Staying optimistic (and realistic) in an uncertain journalism climate
In two stints as a Denver Post reporter, Elizabeth Hernandez has covered everything from an all-night bargaining session to end a teachers strike to a world-record-breaking stack of waffles. While tirelessly advocating for local news, she’s also vocally opposed the paper’s hedge fund owners, Alden Global Capital, who have decimated the Post’s staff in the past few years.
Hernandez shared her advice on making the most of story assignments, staying optimistic about local news, and using Twitter for reporting. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your journalism path and how you got to your current job at the Post.
I did journalism at my high school in Las Vegas and wrote for the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s teen section. I went to CU Boulder for college and joined the student media, the CU Independent, while studying journalism. My first internship was my junior year at the local Boulder paper, the Daily Camera. Then I applied for the Chips Quinn Scholars program, a really cool program for diverse student journalists. They put me in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I interned at the Pioneer Press.
My senior year I started interning at the Denver Post. When I was about to graduate they ended up hiring me, which was sort of the dream. I worked as the breaking news reporter for about a year, starting in 2015. Then I got laid off in 2016, which was a really difficult thing. I loved that newsroom and all my friends were there.
I was really lost but didn’t want to stop doing journalism. I took a fellowship at the Center for Public Integrity in D.C., but I missed local news. There was an opening at the Daily Camera covering higher education, which was the perfect job for me. I worked there almost a year before there was an opening again at the Post.
I came back almost exactly a year ago, and three weeks after I was hired, they announced 30 layoffs. Those didn’t lay off reporters, but if they had, I would’ve been laid off. It was a really hard summer after losing so many people, and a lot of people quit after the layoffs anyway. Now we have a lot of new people, I have a new beat and it feels a lot better.
How did student journalism help prepare you for what you do now?
I always did more editorial and opinion writing, so it’s not super similar to news reporting, although it’s still research-based. I wasn’t a breaking news reporter or anything in student media. Student media is awesome because it gets people involved early and can be such a beneficial experience, but when you can get in a professional newsroom, do that. Do both if you can. Use student media as a way to get really good clips, train and network, but when you’re in school try to get into a newsroom, too.
What do you wish you’d known before entering professional journalism?
In college I was annoyed when people who came into my journalism classes had pessimistic things to say about the industry. It felt like people were always trying to talk down to me or talk me out of it, and I never want to seem like I’m doing that to people.
But professional journalism is really hard for multiple reasons. The hours are really hard. It’s hard emotionally. You deal with really difficult things and often so quickly you don’t have time to process them. That can be traumatic.
There’s also the stress of the industry itself: Layoffs are real and my job is never stable. Everyone who goes into journalism is a little bit crazy, I think, because there’s no way anyone would endure the things you have to endure if you weren’t passionately dedicated to it. The job itself is hard and fast-paced and deadline-oriented. Your mental health will be challenged, and your physical health: I just covered these teacher strikes for 24 straight hours, and that was really hard on my body.
That’s not to say don’t do it, not at all. I love this job, but I wish I had been more open to people telling me the realities about it. I also wish I’d known more about the industry itself and had read up more about what hedge funds are doing to journalism, and what the different companies like Gannett and McClatchy are doing.
How do you stay optimistic about the value of local news in such an uncertain climate?
It’s just from doing the work and seeing the impact that it makes. When I was coming out of the teacher strike coma, people were so appreciative that I was covering it. I got so many emails — from parents, teachers, students — saying I didn’t know what was going on, but now I do. It shows you how important you are to your community covering local news.
It feels so good when you have a story like that that you can help inform people and hold people accountable. When you do a story and see someone like the Washington Post aggregate it, you know the only reason they’re doing it is because they found it through local news.
How can students prepare themselves to move into professional journalism? What skills do you think are important?
I always came into jobs doing breaking news first, and I think that’s typical for a lot of entry level positions. Folks don’t often send out interns to big breaking news because they’re worried they’ll screw it up, but ask to go with people if they don’t want to send you by yourself. Breaking news reporting teaches you basic skills like how to cover a press conference and interview people on the street.
Twitter is really huge, and I’d recommend setting up TweetDeck to best accommodate your beat. When I was on breaking news I had TweetDeck with all the police agencies, sources I followed and different hashtags. I was always looking and could be the first to respond to something, write up a quick story and head out to a scene. I follow other local media and local journalists, too, to see what they’re doing.
I honestly do so much through Twitter, and if I go out to a scene I kind of use it like my notebook. If I’m at a breaking news scene and tweeting things out, my editor can put it into a story right away. I use it to get sources all the time, and to ask people, “What should I be covering this week?” That’s one area where young journalists can really excel because we’re more comfortable using Twitter.
What should students know when starting a new internship?
As an intern sometimes you get stories you don’t really want to do, or stories you’re scared to do. You might get assigned to do another zoo story or cover a parade and think, “This is stupid,” or you’re covering a Supreme Court hearing and think, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Try not to shy away from the situations that make you uncomfortable. If you need help and don’t know what you’re doing, ask a lot of questions. If you think it’s a stupid story topic, do a great job on it.
When I wrote this weird waffle-stacking story, I did not intend for it to be a viral thing. I got assigned to it early on a Saturday morning and thought it was so dumb. There are so many things you can make really fun and you can promote your paper through it. So many people subscribed for that, and I’m so glad people thought it was fun and can support it.
What advice do you have for finding unique story ideas in a new place?
Listen to people and ask a lot of questions. When I was an intern I got a press release about this weird website called “seeking arrangement.” If I’d gotten it now, I’d have put it in the trash and not done anything, but I thought I needed a good story as an intern. It ended up being this woman saying, “Did you know X number of students at CU Boulder use this site to find sugar daddies to pay for their tuition?”
My editor said, “That’s a scam, don’t do that.” I called this woman and said, “Can you connect to me with these students?” and she said, “Sure!” I went on dates with these women and their sugar daddies, and it’s still one of the most-read stories on the Post website. It was insane.
I always like to call up local community advocacy groups and say, “If you were me, what would you be reporting on?” I enjoy doing diversity-related stories and human-centered stories, and when you do them responsibly and well, people trust you to represent them correctly and will give you other stories.