[This story was originally published in Nieman Reports, a website and quarterly print publication covering thought leadership in journalism from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Subscribe to their newsletter here.]
The Asheville Watchdog is a tiny nonprofit in far western North Carolina, but its editorial meetings could double as a get-together of the Pulitzer alumni club.
The project came together on the back deck of the house shared by retired Tribune Publishing Co. executive Bob Gremillion and his wife, investigative reporter Sally Kestin. It was there that Kestin and Gremillion “met other journalists who had come here and every time we got together and poured a glass of wine, we all had this kind of heavy sigh and wished that there was more and better journalism,” Kestin says. “Until somebody finally said, ‘Hey, we can do something about this.’”
The Watchdog is seeking to fill the vacuum left by the dramatic downsizing of the Asheville Citizen-Times, the local newspaper owned by Gannett. It’s produced by an unpaid staff of people mostly in their 60s and 70s who are retired from distinguished careers at The New York Times, the Miami Herald, the Financial Times, Tribune Co., and NPR. Between them, they’ve won or been finalists for six Pulitzer Prizes.
The size and volunteer nature of this effort — it’s in what the Local Independent Online News association calls the “micro revenue tier category” — masks the impact it’s had since it was founded in 2020, after Gannett sold the Citizen-Times’s building and cut its staff from 75 to about 10. In a multi-part series, for example, the outlet exposed a local real estate investor and his associates for deceiving Black and elderly homeowners into turning over the deeds to their properties for a fraction of their value. One of the members of that ring has been arrested on 41 felony charges as a result, and another on six felony counts. Several victims got their homes or money returned, and the series won a best investigative journalism award from the Institute for Nonprofit News, a National Headliner Award, and the top prize for public service journalism in the online division from the North Carolina Press Association.
“These are stories that could have and should have been told years and years ago, and they just weren’t,” Kestin says. “There were judges in this town that knew all about these real estate deals. Lots of other lawyers knew about what was happening. And nobody did anything until we came along and exposed it.”
Rather than moving to retirement communities and settling in beside the pool or playing pickleball, retired journalists are stepping into news voids nationwide, launching local and regional media outlets or serving on their boards, mentoring young journalists, advocating for press freedoms, and continuing to gather and report information not otherwise being covered. In some cases, they’re returning to their roots in local news, spending their retirements reviving the kinds of local newspapers and news sites that have been particularly hard hit by the consolidation of the industry by big media companies and hedge funds.
These retirees include everyone from a onetime local sportswriter in Washington state to former top editors at The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Reuters, a retired senior editorial director at CNN, familiar names from NPR, the ex-editors of the San Diego Union-Tribune and Miami Herald, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalists, a retired AP bureau chief and a former top executive at Hearst. Many are in their 70s or 80s.
Many also share a collective frustration with the decline of the profession in which they spent careers that date back to a time when media organizations were flush with resources and influence.
“If you can do something to help reverse that tide, you do it,” says Walter Robinson, the former editor of The Boston Globe Spotlight Team, who has taken on a second career helping set up nonprofit community news sites, mentoring younger journalists, and serving on the board of a government accountability and First Amendment coalition.
“I had a great run and a lot of good fortune, and I just feel I have an obligation to give something back,” says Robinson, who is 77, of his continued involvement in the cause of journalism. “A lot of people I know who are my age have the same impulse.”
For Jeff Rowe, who’s part of a team of about 20 former Wall Street Journal reporters and editors setting up a network of volunteer editors and coaches for understaffed newspapers, especially in rural areas, called the Local News Advisory Team (LNAT), there’s less anger and “more fear and anxiety and deep dismay that what we devoted our lives to has been abandoned, particularly in smaller towns,” says Rowe, whose colleagues in the project include Journal alums Jim Carberry, Tom Herman, Joann Lublin, Janet Guyon, and Norman Pearlstine. Still just getting started, the LNAT has pilots planned with newspapers in Olney, Texas, and Signal Hill, California, in which it will provide editing and help with small projects and is working with investigative nonprofits and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the University of Kentucky to connect with more.
