“I thought you’d go down with the ship:”
Why one reporter chose a buyout after twenty years
By Lauren Harris
Melissa B. Taboada has been an education reporter at the Austin American-Statesman for more than twenty years; this month, she took a buyout, along with more than a hundred other Gannett reporters and five hundred Gannett employees. Taboada’s last day in the newsroom will be next week, on December 1st.
At the end of a decade rife with newspaper layoffs and cutbacks, Taboada’s story is typical, one story among tens of thousands. But it also belongs, in its own way, to her. And to her community.
CJR talked with Taboada about her career, her decision to take a buyout, the changes she’s seen over the years, and her hopes for local news. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CJR: What are you most proud of when you look back at your years at the paper?
Melissa Taboada: The thing that I care about the most is my integrity, and getting it right. I care about writing stories with impact—maybe they don't win awards, but they make a difference to someone. A few years ago, I wrote a story about elementary grade students who were not getting recess. And this typically happened at Title One schools, or schools where there were high numbers of low-income students. While children in more affluent schools had recess daily, these kids either didn't get recess because it was taken away from them for a disciplinary issue, or they needed to prepare for the state mandated test. I wrote a series of stories, and eventually, the district changed course and was working towards ensuring all students got their daily recess. That was really important to me. It wasn't a huge story or huge outcry in the community, but it meant something for those kids. I think fondly about those types of stories—that make a difference in tangible ways.
CJR: You’ve been in journalism for a long time. How have you seen things change in newspapers over the course of your career?
MT: When I first started, everything was for print deadline. I could go as late as midnight and file a story and make it in the paper the next day. But we sold our printing presses some years ago. We're outsourcing our printing to Hearst newspapers out of San Antonio, which is over an hour away, and Houston, which is closer to two hours away. Now I don't think I could get anything in the paper after seven. Because the internet is live, the news never stops. I’ll be sitting in a school board meeting at 1:30 in the morning, and filing a story right then, so that when readers wake up, they have that fresh content on our website. I think readers have an expectation to see something right now. We’ve shifted to fill that need. It’s changed a lot.
I think local news is the best, when it comes to particular communities. If a big breaking news story happened in Denver, I would want to go to the Denver paper to see what's going on. They have the local sources. Networks do a great job, but they’re not going to have the kind of sourcing and the kind of details that local journalism provides. But things have changed a lot. I'm most concerned just about daily newspapers. I don't know if they will exist in twenty-five years, in the format that they're in right now.
CJR: How did you make the decision to take the buyout?
MT: I've been really fortunate to be at the paper as long as I have. Honestly, they wanted me to stay. But I just felt like with things changing in newspapers—I was just growing a little bit restless. I felt like it was the right time to take this particular buyout.
A friend of mine, who used to be a reporter at the paper, made a comment, saying, “I thought you'd go down with the ship,” and really, you know, I thought that probably would be true for me. I think maybe what shifted was just the amount of work, particularly in COVID times. And as—specifically—newspapers are shrinking staffs and more cuts are happening, the workload just became greater and greater, and I didn't think that it was sustainable. So I felt like something needed to change. If we can't have more resources, then we need to adjust the way that we cover news.
I'll give you an example. By and large, we’re working remotely. I’ve been covering school board meetings from home. A couple weeks ago, I was watching two school board meetings at the same time. There was news out of both of them. I filed a story around 1:30 AM, for one of them. But I missed one portion of the other meeting, because I was listening to public comments that were happening at the first meeting. The next morning, my editor alerted me, “Did you happen to see this?” And I didn't. And it ended up being front page news. It’s just a lot for one person to juggle, particularly when you're pulling in twelve hour days routinely. And that's been happening for a very long time.
I'm terrible at putting up my own boundaries and saying, No, I'm only going to cover this one thing. Because to me, that does a disservice to our readers. I just feel like I have to cover as much as I can. But I'm the only education reporter now. And especially in the middle of COVID, it gets to be too much for one person.
I still want to be a journalist. And there's a possibility that I won't be. I do have some really good job leads. But I've done this for a really long time and seeing the shrinking newsroom… I kind of want to be part of something that might be growing instead.
CJR: So what will happen to the paper’s education coverage once you’ve left?
MT: That's a great question. I think they're going to have to spread it out to other people, temporarily. I know that they will backfill my position. It will leave the new person coming in with a really big job to do. They won’t have the sources that I've built over the last two decades. They may not get some news that I hear about under the table. I still think it's too large of a beat for one person. I very much admire what's been happening around the country, at publications like the Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times—places starting these education labs and research-funded positions. I think more people need to do that. The Texas Tribune is a good model where they are publicly funded, they're getting donations to run really quality work. And I think if newspapers and local outlets want to survive, that may be something that they need to look toward.
CJR: What will you miss?
MT: Everything. We have a very close newsroom. They're my family. I'm going to miss the rush. I've been adrenaline-filled for twenty-five years. My husband thinks I'm going to be running into walls about a week after my last day, because I don't know what that's like to rest! I'm going to grapple with all of those things. And I really do hope that I can make a difference in whatever comes next, because journalists make a difference all over the world. And they are so under-appreciated. I think I'm just going to miss that daily work.
