Beyond the Column Inch: Inaugural Post

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“Beyond the Column Inch” is published regularly on Facebook and appears here a few days after publication. To read the latest column as soon as it is published, like or follow Matthew Keys on Facebook by clicking or tapping here.

Fifteen years ago is when I launched my first blog.

Photo by Matthew Keys

It was a small step toward a career that has, at times, treated me well and at other times caused me some heartache. The best relationships are like that, though, and overall I find myself pretty lucky that — given the odds that were against me then, and again now — I’m still able to find people who trust me enough to open up so I can tell their stories.

The blog that I launched more than a decade ago was arguably a self-serving move: It was a way for me to write, practice my storytelling skills and offer up little soliloquies on life to anyone who wanted to read them. My audience was mostly comprised of people from my high school who either knew me or knew of me along with other gay teenagers from around the world who, like me, sought community and refuge on the Internet.

Every now and then, I look back at the output and wish I could still write the way I did then: From the heart, fingers to keyboard with no filter between my brain and my hands. More of than not, what popped up on the screen was the dramatic ramblings of someone who thought they had a lot of life experience but really had more living to go. The dramatics yielded dramatics, and today the collated posts would read more like the printed version of a reality series that was produced by the train wreck star of the show. That, I can honestly say, I don’t miss.

But that blog, and the ones that eventually followed, were important. While what I had for lunch or who I was dating at the time may not have been groundbreaking journalism, it did pave the way for me to refine my storytelling skills that would allow me to produce impactful stories of importance later on. A blog I kept on local media affairs led to my first job with a television station in Sacramento — the 20th largest television market in the country — at a news operation where I was sometimes younger than our interns. I was 21, ambitious, young and still had a lot to learn. What I learned there was a crash course in how news outlets can also be ambitious, led by young people who thought they understood how the world operated but really still had a lot to learn.

Things are changing a little bit now. Those determined young people have found a voice that transcends social media and established media. They still have a lot to learn, but not a lot of time in the day to do it — they’re learning by doing, which is basically the same way I learned, and the amplification their voice is given means that the dopamine rush they get when they break a major story, land a scoop or tweet something that goes viral is just as heavy as the criticism, backlash and scorn when they make the occasional mistake. It also means that the conditioning of values and ethics that was once a tenant of responsible and reliable journalism may not be fully realized — or in some cases, completely excused for the exchange of clicks and ratings.

The warning signs of where this new trend will lead to are there, and there’s not a thing I or anyone else in the industry can say to slow it down or stop it. But it’s arguably better than how the industry used to treat young, ambitious reporters: As intern material until they “cut their teeth.” Their ideas were ignored, they were often condescended to, and only the strong managed to survive. I would argue that we’re in a better place because we’re more receptive to those thoughts and ideas, but I would also argue that finding a balance between moving quickly and slowing down is something that is desperately needed these days.

Slowing down is something I recognized a long time ago I needed to do — not just for my position in the industry, but also for myself. Early on in my career, my goal was to move forward and move upward, and I did: I went from Sacramento to San Francisco to New York, the latter being the largest media market in the country and one of the largest in the world. There, I worked for Thomson Reuters, and often I would ask myself what I was going to do next. After a series of life corrections that saw me working as a freelancer, writing for my own websites, building out a volunteer-based fact-checking digital newsroom and taking a government-imposed sabbatical, I took a job at a small newspaper in California — and that feels like the best move I’ve made in a while.

The newspaper where I work, the Winters Express, covers the small community of Winters, California, a city located in Yolo County about 45 minutes outside of Sacramento. When the publisher approached me in the spring about a position at the paper, I quickly accepted the chance to interview. At the interview, I was cautioned that the pace of the paper was a bit slower than what I might be accustom to at other newsrooms and that I may find myself assigned to stories that wouldn’t exactly be considered groundbreaking at other publications. In one interview, the example was used that the biggest story of that week involved the death of a much-beloved cat that was adopted by the patrons of a local coffee house (the circumstances of which provoked a strong condemnation from readers of the paper). This, the interviewer said, was the kind of story that may not be important in other cities, but it was important in Winters. I was also cautioned to not be as aggressive as I might otherwise be covering other topics in other areas — Winters is a small town, and everyone knows everyone.

