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341. Use a little Shoeleather to find freelancers

When a national story breaks, editors outside of major media hubs often consider sending reporters to small towns across the country to get “boots on the ground” coverage.

Wouldn’t it be easier, cheaper and, perhaps, more effective if they could hire someone who understands the people at the heart of the story?

Sarah Baird, a freelance journalist based in New Orleans, thinks so. She believes locally based reporters are better able to provide fuller, richer and deeper articles in a more comprehensive, detailed way than those who “parachute” in for a few days and then fly out.

“If you’re a local journalist, you’re invested in your community, invested in different angles,” she said. “You’re going to be able to provide a ton of context, history and backstory and a level of concern about where you’re from than someone who’s parachuting in and just has the lineup of people they know they have to talk to and then leaving. The quality and well-roundedness is not going to be comparable.”

With this premise squarely in min, Baird created Shoeleather, a database with more than 1,000 journalists from across all 50 states and U.S. territories, available at a moment’s notice to cover stories not in New York; Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

It’s free for journalists to enroll. They simply provide their primary and secondary cities and states along with any demographic information that could offer additional insight into coverage (LGBT status, whether they’re a person of color, whether they’re living with a disability, etc). Once approved, editors from around the country have access to their information and profiles and can call on them to report on the ground on a national story, or one of particular interest to that publication.

“It’s a matchmaking service without the middleman,” Baird said. “Editors and writers can connect directly via websites and social media. Editors can figure out which writer might be the best fit and can contact them. It’s free; that’s something that’s incredibly important. It’s not behind a paywall. Not only is it an exercise in ensuring editors can get in touch with local writers in an easy and seamless fashion, it’s a visibility thing. There’s an erroneous assumption that there aren’t a ton of writers in rural areas and there are.”

Like many people, she was dismayed by people flying in to rural areas after the 2016 election to “understand” rural voters, instead of just hiring people who lived in far-flung communities outside major cities to explain their environments.

The idea of a database of freelance writers across the country seemed so obvious, Baird was shocked to learn it didn’t yet exist. So she made one.

Shoeleather is expanding into the U.S. territories and will kick off a newsletter featuring success stories. “It’s interesting to see how the tool is being used in ways I didn’t anticipate,” she said. “A lot of regional papers in places like Houston and Atlanta have been able to use Shoeleather to connect with people in smaller communities in metro areas. They’re able to reach out to someone in town to write the story.”  

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