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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past six months, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.
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Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:
- REIMAGINING THE PRESS: For CJR’s new magazine issue, Maya Binyam asks whether newsroom unions can fight for more equitable and inclusive newsrooms where media companies have failed. (For NiemanLab, Nicole A. Childers argued that increased diversity in newsrooms is both a moral imperative and a business imperative). And Savannah Jacobson lines up a data spread digging into the biggest players in the world of philanthropy for the news business.
- GOOGLE MAKES SOME CHANGES: Google announced that it will stop offering special placement to news publishers that use its company-created page format, AMP, The Markup reported. The announcement follows mounting public concerns about Google’s monopolistic control over internet browsing and advertisement. And in France, Google signed copyright agreements with six French publishers after months of negotiations surrounding the EU’s new copyright rules, Reuters reported.
- BUZZFEED ACQUIRES HUFFPOST: Last week, BuzzFeed acquired HuffPost from Verizon Media, the Wall Street Journal reported. “Consolidation has become so common in the media industry that the sadness of the trend—good outlets being forced into defensive maneuvers by a terrible business climate—can sometimes feel secondary to its sense of inevitability,” Jon Allsop wrote for CJR’s Media Today newsletter, noting that BuzzFeed chief executive officer Jonah Peretti reported that the merger would not lead to further layoffs for BuzzFeed, though he didn’t make the same commitment for employees at HuffPost. Aman Sethi, the editor in chief of HuffPost India, announced yesterday on Twitter that the publication’s India branch had been shut down. In a podcast episode, Peretti told Digiday that he expects HuffPost will regain profitability by the end of next year.
- KANSAS JOURNALISM STUDENTS REPORT LOCAL: In Eudora, Kansas, student reporters are filling a void left by the closure of the Eudora News in 2009, Kristen Hare reported for Poynter. The University of Kansas is offering class credit and gas stipends to students who are covering Eudora's education, police, government, arts and culture, politics, and more in a weekly newsletter and a podcast. And students at University of Missouri are working in Eudora to create a viable business model for a local paper. “I do think if you look at what’s happening around the country, universities need to play and are playing a much larger role in news coverage,” Professor Randall Smith told Hare.
- IN AUSTRALIA, A FEW NEWSPAPER OWNERS DOMINATE: In Australia, newspaper ownership is more concentrated than in most other countries in the world, The Guardian reported last week. In a 2016 study conducted by researchers across thirty different countries, Australia scored high in media ownership concentration, some of those countries surpassing it being countries with largely state-owned media. Today, the top four newspaper owners in the country account for 92 percent of Australia’s market. “While the online news sector is more diverse, it has yet to replace the local reporting done by regional and community newspapers,” Nick Evershed writes.
- NEWSROOMS CAN BUILD TRUST WITH BLACK READERS: For NiemanLab, Hanaa’ Tameez explored a recent report from the Center for Media Engagement that made recommendations for newsrooms to rebuild trust with Black Americans based on a survey with more than a thousand people and twenty-seven in-depth interviews. The center suggests, among other things, hiring Black journalists, centering Black stories of joy and positivity, and diversifying coverage of Blackness rather than approaching one community as a representation of all Black people everywhere.
- TRAFFIC DRAWS TRAFFIC FOR SEATTLE PAPER: The Seattle Times has sold 71,000 digital subscriptions, the PressGazette reported, in an interview with Frank Blethen, the paper’s chief executive and publisher. Blethen told William Turvill that while interdepartmental collaboration, consumer research, and customer service all play a role in the strength of the paper’s appeal, the editorial Traffic Lab project is one of the greatest draws for subscribers. “Traffic is the one thing that affects everybody,” Blethen said. “The sweet spot for us is local stories that either make an important difference or change – or that really connect with a large breadth of the community.”
- SCOTLAND COMPANY RESTRUCTURES FOR DIGITAL: In Scotland, JPI Media’s company-wide newsroom restructuring has shown promising results, the Press Gazette reported. The company split staff into teams, one dedicated to digital production and another to print production. JPI papers increased their digital production and made renewed efforts for reader engagement, increasing page views from loyal users.
- DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTIONS GROW: Digital subscriptions at the New York Times and Washington Post have tripled since 2016, Axios reported. For the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, the South China Morning Post presented ten questions for newspapers in the process of launching digital subscriptions.
- FACEBOOK GROUPS KEEP USERS ENGAGED: Facebook has invested considerably in its groups feature, and many users have depended on Facebook groups to connect and communicate during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Washington Post reported last week. In some cases, users depend on Facebook groups for local news, Heather Kelly writes. “Members use the group for everything: finding lost pets, soliciting plumber recommendations, getting out the word about food pantries,” Kelly writes, adding that maintaining groups "also requires a large amount of unpaid labor from the administrators and moderators who manage it.”
JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education. And an organization of fifty writers called Periplus Collective recently announced a mentorship program to serve early-career writers who are Black, indigenous, and people of color.