Never forget you are on an adventure, whatever your tools – pen/laptop/audio-/video-recorder. You are on an adventure that is a gift of your craft. Like all quests, this one has rules, and one of them is to speak truthfully of those you encounter on your way.
That does not mean you won’t make mistakes or speak incorrectly. (Every time I get a correction it pierces my heart.) It means that fundamentally you remain committed to true communication, which delivers a parcel of information about the human condition from one person to another…. really, from one-to-many.
Last week was a bad week for journalism. Bob Simon of 60 Minutes, who covered Israel extensively and was held captive in Iraq for 40 days, is killed in an auto accident. NBC anchor Brian Williams gets suspended for six months (at least). And the New York Times’ David Carr, who survived addiction and lymphoma, dies of lung cancer and heart disease at age 58.
I didn’t know David Carr but his death really touched me. He is (I can’t bring myself to say “was”; and through his writing he is still very much an “is”) an inspiration. Not a “should-be-inspiration,” an overly saintly version of what you think is good. David Carr was an ass-kicker and an experimenter and, from what I hear personally as well as things documented, a great mentor, and a flawed but triumphant man, and an amazing writer. And he died in the saddle, the night he hosted a conversation about the chilling documentary Citizen Four. Anyway, it hurts even from afar. And I’m sorry to all his friends/family/colleagues/circle.
What Brian Williams did was disrespectful to the truth and those involved, including veterans. If you want to quest badly enough, tall-tale-telling should be unnecessary. If you are a journalist, and want to have adventures and are doing your job right, you will have them. Maybe not always as often as you like nor, certainly, paid as well, but you can still make journalism an outsized career in terms of transcendent and/or terrifying moments. Again… if that’s what you choose. But are you willing to live on a fluctuating and often low income to be, say, a freelancer on the US/Mexico border? Or in Provence, France? Or in your hometown? What does journalism mean to you? How often do you want to be behind or away from a desk? What technical skills do you already have that could help with your quest, or what do you need to acquire? (I can’t help, here, imagining that everything from “digital photography” to “German proficiency” to “data viz” and “app design” are like little game-play icons you can win.)
I tell stories about my career often, so I get the impulse for sure. The stories I tend to go on about are ones where I learned something fit for print and also something that I took away personally. When I went to a park-n-ride in Frederick, Maryland, after a blizzard to interview people from the Klan, I had already interviewed one of them before and done a lot of research to ensure they were a group committed to the rhetoric of hate but not (to date) actual physical crimes. I found out, to my surprise, that Ocean City at that time (the 1990s) had a far more dangerous group of the Klan than many others in the state.
For print, I wrote (for a larger piece) just about interviewing a female Klan member that day. But I’ve talked many times about larger lessons and funny-weird moments, like my friend Thomas musing that by driving me to the appointment we weren’t scoring any points, because we were race mixing. (Thomas is a white Southerner, and was gutsy and a great friend to drive with me. Thanks.)
Journalism should allow those of us who choose to walk away with great stories. But they should be true. (See: David Carr.) If you want to tell amazing true stories but your journalism outlet isn’t letting you, then at some point you want to migrate to where you can do the kind of stories you want. If you want to anchor, you may not have as much time to field report. When I haven’t been able to do field reporting I have really missed it. I’ve gotten to report from various points abroad, but mainly explored America, and feel like I know it in an entirely different way than I did as a child. I’ve grown from going to New Mexico; or the Crow Reservation (and its visionary college) in Montana; or coastal Oregon or Kansas City (MO and KS) or, of course, New Orleans and Miami and Chicago (where I spent two three-month stints). Journalism should grow you. And there are many ways that can happen – reporting, editing, working in the newer fields of data and design (visual and product). But whatever it is you set out wanting to do in journalism, do it, or it’s not worth it.
On the other hand, detours lead to wide paths. I can’t say I was thrilled to start being a fact-checker at Newsweek. It was the standard entry-level job but was too much desk-based and cleaning-up-other-peoples’-messes for my taste. At least at first. But I learned so much from going to Newsweek’s research library, with its incredible librarians, who knew history and how to find and make sense of the documentation of history as done by the news. But working to fact-check other reporters’ stories fundamentally gave me an entirely new skillset in my research, and made me a better reporter – in large part because it introduced me to a wide variety of reporters and their methods and personal approaches to work. It was a great training ground. (And of course, once I became a reporter, the fact-checkers were cleaning up my messes.) My first book , Don’t Believe the Hype (on race and the media) was definitely born of my time as a fact-checker.
This is a death-birth time in journalism and media broadly. Many of the old models are sunsetting, or diminishing audience in order to share space with new models for producing and distributing news. Over the past few years I’ve worked to get a basic sense of how revenue models work in media, for different platforms at different levels of maturity and in different corporate forms (C Corp; nonprofit; B Corp, for example). For better or worse, part of your job as a journalist today is to understand where the money comes from and goes for what reason and whether the pipeline will keep flowing. Your career can depend on your good judgment in staying with or leaving an institution; or broadening your skill-set.
Of course, the number one thing that will help or hurt your career is your bond with other people. I used to think this was some kind of tragic inequality – purely about nepotism and alumni clubs and personal alliances. I still think a lot of that rules journalism, and just about every profession where people work for glory as well as pay. But I also think a well-tended garden of alliances, which has often led to barriers and biases in journalism, can be used to re-form it as well. There are new alliances forming between journalists who want to see more diversity in the field; find new models of making journalism financially viable, creative, and ethically sound; and reach a wider audience, among other fine things. As I found while doing a 20th anniversary edition of Don’t Believe the Hype, race and the media is still a bit of a shitshow. (And yes, that is the scientific term in my book.) But as Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
So: what are your demands to power? Don’t pretend you don’t have them. One of my demands is that we deal with diversity in employment and storytelling, because it’s just right but/and also leads to more historically accurate and more genuinely creative journalism. Perhaps your demand is, “I want to be the (wo)man in the anchor chair.” Or perhaps it’s, “I will revolutionize storytelling about my community.” Or perhaps “I will revolutionize how multimedia stories are told with the still image and the recorded word.” Or it could be, “Under extreme financial pressures, I am a key part of a functional newsroom.” You don’t have to stick to just one mission your whole career, but if you don’t have one, journalism is a lot less interesting and frankly, makes a lot less sense to do. Truth-telling is a complicated and perilous business, and a fantastic universe for a life quest.