Since her junior high days, AmyJo Brown has been writing stories for one publication or another. Her passion for journalism has taken her from her high school newspaper in Beaver County to The East Oregonian to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to the Pittsburgh City Paper. For the past year, she’s been project editor at the Pittsburgh Media Partnership, a collaborative of 22 local media outlets — NEXTpittsburgh is one of them — dedicated to supporting a diverse media ecosystem in our region.
Why was the Pittsburgh Media Partnership formed?
We wanted to work on a large enterprise reporting project — something that would allow us all to dig into and report a story in all of its complexity. We were all set to do that — literally on the call where we were discussing the first story’s publishing date — when the first stay-at-home orders were issued. We decided that we were going to switch everything up and change our focus, be more creative with the funding and figure out how can we support all of these local newsrooms to cover this pandemic. We have been meeting twice a month. I think that that has been one of the more valuable things we’ve been able to do this past year. Editor of a newsroom can be a lonely position to be in. There aren’t many peers to turn to for support.
What was the partnership working on before the pandemic hit?
We were looking at some of the population trends the region was experiencing in conjunction with the U.S. Census. We wanted to explore the lack of diversity within the region. There was a lot of context around that. There are more pressing issues rather than talking about it in a growth context. We are brainstorming on how we are going to refocus that.
What are the biggest hurdles facing local journalism in the Covid-era?
Time and resources. A lot of the newsrooms are being hit hard financially. A lot of their revenue is dependent on advertising and event-driven ideas. Not being able to convene in-person made it difficult for many of the organizations to do business as usual. For those with print editions, they started cutting back on their distribution. Many ended up furloughing or laying off staff. On top of Covid, they were also covering one of the largest Civil Rights movements picking up steam here locally. Everyone was exhausted and living through quarantine and working from home.
Where do you see the Pittsburgh Media Partnership in five years?
I don’t want to make a five-year prediction, but we’re focused on a few projects on how we can be most helpful to the editors and publishers who want to grow or start up new news organizations here in Pittsburgh. And we will continue to work on Covid; we can’t ignore that, but we’re starting to pick up a story based on the Civil Rights issues the city is facing, as well. On top of that, we are looking at our own media ecosystem to make sure that if you want to report and practice good journalism in the city, you can. We received a large grant ($100,000) from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation for 10 student internships, all paid. We’ll put them in local newsrooms and offer them career guidance.
Do you think the Pittsburgh Media Partnership is succeeding in its mission?
It’s doing more good than I think I could’ve hoped for when we started out; it’s collaborative instead of competitive. And there was certainly some hesitancy: how it was going to look, how it was going to work. It was a leap of faith for a lot of the editors to sign on. I knew that the process was going to take us somewhere of value. There are more and more collaborative efforts occurring throughout the country, but not a lot of precedence. We are figuring this out as we go. Covid sort of forced everyone into a shared experience that we could not have created organically separately. How are you guys feeling? How are you handling this? How are you preparing for this during the election? How are you handling protest coverage? I think just being able to share and exchange the information with others makes you feel like you’re not alone. One of the hardest things with running a newsroom is how to think strategically. How do we step back and reflect on the work we’re doing?
How are you engaging readers?
That’s going to be a very big part of our effort this year. We have ideas for how we are going to engage readers. We learned a couple of things from a few editorial projects. Three partners (The Mon Valley Independent, The Incline and the McKees Rocks Gazette 2.0) primarily worked on the piece about internet access issues. We want to do more of that kind of work. I think we’ll also be facilitating public conversations with the editors on who we’re covering and how decisions are made.
Why isn’t the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the city’s largest media outlet, involved in the partnership?
That has been an interesting thing. There was a lot of interest early on and then those editors would leave. They had some significant labor issues, as well.
How can publications get involved with the Pittsburgh Media Partnership?
We are looking for folks who are creating original content and are doing it within the standards the Society of Professional Journalists lays out.
What has been your proudest journalistic moment this year?
The two that I can think of are related. In March — when we were hearing from our partners who were struggling, and not just with the coverage, but to keep their newsrooms going — we were able to distribute nearly $20,000 in Emergency Technology grants to these newsrooms. We were able to help in some pretty significant ways. The Mon Valley Independent was having some pretty serious tech issues with their email servers. We provided a grant to help them and connect them with a consultant to help them solve the problem. Gazette 2.0 was primarily print-focused and they were going to have to stop printing their paper. We were able to give them a grant to create a website so they were able to keep publishing. We worked really hard to find external grants we knew our partners were qualified for. Several of our members got grants outside of what we were able to provide. ¡Presente! got some Facebook grants. Soul Pitt Quarterly got a $20,000 grant to use to redesign their whole publishing platform.