“The bottom line is, we’ve got this expertise,” he says. “We want to share it.”The determination of retired journalists to report, mentor, and fill other media roles is as widespread as it has been relatively little noticed. It’s “a national phenomenon,” says Barbara Roessner, retired Pulitzer Prize-winning former managing editor of The Hartford Courant who now serves as editor of The New Bedford Light in Massachusetts. The Standard-Times, the city’s Gannett-owned daily, also has been decimated by budget cuts. With other retirees on its board, including Robinson, the New Bedford Light has investigated delays in replacing lead-lined water pipes, the disproportionate toll of Covid-19 on workers — many of them immigrants — who worked in the city’s once-booming textile and apparel mills, and property tax foreclosures over unpaid debts that were only a fraction of the properties’ value.
In the far more affluent Massachusetts waterfront community of Marblehead, 75 miles away, 82-year-old retired Associated Press Boston bureau chief Ed Bell cofounded and is a member of the board of the Marblehead Current, launched last year after Gannett made its weekly regional instead of local. The outlet covers everything from the local superintendent search to the town’s plan to fight climate change.
Advocates who are working to rebuild local journalism credit contributions like these by retirees with helping speed up the momentum.
“You have a bubble of recently retired journalists, and journalists tend to be socially motivated people who care deeply about journalism. So there is a wealth of people who want to really see journalism continue,” says Sue Cross, executive director and CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News, a network that has grown to include more than 400 nonprofit news organizations. “At the same time, there is a generational shift from retiring to retiring and doing something else.”
Taking on these roles involves more than just the journalism. The Asheville Watchdog, for example, solicits individual community donations. “That’s what replaces ad sales. It’s still money. Somebody has to attract it, account for it, and spend it wisely,” says Gremillion. The Watchdog’s total revenue in 2021, the year last for which the figure is available, was $98,833, public tax disclosures show. It uses volunteer designers, photographers, marketers, attorneys, and advisors and gives away its stories to other media for free. In addition to its award-winning story about that real estate scam, the Watchdog investigated the city’s neglect of its infrastructure and the murky sale of a nonprofit hospital system to a for-profit hospital chain. The news site also closely scrutinized Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s conduct in Congress before he lost his bid for reelection.
Many media retirees are helping start or run local news sites in their longtime or adopted hometowns. Ed Friedrich, who retired after a career as a local sportswriter, copy editor, news reporter, and news editor, helped start up Gig Harbor Now in 2021 on Washington’s Puget Sound, three years after Gannett shut down the weekly that it owned there.
Gig Harbor Now is a throwback to the kind of local newspaper whose reporters and editors — some volunteers, others paid with money from donations and advertising, which tax documents show brought in $93,715 in 2021 — cover city council and other government agency meetings and seemingly every high school sport, new business, playground renovation, fire, and police blotter item. They have also reported on the allegation of racist comments at a girls’ basketball game and a bridge that needs replacing.
Almost none of these things were being reported any more in their community, say Friedrich and his colleagues. “There was nothing except for Facebook, which was worse than nothing most of the time,” he says.
Friedrich, who is 67, is now back in the newsroom as one of the writers, partly because, he says, “it’s difficult to find reporters and impossible to get young ones” to live and work for freelance rates in the comparatively expensive waterfront city. “On the flip side, we have a talented, experienced staff that most communities of this size can only dream of.”
Retirees are working behind the scenes at other local media outlets, too. Take Boisfeuillet “Bo” Jones Jr., former publisher and chief executive officer at The Washington Post and former president and CEO of Macneil/Lehrer Productions. He’s part of a group that took over the Fauquier Times and Prince William Times newspapers in 2019, after years of declining advertising revenue and operating losses. The papers, which operate in two high-end counties in Northern Virginia, were combined into a nonprofit foundation called Piedmont Media. Under the foundation, which sells subscription “memberships” and collects tax-deductible donations, the community weeklies have produced investigations into a regional opioid crisis.
