At the height of an unprecedented health crisis, and demand for news about the spread of a deadly pathogen, I found myself on the sidelines.
For six weeks, I had reported on COVID-19 around the clock, seven days a week, with no overtime pay or additional compensation of any kind: The first confirmed case in Kansas, the first death, anger and confusion among legislators, public schools closed, a statewide order to shelter in place, a prison riot and cries for inmate protection, failings of the unemployment system, supply shortages, court battles, a farmer’s gift of an N95 mask to a nurse he didn’t know in New York, the anxiety of the unknown and upheaval of our daily lives.
Then, along with most of my Gannett colleagues, I was furloughed without pay for a week.
I am preparing to do my part to support investors during these difficult times by taking a non-voluntary leave of absence. I will resume news coverage of pandemic a week from Monday #ksleg
— Sherman Smith (@sherman_news) April 20, 2020
This is the reality of the local news business today: There is no viable long-term business model. I knew somebody who knew somebody, and before I knew it, I had accepted an offer for my dream job — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to launch a nonprofit news organization dedicated to serving the people of Kansas.
The Topeka Capital-Journal was my employer for the past 16 years. I joined the copy desk right after graduating from Emporia State University, spent some time working on an alternative storytelling project and page design, took over online operations and, eventually, oversaw the newsroom as managing editor. In February 2018, I made the unusual career move of abandoning my management duties to bolster the publication’s news gathering as a Statehouse reporter.
I feel like I was made for these times.
I’m not the kind of journalist who writes stories so I can read them alone in the closet at night and tell myself how important I am.
I write stories for others to read — so you don’t have to make sense of a lengthy court ruling or sit through a four-hour debate on abortion, because I want to tell stories that nobody else is going to tell, to give a voice to silenced individuals, and because I get to do cool things like fly around in a dirigible and talk to people about the interesting things they do, like serenade corn.
Now, I can give you those stories for free, without advertising. Kansas Reflector is supported through our parent organization, States Newsroom, which is helping put journalists back into state capitols. The funding comes from individual contributions and institutional grants. Thanks to them, we now have the largest Statehouse bureau in Kansas. We operate independently, without interference in our newsgathering decisions.
The best part is I get to do this alongside amazing fellow journalists.
In my early days at the Capital-Journal, I learned a lot of what I know about interviewing and news judgment by eavesdropping on Tim Carpenter’s conversations with sources. Carpenter is a legendary figure among Kansas news reporters. Some of the state’s most powerful political figures have feared his intensity. His interrogation of Milton Wolf, a one-time challenger to U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, is taught in college journalism classrooms. You could say he is the most powerful journalist in Kansas.
C.J. Janovy, our opinion editor, wrote the definitive book on LGBT activism in Kansas — which is now being made into a documentary by Academy Award-winning director Kevin Willmott. I met her last year when she was the KCUR editor who oversaw a story I worked on about foster girls who ran away while in state custody, were trafficked for sex and then sent to prison. A lot of you also may know her as the former editor of The Pitch, an alternative newspaper in Kansas City.
I’m also thrilled to introduce a newcomer to Kansas political and government coverage. Noah Taborda is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri (we try not to hold that against him) who grew up in Chicago.
Together, we will blend in-depth reporting with daily coverage of state politics, government and a range of issues of statewide importance. Through our opinion section, we will amplify voices of people whose lives are affected by public policies but who might typically be left out of public debate.
I know some of you are skeptical of an upstart news organization, or media in general. We, too, can be skeptical. That’s part of what it means to be a journalist. But we aren’t cynical. Please take a moment to consider your thoughts on media. We are not talking heads on your least-favorite cable TV network. We base our news stories on the facts we gather, and conversations with elected officials and everyday Kansans. We are part of your community.
And when the news in this year of our pandemic, civil unrest, murder hornets, swarming locusts, human-sized bats and endless Zoom meetings is too much for you to bear, we won’t fault you for wanting to scream your hearts out.