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January 11, 2013

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Media staff challenges reflect employment concerns in county
 by Lora Whelan

 

     Community news organizations in Washington County face a conundrum shared by many other employers and employees in the county. While newspapers need an educated workforce with some specialized skills usually associated with college degrees, the depressed economy makes it difficult to pay for the skill levels needed. Retention and recruitment of qualified staff can become a barrier to long‑term business success. The 2012 "Measures of Growth" report prepared by the Maine Development Foundation notes that educational attainment of a college degree is associated with higher productivity, better earnings potential, better health and increased employment opportunity, all of which make for a healthy economy and community.
     Four locally‑published newspapers and one radio station in Washington County provide an example of the potential challenges associated with an aging workforce and the difficulty in finding replacements as staff retires. The five news organizations, The Calais Advertiser, The Downeast Coastal Press, Machias Valley News Observer (MVNO) and The Quoddy Tides and radio station WQDY‑WALZ‑WCRQ, employ over 28 staff and countless independent contractors and columnists. The "Measures of Growth" report notes, that with the pending retirement of Maine's large older workforce, the state will need to work hard to provide the right skills to students but also will need to attract people from outside of the state.
      Attracting qualified staff goes hand‑in‑hand with compensation matched to skills. In a depressed economy this matching is not always possible, and in the community newspaper job market salaries have been historically low. A recent vacancy of a combined editor/reporter position at The Calais Advertiser was advertised for $25,000, well below the $30,000 to $40,000 that the "Measures of Growth" report shows as the wage range for those with some college to a bachelor's degree. The $25,000 salary is not unique to the one Washington County newspaper and is in fact shown to be shared by community newspapers around the country.
     The Newspaper Guild notes that nationally small newspapers pay between $20,000 and $30,000. The 2011 U.S. Census has the mean income rate per person in Washington County at $19,500, with 20% living in poverty and with 19% of the population holding a bachelor's degree or higher.
     The "Measures of Growth" report notes that reading levels in the fourth grade are trending downward statewide. The level is a key indicator to future aspirations because students at this level are transitioning from skill‑building to skill‑using or from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." A downward trend has implications for employers and employees across the state as baby boomers begin to retire.

Assessing employer and employee needs
     Surveys about community newspapers suggest that they are highly valued and would be missed if they were to stop doing business. A survey by the Washington County Council of Governments aligns with national surveys that find that over 70% of the nation's citizens get their news from their local papers. While Washington County's four newspapers might seem to be in competition with each other, MVNO Editor Karen Hinson, The Quoddy Tides Editor Edward French and WQDY President Bill McVicar don't see it that way. McVicar says, "Each one has a different area. It works well for the county." Hillary Savage, an MVNO editor and reporter, agrees: "Washington County is unique in that we have four." She adds, "There's something very precious about community news." Hinson comments, "All the weeklies C it's a real benefit to the communities."
     However, the recent departure of editor and reporter Marla Hoffman from The Calais Advertiser after six months in the position points to a growing concern in the county's community news world about recruitment and retention in the future. Hoffman explains that while moving to Calais from Connecticut took some adjusting, "I really liked it. It fit well for me." But she was presented with another opportunity that as a single woman she did not feel she could turn down. "I'm a young reporter, 29; my whole career is ahead of me. I hate to leave so soon, but I need to think about opportunities to further my career." She has since left to work in Augusta for The Kennebec Journal. Hoffman was not unfamiliar with Washington County, having attended the University of Maine at Machias (UMM), summered in Roque Bluffs and been part of a family with deep roots in the Machias area.
     Savage, too, has roots Downeast. She grew up on Great Cranberry Island and moved to Ellsworth with her family to attend high school, which is not available on the island. She then attended UMM and graduated with a degree in creative writing and book arts. Savage likes the Machias area, but says, "Being a young person in Washington County -- this is where I wanted to be, but almost couldn't be." She worked at Hannaford for a little over a year but admits that it was not a career path she wanted to follow for very long. She feels fortunate to have landed a part‑time reporter position at the MVNO that then transitioned into an editor/reporter position. The salary is a strain, she notes, as a single householder with student loans to repay. "If I were to want to own a house it would be nearly impossible," she adds. And there is the lack of social amenities that most in their 20s enjoy: coffee shops, bookstores, live music venues and a movie theater. Long-term thoughts about settling down and financial security are on her radar, but not enough to persuade her to set her sights on a different professional location for now.

