Earlier this year, when the Village Voice put longtime staff reporter Wayne Barrett out to pasture, and longtime staff reporter Tom Robbins chose to follow him out the door, it was a disheartening reminder of the struggles facing long-form, well-connected, intensely local political reporting in the current media marketplace.
Last week, CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism announced the appointment of Tom Robbins to the newly created position of “Investigative Journalist in Residence”; the news suggests one way, anyway, in which one might make a living as a reporter in this century, and opens up a discussion about some others. Robbins will, according to CUNY, “serve as a general resource to the students and faculty and teach an investigative reporting course in the Urban Reporting concentration… The new course will focus on generating investigative stories for the city’s community and ethnic press, as part of the School’s ongoing commitment to bolstering that segment of the city’s media industry.” I talked to CUNY professor Sarah Bartlett, director of the Urban Reporting program, about the Robbins appointment and local reportage.
First off, the job: like the writer-in-residence at some tony liberal arts college, Robbins will receive a salary for teaching a class while continuing to produce creditable freelance (or possibly book-length) work. Though investigative reporters often teach—there’s a great tradition of mentorship at the Voice, actually, with journalism students gaining valuable experience as research assistants—this is, as far as anybody knows, first instance of a university creating an in-residence position for a reporter.
As for the benefit Robbins will provide to CUNY, Professor Bartlett suggested how he might be, per the press release, a “resource to the students and faculty”: “Already, for instance, there’s a student working on a piece involving potential abuse of a city job, and Robbins’s knowledge of local regulations, obscure but publicly available data and and Freedom of Information Law Techniques will be of value to the student and the professor teaching the class for which that piece was assigned.”
Also of note is CUNY’s emphasis on local reporting. As apps begin to rival search engines as content-delivery systems, and the internet rediscovers the value of original, boring reporting at the expense of reverse-engineered “content,” media companies from AOL to, well, The L, are trying to figure out how to produce valuable local coverage (given the harsh realities of internet-age revenue streams). CUNY’s Urban Reporting concentration, and trumpeting of “investigative stories for the city’s community and ethnic press” suggests a real demand for the kind of reporting Wayne Barrett and Tom Robbins used to produce at the Village Voice, until the budget got too tight. Indeed, Professor Bartlett notes that “given how labor-intensive this work is,” the “resource-starved local and ethnic press” is most in need of the kind of reporting skills CUNY hopes to teach its students. But will they get jobs? How will “the resource-starved local and ethnic press” ever be able to pay its reporters well enough that they don’t have to abandon their journalism careers, break off budding connections with their sources, and get jobs that’ll pay off their J-school loans?
Professor Bartlett suggested that “one way to help these publications have more sustainable business models is to help them produce the kind of hard-hitting, high-impact scoops that differentiate their editorial work from the pack”—that quality will support itself one way or another, either through ads or paywalls or institutional support or Pro Publica-style crowdfunding. (Or perhaps, like AOL’s Patch, it’ll simply be a loss leader.) Perhaps the solution is to rely on freelancers like Tom Robbins, who earn the majority of their rent money from the tuition fees of endless generations of future freelancers.