Charlie Deitch says he hasn’t taken a payment from Pittsburgh Current, the newspaper he started, since May 2018.
He has delivered meals for DoorDash and written freelance articles to bring in some money, and his wife works as a school administrator. He told me he makes this sacrifice for local journalism so he can publish any stories he wants without anyone looking over his shoulder.
“It’s never been about the money,” Deitch, 49, says. “I don’t want to bring up any specific past job I’ve had but, you know, there’s always somebody to answer to. There’s always somebody that has that final say, and rarely is that person a journalist.”
After struggling to pay the bills at the Current — freelancers always get paid first, he says — Deitch plans to launch a new nonprofit organization next month to focus on community-oriented investigative storytelling. Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (PINJ) will be separate from the newspaper, and it will seek support from foundations, donors and the public.
While Pittsburgh already has a nonprofit investigative newsroom called PublicSource, and public radio and television stations, Deitch says adding another will only expand resources and opportunities — rather than divide them. The driving concerns, he says, are finding resources and remaining independent of external influences.
“Traditionally, media companies have needed advertisers to pay for their content, and although journalists have a responsibility to the readers, this model prioritizes advertising dollars,” Deitch says. “Unfortunately, the needs and desires of the reader have been sacrificed in order to placate advertisers. The nonprofit model allows for content to be the number one priority.”
Brittany Hailer, 31, a freelancer and former reporter for PublicSource, will serve as the nonprofit’s managing editor. She teaches part-time at the University of Pittsburgh, runs a podcasting program for teens in McKeesport (in partnership with the Center for Media Innovation) and has been writing and editing for the Current.
She rarely gets paid either, and acknowledges that it feels like a privilege to be able to afford to work with little to no salary. She does it, she says, because local journalism seems like a community service.
Self-sacrifice set aside, professional journalists will argue here that no one should work for free — and they’re right. Deitch and Hailer are hoping that by creating the nonprofit, they will be able to raise more resources to support their journalism so everyone can get paid.
“There’s a duty to inform your neighbor of what’s going on, and there’s a great privilege in being able to do that,” she tells me. “There’s folks who don’t have access to language and don’t have access to this platform. And so, you have a responsibility to make sure that you’re being just and that you’re lending that access to folks who don’t have the privilege that you have.”
While the city has several other nonprofit newsrooms doing good work, Hailer said PINJ will look to fill gaps with more of an alt-weekly approach to covering social justice issues and the arts. The news organization will be modeled on the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and for now, it will operate under a fiscal sponsorship from the nonprofit Alternative News Foundation.
“Basically, there’s room for everyone, I think, in Pittsburgh and we’d like to continue to dig into stories of the unheard,” Hailer says. “This model also allows us to create partnerships with media companies, nonprofit, for-profit, dailies, weeklies, etc.”
Within newsrooms, this shift already has taken place so that many journalists see their work as a public good (although one that deserves payment). The public, however, largely still sees journalism as a money-making business, and no one should be surprised.
For more than a hundred years, newspapers made lots of profits. Publishers created a product the public purchased — and in addition to those subscriptions, advertisers paid handsomely for the privilege of displaying their messages to that audience.
Publishing newspapers was like printing money for people such as Joseph Pulitzer, who arrived in St. Louis as a penniless immigrant, purchased a local newspaper in 1878, leveraged that into buying the New York World five years later, and ultimately died a wealthy man aboard his private yacht.
Even by the late 20th century, newspapers still made money. I remember going to see the CEO of Gannett in the 1990s and marveling at how his office took up what seemed like the entire top floor of the tallest skyscraper in the Washington metro area.