The trend of retired journalists taking on high-impact roles like these, even after careers of long hours and deadline pressures, intersects with both an acceleration of retirement and changes in the way Americans approach it.
People in all kinds of fields moved up their retirements in response to Covid-19 and its effects on the labor market. Some 3.5 million who were 55 and older left the workforce in 2020 and 2021, compared to about a million a year in the decade before, according to the Pew Research Center. And, of course, a disproportionate number of journalists have left their jobs, voluntarily or not.
Newsroom employment dropped from 114,000 to 85,000 from 2008 to 2020, Pew says, while the consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports that yet another 3,300 jobs were cut in 2021 and 2022. As 2023 began, another 75 people were laid off by NBC News and MSNBC, 130 by Vox Media, and 20 by The Washington Post.
“So often in journalism today, your last job involves a layoff or a buyout, and it’s just such a terrible way to end your career. So I’m just so happy that there are places where people can continue,” says Kim Kleman, executive director of Report for America.
Still more journalists are also nearing retirement: About a quarter remaining in newsrooms are 55 and older, according to Pew.
“Journalists are being pushed out of their jobs, forced to retire, retiring earlier than they wanted to — the point is, there are a lot of journalists out there who left what they thought would be forever jobs. And they’re not ready to do nothing,” says Rose Ciotta, founder and executive director of the Investigative Editing Corps, which pays journalists, including some retirees, up to $10,000 stipends to help local news outlets with six-month investigative projects. Among the problems these have exposed: how county jails in Maine were illegally recording calls between inmates and their attorneys; evictions of tenants from public housing in Toledo, Ohio, for past-due balances of as little as $100; neglect of rural Latinos during recovery efforts after hurricanes in eastern North Carolina; and government oversight failures at nursing homes in Indiana with high numbers of deaths from Covid-19.
For many baby boomers, retirement has new meaning. While they may have left the places where they spent the bulk of their careers, more than a quarter of people aged 65 to 74 still work in some capacity, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says — a proportion expected to rise to nearly a third by 2031.
“I refuse to say that I’ve retired,” says Karin Winner, former editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune, who at 78 serves on the board of the San Diego nonprofit inewsource. “It’s not true for me, and I don’t think it’s true for many journalists.”
Mark Wert, who retired in December after working as an investigative and enterprise reporter at The Cincinnati Enquirer is now mentoring young Report for America journalists. He says he’s “trying to find a new rhythm in life after 45 years of being a daily journalist.”
“I don’t think ‘jarring’ is too strong a word,” Wert, who is 68, says of his retirement. “To stay in the business that long, you have to be perhaps a bit of an adrenaline junkie, so it shouldn’t be a huge shock that people who are adrenaline junkies don’t recover easily.”
After decades of having to be available around the clock and holidays, many journalists don’t have lots of hobbies they’ve been waiting for retirement to tackle, says Bob Davis, a 72-year-old retired Wall Street Journal senior editor who now mentors Report for America reporters, freelances for The Wire China, and edits for the Prison Journalism Project, which trains incarcerated people to be journalists.
“My friends play pickleball, but honestly, is that something I want to do?” says Davis. “I half-jokingly equate pickleball with death. The guy with the sickle in the Bergman movie? I equate pickleball with that.”
Some of these former journalists say they tried other things before they drifted back into the fold. When they retired to Asheville, Kestin and Gremillion volunteered at a food bank, packing potatoes and cans of beans, but eventually realized they could contribute more through journalism. (He also tried golf, he says, but “the dirty little secret is that I could never break 100.”)
