Every morning before work, local government reporter Erin Mansfield whispers “I love you” to her grey tabby cat Princess Gabriela. Then the 28-year-old gets in her blue 2007 Chevy Cobalt and drives fifteen minutes to the offices of Tyler Morning Telegraph, a daily newspaper with a circulation of 22,556 in Tyler, Texas, where she has covered city government for the past seven months. It is her dream job.
“Living in a small town doesn’t mean you don’t deserve good journalism,” Mansfield said. “I’m so proud to be covering places and subjects that others wouldn’t consider to be sexy, so to speak. That actually keeps me going, it’s fulfilling.”
On Thursday afternoon, 1,300 miles from Tyler, five reporters at the Capitol-Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland were murdered when a gunman stormed their newsroom. The shootings—which the Society of Professional Journalists called the largest attack on journalists on U.S. soil—thrust a local newspaper and its employees into the seemingly endless tragedy of gun violence in America. It also rattled journalists who work in newsrooms nationwide, people like Mansfield.
Mansfield was at her paper’s weekly budget meeting (where the editors and reporter make assignments) on Thursday when the attack in Annapolis happened. She was devastated by the news. Her own Telegraph newsroom is made up of 20 writers, editors, and reporters, the exact number of people the Gazette had on staff.
“As local journalists, we’re so similar and newsrooms tends to all look the same. We’re all doing the same things no matter where we are,” said Mansfield. “It sort of feels like I know other local journalists, even when I don’t.”
Telegraph staff quickly published an Associated Press story about the shooting on its website and then met to talk about safety in the newsroom. Don’t let anyone without a badge into the building, Mansfield recalled her editor saying.
“I operate in an environment, as a local journalist, where we have the president calling out fake news everywhere, and we’ve all seen that meme with the guy’s shirt that says ‘Rope, tree, journalist, assembly required,’” Mansfield said. “The reality of our profession is we’re trying to kick down doors to get basic information and sometimes people get frustrated or send you a sternly worded email, but now [the possibility of] a mass shooting has been added into that mix, and that’s a little unsettling.”
While reporting is Mansfield’s dream job, it’s rarely glamorous. On Wednesday morning, for instance, she met an intern she’s mentoring this summer at the Telegraph’s downtown headquarters. They grabbed Mansfield’s newspaper-owned laptop and a Canon DSLR she bought a few years ago with her own money before heading to city hall around the corner for a bi-weekly meeting of the Tyler city council—a meeting she never misses—to discuss infrastructure projects. She makes a point to take as many photos of local government officials with her Canon as she can, so the Telegraph has them on file.
“[Newsrooms] have been getting smaller,” Mansfield said. “At my first full-time gig, my duties had previously belonged to two different people. I’ve spoken to older, retired or former journalists who are often shocked at how much I do.”
Wednesday’s council topic—as it tends to be—is about highways and annexing land. “Meetings are frankly boring if you don’t understand what’s going on,” said Mansfield. “But that doesn’t mean they’re not important.”
Mansfield writes as many as four stories a day on local government, some of which she whips up during council meetings. She’s become an expert at picking out interesting bits from seemingly dull conversations and turning them into meaningful pieces that first appear on the paper’s website before getting published in print the following day. Last week, she worked on a story about the authorization of funding to paint bike lanes on city streets.
She started as a cub reporter covering small-government board meetings for her hometown paper in Rutland, Vermont, where she wrote up to twelve stories a week, sometimes logging in 60 hours. Then she covered state and local government as a staff reporter for the Vermont Digger for two years, before moving to Texas to be closer to family in Houston (who moved there from Vermont). In January 2018, she was hired as a multimedia journalist by the Telegraph.
“I’ve always felt like local journalism suits my personality,” she said. “I once wrote a story about a local citizen who had recorded a country album. She was just so happy with it and so moved by the piece… and I was like, I’m just doing my job, but people are thanking me all the time and I’m like, ‘This is just a job!’ “
Mansfield wouldn’t disclose her salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for reporters in Texas in 2017 was between $38,610 and $41,190. But that’s the median. Reporters at the bottom 10% of the salary spectrum make just $22,970 a year. It’s no secret that “local journalists are at the end of the totem pole [in terms of salary],” Mansfield said. “I do what I do because I love it.”
On Friday morning—less than 24 hours after the devastating shooting—a journalist at rival publication Tyler Loop brought the Telegraph staff chorizo, sausage, and potato and egg breakfast tacos from Lindo Mexico Restaurant No. 2.
“It was a comforting thing to be reminded how much we [local journalists] all love and appreciate each other,” says Mansfield. “You read the profiles of these people who died [in Annapolis] and you’re like ‘I had an editor like that’ or ’I know a sports reporter like that.’ What we do as local journalists becomes such a big part of who we are.
“Our profession becomes our family.”