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Simplify and redistribute

“I’m trying to be honest about what really matters about what we do as journalists and stop caring about the rest.”

I’m professionally and temperamentally ill-disposed to making predictions. It takes all I have to focus and report without being overwhelmed by the needs of my community and the chaos in our world. To keep me focused, I’m using a kind of textual talisman right now. In the hope that these words might be helpful to other local journalists this is what I want to offer instead of a prediction: just a hope that we can “live simply in a complex world.”

My priest and friend Phil Cooke said this recently in mass. Actually, he said “We are forced to live simply in a complex world.”

Forced or not, I do want to simplify in my work. I’m trying to be honest about what really matters about what we do as journalists and stop caring about the rest. I know this is easier for me than for others. I still care deeply and I still have a job. There are journalists at the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press who will spend their holidays this year deciding whether to retire early, take a buyout, or wait for layoffs because our industry is a mess. This sucks.

Those of us still willing and able to show up for work in between competing dumpster fires have to pick and choose what to try to salvage and where to focus. It’s not easy.

I heard this call to live simply in the middle of complexity in my neighborhood Catholic church. I was brought up in this tradition but not in this parish, which I joined three years ago and where I contribute to committees and potlucks and sit with my mom in a pew almost every Sunday. But I don’t believe in God and I’ve never had time for the Catholic Church as an institution.

However improbable, it’s still true that I find meaning in my church. It is limited by the faith tradition it represents but I’m proud of parishioners and priests for refusing to be brought down by hierarchy, stale ceremony, and most of all judgement. We’re trying to right the wrongs of our history instead of double down. That’s what I want I want for us in local journalism too.

What do we have that is of real value to the places we live? Is it the information or the access we can demand of officials? It might be expertise or the connections we can facilitate. It could be attention to an abuse of power or something else entirely.

Let’s force ourselves to focus on just this value. Then let’s force ourselves to redistribute that value instead of keeping it for ourselves. Like Bettina Chang sharing her editorial skills with whomever stops by City Bureau’s open office hours; Spaceship Media helping shrink the distance between communities in conflict; the Tyler Loop asking a young and diverse Tyler what they need to know; Free Press organizing New Jersey to demand better information; VT Digger; Hearken; Project Facet; Flint Beat; KPCC; and so many more stripping down to what matters most where they live. Second only to Detroiters, these are the people I believe in.

Simplify and redistribute: That’s what I hope for all of us in local journalism this coming year.

Sarah Alvarez is lead reporter and founder of Outlier Media, a news and information service for low-income Detroiters.

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