Kestin, who is 57 and a former investigative reporter at The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, The Tampa Tribune, and The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, planned to write a novel. “After 30 years I had this vision of sitting around in my flannel pajamas and making up shit after 30 years of agonizing over every word in a sentence and worrying if I was going to get sued. And that lasted all of a couple of years.” Roessner, in New Bedford, also “really didn’t intend to be doing this. I intended to walk by the beach and read and paint and not work around the clock. And that just didn’t last very long.”
Several of these retired journalists say their motivation is not only anger at the hedge funds and venture capital firms that have over-leveraged and are deeply cutting news outlets, or politicians’ enemies-of-the-people rhetoric. Their reasons include that they feel a sense of obligation — “when the trumpet sounds, you have to go,” says Rowe — and have the needed skills or have been heavily recruited.
“The jokey answer would be because we don’t have sufficient talent to do anything else,” says Tom Fiedler, former executive editor at the Miami Herald and dean of Boston University College of Communication, who also retired to Asheville and became a reporter at the Watchdog.
And the serious answer? “We’re the same people who as kids drove our parents crazy by constantly asking them ‘Why?’” says Fiedler, who is 77. “It’s both that sense of wonder and questioning and demanding to know answers. You don’t just shed that when you qualify for Social Security.”
Some say they feared being bored after high-paced, high-powered careers. “I love my grandchildren, but they can’t have a conversation with me every day about the nuances of the First Amendment,” says Richard Griffiths, retired senior editorial director and vice president for CNN worldwide and a onetime producer for CBS News who now serves as president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. There are downsides to doing this kind of journalism in retirement. A lot of it entails raising money, which is a skill retired journalists don’t necessarily have, for instance. “After a lifetime of asking nasty questions, I’m trying to learn how to ask nicely,” Robinson says. Griffiths, who’s also involved in a nonprofit news site in Clayton, Georgia, called The Clayton Crescent, says that what startups really need is not just retired journalists, but retired accountants, fundraisers, and salespeople. The Crescent was started by Robin Kemp, a reporter who, with most of her colleagues, was laid off during Covid by the existing local paper; it was fueled by an influx of more than $40,000 in crowdfunded donations after Clayton County became a hot spot in the 2020 presidential election; Griffiths agreed to head the board.
Another complicating factor is that many news deserts are not in affluent communities where people often move in their retirement, such as Asheville, Gig Harbor, or Marblehead, but in far-flung rural areas.
Nor do journalists who pull out their notebooks in even those well-heeled towns and cities always get fond welcomes. “It hasn’t all been warm and fuzzy,” says Kestin, who has heard the word “carpetbaggers” thrown at her and her colleagues. In an increasingly litigious landscape, some organizations staffed all or in part by retired journalists also worry about legal liability, especially where investigative reporting is involved. None appear to have been sued, but the former Wall Street Journal staffers who are setting up the Local News Advisory Team are budgeting for liability insurance. It’s pretty much the only significant expense the group anticipates, in addition to stipends for the coaches and a small salary for an administrator. The Investigative Editing Corps requires partner publications to add its editors and coaches to their insurance policies. Other volunteer retirees say the small outlets for which they work don’t have or can’t afford insurance.
Not everyone who’s retired from journalism wants to go back to it. The members of the Asheville team reached out to many other retired journalists in the area and found their own desire to fill the local journalism vacuum wasn’t necessarily “a universal driving force,” says Watchdog managing editor Peter Lewis, a former New York Times senior writer and editor. A lot of those other retired journalists, Lewis says, “are quite happy playing golf and exploring retirement.”
Many of the people who have decided to spend at least some of their retirements continuing to work in journalism say it takes more time than they expected. Ed Bell, the retired AP journalist who co-founded the Marblehead Current, notes as he finishes writing the next week’s editorial that his wife complains the project consumes too much of his time.
Lewis, who is 70, says he and Kestin both work more than full time. Retirees can’t do that forever, he says. “We are a certain age, and the siren song of retirement does sound loudly in the hills here,” he says.