Recruiting and retaining a younger workforce
     Community news organizations will need to attract a younger workforce because of the challenges of an aging workplace demographic. It's not that the aging workforce itself is the problem. As Hinson says, "They have a great work ethic." But with four staff either near or over retirement age, she grapples with how to replace them. The Quoddy Tides staff has an average tenure of over 20 years, and McVicar notes that his staff has an average tenure of 10 years. "Part of my goal is to get younger bodies in here. I have three now," says Hinson. The "Measures of Growth" report states, "A large number of older workers from across Maine's economy are approaching retirement and will take with them considerable experience and institutional knowledge."
     However, attracting a younger workforce gets back to the catch‑22 of expectations and wages. News coverage work involves long hours, weekends and nights, with tight deadlines, travel costs that are not always compensated and benefits that can be scarce. Dr. Mark Kelley, program director of journalism at Husson University's New England School of Communications, explains that community journalism is a valuable asset. In his work with students he urges them to consider starting their careers in such venues, with the hope that as they learn on the job some will begin to understand how rewarding such a career can be. "There's salary and then there's the reward of professional life."
     Hinson notes that there is now a culture of immediate gratification in the workforce. "I've said to new reporters starting out that if you were a part of the White House press corps you'd probably be bored too." She adds that good reporters know that covering the endless meetings and reporting on them well is a valuable service.
     Hoffman says, "In order to be successful in this field you have to love what you do. No one comes to this for the money. This needs to be stressed to people coming into the field -- and the crazy hours." She adds, "We need to sell it more." Savage explains that through her work at the newspaper she has made many connections and friends. "That's exciting." Along with that feeling of belonging is her growing awareness of the value of community news. They are "little gems that don't really exist in dailies and larger formats like CNN. It's unique. You're not just the reporter. It's really interesting to see the workings of a small town and be making a difference." Kelley says, "I really think that a hard‑driving local reporter can often do a better job and does more useful work" for communities than national news outlets.

Economy drives ability to recruit
     Compounding the recruitment problem is the combination of a depressed local economy with the skill sets needed for reporters, editors, copy editors and graphic designers. They are skills associated with college degrees: a good understanding of writing and grammar, analytical and problem-solving skills and the discipline needed to work long, fast‑paced hours. Edward French, editor and publisher of The Quoddy Tides, has the longest tenure in such a position in the county's news network, having taken on the editor mantle in 1986 and that of publisher in 1995. The local economy's role in compensation "has an impact on what our revenue is and what we're able to pay. It's all a part of a cycle," he says. "We're not able to offer salaries that people may think they should expect."
     However, French echoes Savage when he says that the pros can help balance out the cons if small communities and news organizations are properly marketed. "I wish that journalism schools and colleges would change their focus some about what journalism is about and emphasize to a greater degree the importance of and rewards that come with community journalism... that instead of just focusing on practices of journalism they would expand their focus on how the philosophy of journalism could serve better to strengthen communities." He adds, "I've gotten so tired of journalism emphasizing crime and the foibles of human nature rather than emphasizing how we can build up communities." Kelley is not far behind: "I'm increasingly disillusioned with national [news] folks."
     Community newspapers play an important role in their communities, but they also play an important role in the larger network of all news outlets. An article in the American Journal Review, "Vacancies in Vacaville," notes that as small weeklies struggle to replace and retain younger employees, the critical role that such newspapers play as a stepping stone for novice journalists is threatened. Tim Porter, associate director of Tomorrow's Workforce, writes, "It is precisely newspapers such as the Daily Home, the Vacaville Reporter and all the others covering the thousands of Possum Trots, U.S.A., that nourish this system. If they can't hire, the chain breaks apart."
     Solutions, Hinson says, may lie in collaborations between county newspapers with reporter sharing. They may also lie in a renewal of apprenticeships and internships, something that Savage believes in strongly as a way for students and out‑of‑work adults to build skills, resumés and writing samples. Getting the message out to high schools, combined with small scholarships to students going on to journalism programs -- something that McVicar supports at WQDY C may also help. Along the way those students and adults might begin to realize the benefits of small communities. French says, "When you work as a reporter you're out in the community. You hear many different stories and establish a lot of connections that bind you into that community so that you feel a part of it."
     But until the economy reaches a certain level, compensation will continue to lag behind skill levels. McVicar notes that the issue is not just recruiting one individual but building up opportunities for families so that the entire economy and culture benefit. He says, "Recruitment and retention all come down to the economy."

January 11, 2013     (Home)     

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