An hour before Pittsburgh hosted a national conference last month called The First Amendment for the Twenty-First Century, protestors gathered a few blocks away on the steps of the Allegheny County Courthouse.
The family, friends and supporters of Antwon Rose were leading a public rally to draw attention to the fact that two days earlier, an East Pittsburgh police officer had shot and killed unarmed Rose, 17, in the back.
Here was a group of people exercising their rights of free assembly. All around them, reporters exercised their rights of free press.
That scene has stayed with me in recent weeks, as protests have continued across the region — and as journalists have wrestled with how to cover this story fairly and accurately in real-time.
That moment also inspired this new project: A regular column about — and for — the Pittsburgh media.
I’d already been thinking about writing an ongoing column about the tough and even unprecedented challenges facing journalists today — and the many inspiring and interesting new projects journalists are starting across our region.
I had approached NEXTpittsburgh founder and publisher Tracy Certo and she liked the idea. Days later, Antwon Rose was shot, the media were scrambling and reporting conflicting accounts. Tracy and managing editor Melissa Rayworth asked me to start my column with this piece.
We are all passionate in our belief that strong journalism is essential to a strong community.
Together, we talked with The Heinz Endowments, and they agreed to fund the project because the city needs a place to talk about the vital and often unrecognized role journalists play in our community and the importance of making sure that work is done with the highest standards.
Across western Pennsylvania and throughout our nation, journalists hold power accountable in government, business and areas of privilege. And they speak up for those who don’t have a public voice of their own. We’ve seen it in the Rose case as reporters have worked hard to uncover the truth, to present the views of protestors, to hold the police officer accountable and to apologize when they made mistakes.
They do all this on behalf of the people — not, as President Trump would have you believe, as “the enemy of the people.”
Or, as a reporter for the Annapolis Capital Gazette said the day after a disgruntled reader blasted his way into the newsroom and killed five people last month: “We are not the enemy. We are you.”
It’s worth noting that journalists have struggled as their industry has changed dramatically over the past decade. For more than a century, people paid to read their local newspaper and businesses advertised in the paper. The internet changed all of that. The two-year period from 2007 to 2009 was a tipping point: More than 100 newspapers closed, revenues dropped by a third and 12,000 journalists lost or left their jobs, according to the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The cuts have continued from there.
Locally, newspaper subscriptions have cratered. The Tribune-Review stopped publishing a newspaper in Pittsburgh in 2016, and it closed the McKeesport Daily News the year before. The Post-Gazette recently announced that it will stop publishing two days a week, starting in August. For the first time in at least a century, Pittsburgh will no longer have a printed daily newspaper.
Fewer hardworking people reporting the news can mean that fewer questions get asked, fewer community problems get tackled and fewer people have accurate information as they make decisions and cast votes.
But good things are happening too. PublicSource and WESA are building up their newsrooms with foundation support, and media startups are taking root such as The Incline, East End Print and Gazette 2.0 in McKees Rocks. Vital community newspapers like the New Pittsburgh Courier are fighting to stay afloat.
These and the many other journalists in Pittsburgh are my people. And they’re yours, too.
Two years ago, Point Park University gave me an opportunity to do something new as director of the Center for Media Innovation, a startup funded by the Allegheny Foundation with a $2.5 million grant. We have created a laboratory for experimenting on the future of journalism while preparing the next generations of storytellers. We ask difficult questions about using new technologies — and about how to pay journalists. Better yet, we work with journalists and residents in local communities, and in this column I’ll be telling you more about that.
We will tell stories behind the stories, about the people who cover our communities and what it takes to do their jobs. We will hold journalists accountable when they make mistakes, and celebrate their successes when they score big and small victories for the public good. We will also address gaps in coverage that can happen in this era of fewer working reporters and shrinking editorial staffs: What stories aren’t being told?
Above all, we will help you, the public, have a bigger voice in your own story. We want to hear your concerns and your questions. We want to know what you love about community journalism, and we want to know when you think journalists have missed a big story or simply gotten the story wrong. Reach me at [email protected]. And look for my media column here in NEXTpittsburgh every couple of weeks.