The idea, say Lewis and others, is to gradually train younger journalists to succeed them. Many nonprofit news sites have begun to hire editors and reporters. “We think we can eventually replace ourselves with a full-time paid staff,” says Lewis. “Our overarching goal was to establish a foundation for journalism that will outlive us and to do that we need to pass on our knowledge.”
“Our overarching goal was to establish a foundation for journalism that will outlive us and to do that we need to pass on our knowledge.”— Peter Lewis, managing editor of The Asheville Watchdog
That’s the part of what they do that most of these retired journalists say they find to be the most rewarding. Long a profession based on apprenticeship, journalism was a place where knowledge was passed on to the newest hires by editors and more experienced coworkers. But there are fewer and fewer of those in gutted newsrooms, and many physical newsrooms have themselves been shut down in favor of remote work, even as the single largest share of newsroom workers are now aged 18 to 34, according to Pew.
“Whether you went to journalism school or not, you probably learned most of your craft in the newsrooms. And with newsrooms being cut back and cut back, there are a lot of great reporters who haven’t had that kind of mentorship. Now they can tap into this whole pool of people for that kind of knowledge,” says Cross.
Retired NPR reporter Tom Gjelten, who at 74 mentors young radio reporters, finds they get surprisingly little of that from their editors. “Whether it’s because [news organizations] are understaffed or overworked or don’t have the experience to bring to bear, I don’t know.”
Wert was always the guy who would drive new reporters around Cincinnati and make sure they understood its 52 distinct neighborhoods. “When we say something is in one neighborhood when it’s really across the street — someone’s going to notice.” In his retirement, he plans to do the same thing for interns.
He also does something many retired journalists say they like to do: tell what Wert calls “campfire stories” about his journalism life. “It initially surprised me, but the younger journalists that I’ve dealt with love those,” he says.
Griffiths does this, too. He takes what he calls his “tent revival” to local newsrooms, where he trains young reporters in how to use Georgia’s open-records and open-meetings laws. He also takes the opportunity to talk about his “not-so-finest hours” — times when he says his “hubris and arrogance got in the way of making a good decision.”
One glaring problem with the mentorship of younger journalists by older ones is that retirees are generally less diverse than the generation they mentor. Newsroom employees have long been more white and male than workers overall, according to Pew. That’s especially true of older journalists and, by extension, retirees. Recent figures show that 85 percent of reporters, editors, photographers, and videographers 50 and older are non-Hispanic whites and two-thirds are men, while half of those 18 to 29 are women and more than a quarter are of a race other than white. More than half of newsroom employees say their newsrooms do not have enough racial and ethnic diversity, and the vast majority of the retirees in the most high-profile mentoring and startup efforts are white. It’s a problem the Local News Advisory Team is trying to address directly. Among the goals laid out in its business plan: “Figure out how to deal with our whiteness.”
And not everyone is interested in stories about the good old days. That’s one thing Miguel Llanos has found — that younger journalists prefer not to hear that “there used to be something called the copy desk and we had so many tools and resources and there was creativity everywhere. They might get disillusioned,” says Llanos, 62, a retired former Seattle Times and MSNBC journalist who now mentors for Report for America.
For all of these issues, some retirees say they want to do more of this work, not less. “I’m still kind of hanging around like the Maytag repairman,” Robinson jokes. “I sit here and wait for people to call and ask for my advice. And there are probably more of my former colleagues who would do that kind of stuff if they knew that these opportunities were out there.”
It could be a movement, Kestin says. “There are certainly enough retired journalists and ex-journalists, because the industry has shrunk. There are probably journalists in every community who aren’t working as journalists. And they have the time.”
“It may not be practical everywhere, but I sure would like to see some other retired journalists stepping up,” she says. “This is our way to give back. It’s just our craft. All we have to do is go and apply the skills we’ve lived and breathed for years.”
This article is © 2023 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College, and is republished here with permission from Nieman Reports.