It has been four months since I took on my role at the newspaper covering matters of importance to both the city and the county, and it has been one of the most-enjoyable and most-rewarding experiences of my career. Though colleagues in other major cities who still follow me on Twitter and Facebook may scoff at the thought of having to cover a city council meeting, it has been encouraging to hear the feedback from readers that stories on topics like recent water rate increases or comments made by a local politician on a state climate change initiative were impactful.

The one thing I still miss — that I’ve missed for a while now — is writing in a format where I could lay out my thoughts and ideas on what’s going on around me. What kept me from doing it in Sacramento, San Francisco or New York was the question of whether or not it was appropriate to opine on matters given the positions I was in at corporate media outlets. More often than not, those companies want to control the narrative, and that means allowing a spokesperson to comment or opine on what the company is doing. That’s understandable, but it meant taking a job on condition of relinquishing any ability to have a voice on what goes on in the company expressing some thoughts and opinions on it.

The Express is a little different. A few weeks ago, I mentioned to my boss that I was going to use my social platforms (primarily Twitter and Facebook) to start covering news on California-based topics. I relaunched a news-based Twitter feed into the California Brief, which has quietly been publishing aggregated stories from local newspapers, radio and TV stations and will later include a companion newsletter that collates the best journalism from across the Golden State. The same is true for my personal Twitter feed, though there are times when I’ll cover breaking news from around the world (such as the recent gas explosions in the Boston area). On this Facebook page, as you may have noticed, there’s a renewed focus on sharing California-based stories that are expected to generate a discussion. On all three feeds, there is a heavy emphasis on local reporting over using news wires or aggregates.

In addition with the refocused feeds, I’m launching a new explanatory series called Beyond the Column Inch (A “column inch” refers to a unit of measurement used by newspapers in measuring the size of a piece of content like a story, a photo or an advertisement — you can read more about them here). Beyond will be a recurring series, published irregularly, where I’ll offer some insight as to how I newsgather and report for the paper, for social platforms and elsewhere (I accepted the job at the Express on condition that I could continue to freelance, though I haven’t written for anyone other than myself since accepting the job). Beyond will offer more insight into what it takes to build a paper on a weekly basis, from gathering information for stories to writing articles and the eventual publishing of those pieces in the paper and online. Beyond will also offer more transparency into what the day-to-day role of a newspaper reporter is like, including nurturing relationships with sources and attempting to navigate the exploding pace of news in the industry.

Is it self-serving? Yes, to a degree. But hopefully it also serves our audience at the paper and my audience elsewhere a little better in providing a level of transparency and insight into the process: The public’s expectation of how news is both made and supported sometimes doesn’t align with the reality of the job or the industry, and my hope is that Beyond will make things a bit more clear and maybe eventually influence some great changes.

Part of that commitment to explanation and transparency starts with the acknowledgement that we are not perfect. This piece, for example, may not be perfect — it was written late at night when I’m very tired and looking forward to going to bed, and I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say I’m trying to wrap things up right now so I can finish up some other things and log off for the evening. While we may not be perfect, upon closer exemption of our work, it becomes a bit clearer who tries really hard to get things right and who’s working for the clicks. I, like everyone else, enjoy having my work appreciated, and one way an audience can show appreciation for good work is to share it and support it. That said, what I won’t do is choose virality over importance — this is a job where trust must be earned, and once it is earned, it must be maintained. Choosing stories of importance is one way I feel I can earn and maintain that trust — I could be wrong, but at least I can go to sleep at night, which I’m looking forward to doing soon.

Disclosure: The opinions presented here are the author’s own and not necessarily those of any company, colleague, affiliate or advertiser — although one of my bosses says this disclaimer only goes so far, I still thought you should know that I speak for myself only and not anyone else, so please don’t assume anything.