Please visit Medium to read my story on Veronica, the little girl who made the U.S. Supreme Court care — and why you should, too:
A photographer took this picture while we covered a competitive eating event in West Palm Beach in 2008. The medium was corn on the cob, and one of the top competitors had a red beard that netted kernel after yellow kernel. Hence, the expression on my face.
This picture also serves as a great summary of the past few days for me. I started this blog as an outlet where I could share stories, when compelled, even if they fell outside the parameters of my daily work or freelance assignments. When I woke up Wednesday morning, I picked up my phone, rubbed my eyes and scrolled through the hundreds of interactions on the blog and through social media from people across the country and abroad.
As I post this update, 165,000 people have read “Why I left news.” Yes, I realize that a large metropolitan daily newspaper has a larger circulation than that. But after years of waking up with a story in nearly print every day, I never have experienced such a poignant response to anything I’ve written. The blog post is 1,457 words with one photo, decidedly less digestible than cat memes and screaming goat videos. Yet thousands of people read it, shared it and responded to it.
As I rode the bus to work Wednesday morning, I saw that one of my favorite Washington Post reporters had retweeted another journalist who shared the essay, and that a narrative writer whom I always admired had poked fun of the “About Me” section of my blog. How surreal.
And how ironic. After spending years as a reporter, I garnered the most attention after writing a Monday-night blog post about why I resigned from a newspaper. I heard from former colleagues, editors and even teachers. I heard from people who hated the post, and I understand and respect their position. I set up my blog to allow only comments that I had approved, so I manually allowed every comment when the post first caught fire, including the personal attacks.
While this experience was wholly unanticipated, I am deeply moved by the passionate discussion it evoked. Some readers publicly shared messages about trying to find peace with their own decisions to leave news, while others described sticking around and living in fear that they won’t make it to retirement. What a raw conversation.
Thank you for taking the time to read my 1,457 words. And thank you for taking the time to respond to those words with whatever they made you feel.
I get asked two questions several times a week, and I brush off both with a verbal swat.
One — because I’m in my late 20s, I suppose – is when are you getting married? And the other, because it seems like small talk, is why did you leave the newspaper?
I could answer both with a single word: Money.
But I usually deflect the marriage subject, wrongly justifying it as an acceptable passing question, with a practical reason: I’m not eager to have children. And I answer the news question with something to which my audience can nod along: “It didn’t seem like a sustainable career path.”
But that’s a cold and detached answer. I don’t feel cold and detached about news, and I only give that response under the assumption that people don’t want to hang around for the full story – ironically, the same reason newspapers aren’t really working anymore.
So here goes. This is the real reason why I left news: I finally came to accept that the vanity of a byline was keeping me in a job that left me physically and emotionally exhausted, yet supremely unsatisfied.
I started working at newspapers in 2005, the tail-end of the good days. During my first year of work, a Florida newspaper flew me down to the Mexican border to write about cocaine cartel murders back at home. We booked the first available flight, disregarding expense, and arrived before the investigators. That would not happen at a daily newspaper today.
I don’t think the Internet killed newspapers. Newspapers killed newspapers.
People like to say that print media didn’t adapt to online demand, but that’s only part of it. The corporate folks who manage newspapers tried to comply with the whims of a thankless audience with a microscopic attention span. And newspaper staffers tried to comply with the demands of a thankless establishment that often didn’t even read their work. Everyone lost.
People came to demand CNN’s 24-hour news format from every news outlet, including local newspapers. And the news outlets nodded their heads in response, scrambling into action without offering anything to the employees who were now expected to check their emails after hours and to stay connected with readers through social media in between stories.
There was never such a thing as an eight-hour workday at newspapers, but overtime became the stuff of legend. You knew better than to demand fair compensation. If any agency that a newspaper covered had refused to pay employees for their time, the front-page headlines wouldn’t cease. But when it came to watching out for themselves, the watchdogs kept their heads down.
A little more than a month after I left the newspaper, I went to Key West for a friend’s wedding. I realized on the drive home that I had never taken a vacation – aside from a few international trips – without some editor calling with a question about a story. I remember walking down Fifth Avenue in New York on my birthday a few years ago, my cell phone clutched to my ear and mascara running down my face, as an editor told me that he thought the way I had characterized a little girl with cancer needed to be sadder.
To many people, and even to me, part of the draw of news is that it never stops. You wholly invest yourself in a story – until something bigger happens. The only guarantee in any workday is the adrenaline rush. And even when the story isn’t terribly thrilling, you’ve still got a deadline to contend with, a finite amount of time to turn whatever mess you’ve got into 12 to 15 column inches that strangers would want to read.
The flip side to the excitement is the burnout. You’re exhausted, and you’re never really “off.” You get called out of a sound sleep to drive out to a crime scene and try to talk with surviving relatives. You wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, realizing you’ve misspelled a city councilman’s name. You spend nights and weekends chipping away at the enterprise stories that you never have time to write on the clock.
Everyone works so hard for so long and for such little compensation. The results are dangerous.
We saw it with the Supreme Court health care ruling, as our national news leaders reported the decision incorrectly. We saw it with the Newtown massacre, when initial reports named the suspect’s brother as the shooter. Major news outlets are no better than bloggers if they adopt a policy of getting it out first and correcting it later. They don’t have the money to fend off the resulting lawsuits, and they don’t have the circulation numbers to allow people to lose faith in their product.
Newspapers always have been liberal places where people work hard for little pay, because they believe in the job. They always could empathize with the poor. But pay continues to dwindle to the point that I wonder what kind of person, today, enrolls in journalism school?
I took a pay cut when I moved back from Florida to Charleston, expecting to make up the difference quickly. Instead, I quit my newspaper job at 28, making less money than earned when I was 22.
