When a top reporter leaves a news agency, the rest of the team goes into a kind of mourning. The length of time they remain seated depends on the destination of the almost disappeared.
If the reporter finds himself in a larger, more profitable, and more prestigious store, his former colleagues may experience hopeful joy. Maybe the same will happen to them.
More often than not, the great reporter leaves the newspaper for another type of work, if not better, at least safer.
The talents of top reporters are in great demand. Pick your field: Marketing, Public Relations, Advertising, Public Information, Education, Technology, the Wide World of Nonprofits, Healthcare, Law, Fundraising, Government at All Levels.
If you have a good sense of the news, if you can think critically, if you are good at in-depth research, if you can inhabit social media. â¦ Hey, I’m making it too complicated: if you can read, think, write and speak, you might not find yourself in the job you thought you wanted, but it just might be the job you have. now need a job that portends a happier life.
I recently followed a conversation on Twitter, in which an ace journalist announced her departure from a news agency. She loved her job and her colleagues, but felt her struggling journal was no longer able to maintain a productive work environment. Feeling overworked and underpaid was part of a larger feeling: that the world and the work you once loved was wasting away.
This feeling of atrophy is one of the ways in which individuals experience the larger existential crises that journalism faces. As a business, journalism has suffered the devastating loss of resources due to the collapse of its business model – advertising money – amplified by the disruption of the Internet and the growth of social media.
Who will pay for quality journalism in the future? Many experiments are under way, but no one has the answer. The loss of news and editorial power has left communities – entire states – undercover, depriving citizens of the information they need to make good decisions about their lives. Some places are so exhausted that they have been labeled as topical deserts.
But that’s only half. The other half of the existential crisis involves vicious attempts to decertify the press, to dismiss it as biased and unethical, to turn its reputation as a responsible watchdog into an enemy of the people. The act of blaming the messenger for delivering bad news is old, but in the modern world its effect has been to make the practice of journalism more daunting and sometimes dangerous.
So reporter Sam goes to law school. And off she went reporter Sally to work at the local college public information office. And off you go reporter Buffy to become a vampire slayer. The talk on Twitter about these movements is regretful and, in a way, regrettable. It is as if the journalist had abandoned a priesthood, was no longer a member of the tribe, had gone to the dark side. Often, this judgment is expressed, half jokingly, by the journalist who is about to walk through the door.
When I left the academy in 1977 and entered the newsroom, such stories were expressed as a kind of morality game. Journalists presented themselves as champions of the public good, controlling corrupt power, exposing secrets that citizens needed to know. The obstacles to doing this good job, in the eyes of journalists, were those in charge of public relations or public information. In the words of the former city editor, they were flacks.
The history of this term is revealing, if a bit speculative.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “flack” as “a publicist, a publicist,” someone who at the time could promote a Hollywood film. Sometimes flacks created âpublicity stuntsâ to highlight a project or a celebrity. (I learned this from watching countless episodes of âI Love Lucy.â)
But “flack” is also a spelling variant of “flak”, defined as “exploding shells fired from anti-aircraft artillery”. The word has developed a secondary and informal meaning: “excessive or abusive criticism”. Even today we could say, “I’m getting so much criticism because of this email I sent.”
The connection seems logical and lexical: it is the job of the public relations manager to catch criticism, that is, to protect the interests of the company and its leaders from criticism, and to mitigate the effects of bad news, when such called hatchet work is repelled by public relations work.
If this is your take on public relations, no wonder Jedi journalists are wondering if they have moved on to the dark side.
How sad, how narrow, how counterproductive. This is the story we keep telling ourselves, and if we were to tell it to a shrink, the good doctor would help us understand that it is a story that makes us sick and harms the public good.
What if we changed the story? What if we imagine that the journalist, the mayor’s speech writer, the public school grants editor, the hospital public information officer, were in fact members of the same tribe?
Let me name this tribe: Public Writers.
What do all public writers do? They collect important information. They check. They decide what is more important or interesting. They point it out. Along the way, they tell fascinating stories. They write on purpose for specific audiences.
Ah, I hear the cynics cringe in the valley of the shadow of death: But PR people do it for different reasons than journalists, and to protect different interests!
In their autobiographies, journalists see themselves as their main loyalty to the public. A common story of courage is when a journalist, blocked by an editor or publisher, shares a damning report with a rival news organization. This is supposed to be different from the person in charge of public relations, whose main loyalty, it is said, is not to the public but to the employer.
But the motivations of many individual journalists are less pure than they would admit. Journalists want scoops and surveys that will advance their careers. They work for companies that will keep a lot of secrets when it is in their best interests.
This is what I see: The curse is a blessing in disguise. The migration of good journalists to other fields increases interest in the welfare of important institutions. I know a lot of these âold journalistsâ, and they didn’t leave their skills and values ââbehind. They use them every day for the public good.
I want you to imagine how many writing workshops I have conducted for journalists over the past four decades, and how much I have learned from them. I honor these journalists and editors every day as champions of community and democracy. I have worked with news organizations in 40 states and on five continents.
Because the skills of journalists are widely appreciated, I have been asked to share writing tools with many non-journalistic organizations. These are schools at all levels of education. But they also include businesses, nonprofits, law firms, and government agencies. The list includes the World Bank, Microsoft, Hilton, NOAA, Disney, IBM, HHS, AAA, United Nations, to name a few of the most important.
Never has a workshop participant asked me: how can I hide things from journalists? Or how can I say this without actually saying it? Or how can I shift the blame from our business?
No, they asked me the same questions trusted journalists did: How can I tell better stories? How can I make the facts harder to read more easily? How can I make important things interesting? Can I still use semicolons?
Let me offer perhaps a crude analogy. During the 1960s and beyond, many Catholic men and women in religious life – priests, brothers, nuns – left their sacred orders, some to marry, others to exercise professions in the secular world. We spoke of the âlossâ of these people who had âabandonedâ their vocation.
But they didn’t. They have continued to serve the Church in countless ways, helping it enter the modern world, and instilling professions – including journalism – with a sense of mission and purpose.
What if we created a new organization – call it XJ (for so-called ex-journalists). We would provide these pilgrims with the moral support and continuing education they need to accomplish their mission – not as flack hunters – but as supporters of the public good.
How do you get people vaccinated? We need to get the message out about vaccine safety, availability and effects. Who is responsible for getting this message across? Journalists and other media leaders, of course. But also government officials at all levels, epidemiologists and other scientists, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies, churches and civic organizations, as well as supermarket chains that make vaccines available.
In other words, not a small tribe of journalists. But a large tribe of public writers, of which journalists are essential members.
This article was originally published on June 1, 2021.