former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

The Blog

In Blog on March 12, 2011 at 4:03 am

Why I Wrote This Book

For years, I have had a recurring dream. I’m in a newsroom, working on a story, desperate to be accepted, wanting a job. The room is crowded, noisy, intense. I observe people but they don’t seem to notice me. Obstacles get in the way of making a good impression. Either I’m dressed in my underwear, or can’t find a computer, or don’t understand the assignment. Whatever happens, and however hard and frantically I try, the dream always ends the same way: I am shut out.

I have had this dream since I left journalism, although leaving journalism was a perfectly rational thing to do, and something I did voluntarily. I loved my new career as a public interest lobbyist, and the power it gave me to influence public policy. Writing a sentence in a law, I would tell myself, was far more meaningful than writing a front-page story.

And yet that sense of incompleteness wouldn’t go away.

My husband told me that journalism was the abusive spouse I couldn’t get over. I could see his point.  Being a journalist is addictive. There’s joy in being at the center of events, be they murder investigations or presidential campaigns. There is an adrenaline rush to getting the news out fast and before one’s competitors do.

Other workplaces are like that: a hospital or battlefield, a police station, or the trading floor of a stock exchange. Each of these occupations creates its own sense of an adrenaline-induced camaraderie, and a pretty high tolerance for somewhat unusual behavior. I have cried in the offices of editors, not a good strategy when they are glass-walled. I have witnessed colleagues openly drinking from flasks at work, setting fire to assignment sheets, shouting, swearing or screaming. I have never seen anyone assault a colleague, although a fellow reporter did come close: writing a death threat to a very mild-mannered night city editor. (Management took the reporter’s threats in stride. He was scolded for not being a team player, but was not punished.)

Emotionally, there has been unfinished business between me and journalism.  It’s the lover I haven’t forgotten, the love affair that ended badly and abruptly.  I don’t know why I continue to care about journalism and its future.  Perhaps those dreams, and the recent rocky times for journalism, pushed me into embarking on the book project: I would find other former journalists, preferably those who left mainstream journalism voluntarily, and ask them to  tell their stories. I didn’t have a thesis, really. I was much more interested in the stories themselves than in advancing a media critique.

It’s been nearly two years since I began this journey. I found wonderful interview subjects from major mainstream media outlets including all three networks and CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine. I found something else, too.   These immensely successful and productive practitioners had many of the same feelings I experienced when I was a reporter. I wasn’t the only person who cringed when a story came out, unable to look at my work in print, berating myself up for not writing it better. Other reporters had wept when an editor unfairly came down on them for something. I wasn’t the only reporter who felt vulnerable to judgments that could be arbitrary and unfair. I wasn’t the only reporter to still regret the story I had worked so hard on that fell through the cracks, and never made it into print.  I wasn’t the only journalist who wanted to do more and better work, but was urged to settle for less.

What I have now is a manuscript, Out of the News, to be published in the Fall of 2012 by McFarland.

What I no longer have is that recurring dream.


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