ghalibaf’s bid for a tax break to redevelop the former Gazette lot into a new hotel. It is not terribly difficult to go to city council and find out that this is happening, but thankfully, our reporter Dusty Christensen who did just this also happened to remember back to 2015, when Ghalibaf successfully quashed unionization efforts at the Hotel Northampton through classic union-busting tactics like captive-audience meetings. (Ghalibaf has since withdrawn his request for a tax break).

In another recent piece from Christensen, we learn of a lawsuit against two Northampton Police officers over an alleged excessive use of force. It was important to us to name the defendants in the suit, for the reason that finding these records is onerous for those who do not know where to look for them. Creating this readily accessible historical record makes it easier for people in our community to have fully informed opinions about what our public servants are up to, and identify how isolated incidents start to add up into a bigger picture.

So it is not just that our donors are paying to send someone to a meeting and write about it. What you pay for when you donate to The Shoestring is the long memory, the development of expertise in finding information, the editing to ensure we are being factual, clear, and fair, and web hosting and social media posting to make sure people can find this information. In bringing to light events, trends, and perspectives that have too often been excluded from traditional reporting, we hope that the work we do is a resource for those who want our shared community to be as just and fair as possible.

We don’t publish many updates like this, but we felt this one was important in demonstrating that we love the work we do, and we hope we get to do it for years to come. If you’re not yet a recurring donor for The Shoestring, we invite you to become one, and if you already are, we invite you to consider if you can increase your monthly donation. We look forward to keeping in touch with you all as we continue developing our long term plans, because you are who makes this work possible.

Brian Zayatz is a co-editor at The Shoestring. Image: Eden Prairie Local News.

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