I can’t imagine anyone outside of an affluent family pursuing a career with so little room for financial growth. And I wonder: Would that well-to-do reporter shake hands with the homeless person she interviews? Would she walk into a ghetto and knock on a door to speak with the mother of a shooting victim? Or would she just post some really profound tweets with fantastic hash tags?
Maybe that’s what people – editors and readers – put at a premium now. Maybe a newsroom full of fresh-from-the-dorm reporters who stay at their desks, rehashing press releases and working on Storify instead of actual stories, is what will keep newspapers relevant.
But I doubt it.
The day I announced my resignation, I had to cover the alcohol ban on Folly Beach. The photographer working the story with me said very little about my decision, except for one heartbreaking statement: “But you were made to do this.”
I had thought so, too. For so long, people had asked me what I would do if my name wound up on a future round of layoffs, if my paycheck were furloughed into oblivion.
I had spent countless hours late at night trolling online for something else that appealed to me. But covering news was the only thing I ever had wanted to do and the only thing I ever had imagined doing.
I started writing stories for my local newspaper when I was 16. I worked seven internships in college, eager to graduate and get into a newsroom. I left school early, school that was already paid for with enough scholarship money that I took home a check each semester, so that I could lug my 21-year-old life to West Palm Beach and work the Christmas crime shift alone in a bureau. And I wouldn’t change that decision for anything.
People in news like to describe a colleague’s departure, especially into a public relations or marketing job, as “going to the dark side.” When word of my resignation traveled through the newsroom, I heard “dark side” references over and over, always with a smile and a wink. I couldn’t help but resent them. But I looked over my cubicle each time and flashed my best Miss America grin instead of the middle finger poised over my keyboard.
I now write for the fundraising arm of a public hospital. Anyone who thinks that’s going to the dark side is delusional. And as my former coworkers ate farewell cake on my last day at the paper, a few of them whispered, “Do they have any other openings over there?”
I don’t know a single person who works in daily news today who doesn’t have her eyes trained on the exit signs. I’m not sure what that says about the industry, but I certainly don’t miss the insecurity.
Sure, it took me a while to get used to my new job. When I go to parties, I no longer can introduce myself as a reporter and watch people’s eyes light up. Instead, I hear how people miss seeing my byline. No one misses it more than I.
News was never this gray, aging entity to me. It was more like young love, that reckless attraction that consumes you entirely, until one day – suddenly — you snap out of feeling enamored and realize you’ve got to detach. I left news, not because I didn’t love it enough, but because I loved it too much – and I knew it was going to ruin me.
Valentine’s Day reminded me of someone I hadn’t thought about in years, someone entirely peripheral and unromantic, but significant in a strange way. I was 10 years old, and he was a middle-aged wanderer.
Dave was also a published author and the first writer I ever knew, or rather the first person I knew who wrote and didn’t have another job. I’ll just stick with his first name here, in case he has some undisclosed children out there (and, from what I remember of Dave, that’s a distinct possibility).
Dave lived one block over from my family. He wore a tan baseball cap most days and spoke dismissively about a wife we never saw. He waited for my dad and me every morning over the sand dune on the beach where we walked our Great Dane, Lucy. Dave and my dad would talk the entire stroll, while I half-listened and looked for shells, and Lucy snuck off to eat a few clumps of sand that later would turn into what my dad called “dog cement.” Dave saw us each dawn and yet, when my dad checked the mail every afternoon, he would find stuffed among the bills and solicitations a postcard from Dave. The messages were sometimes joking, often political and always witty.
Because I was too young to understand, I remember the presentation more than the content. Dave wrote in all capital letters in a black ink pen, the kind that would smear easily. But his words never blurred.
Even as a fifth-grader, I wondered why a writer would waste time penning witticisms to his neighbor instead of something that mattered. Now I wonder, while my own writing projects remain unfinished, if the time I waste tweeting hundreds of cynical observations is really all that different.
Because my dad was a musician, I knew what barrooms smelled like early on, and I recognized that stale sweet smell on Dave, sometimes in the morning. I remember him walking in late to my fifth-grade Christmas play, stumbling to his seat and then catcalling the other elementary school kids as they suffered through puberty-riddled vocals and awkward dance routines involving 4-foot-long candy canes.
Dave drove an aqua-colored Honda del Sol and kept a handmade sign in his left rear window that read, “Speed on, brother. Hell ain’t half full yet.” My school bus passed by Dave’s first-floor apartment every morning and, one day, I noticed a white sandwich board perched on the hatchback of his car.
I knew the silent message was for me. This was my postcard. But I worried that some of the other sleepy kids seated around me would notice. Should I be embarrassed? Had this happened today, I’d be practicing my target skills at the gun range. But I knew, in my 10-year-old wisdom, that this was a unique situation, and I carefully considered the circumstances before deciding not to worry. That was a good thing, because the sandwich board reappeared on the back of the del Sol every morning that school year – except Valentine’s Day.
I’m pretty sure I wore a red sweater that day. I’m pretty sure my mom put a box of conversation hearts in my camouflage book bag. But on one detail of that day I’m absolutely sure: Dave’s sign. Instead of the recycled sandwich board message, he had something new.
“HAPPY VAL, AL.”
Social acceptance be damned. I couldn’t help but smile and look around proudly to see if anyone noticed. They didn’t, of course. And the next day, the usual sandwich board reappeared.
I went to middle school the following year and started a new bus route that didn’t pass Dave’s house. Dave eventually moved away, and his postcards seemed to correlate to his physical proximity; They came less and less frequently. I wrote a god-awful novella in 10th grade and, not knowing any other writers, my dad suggested I send it to Dave for a quick edit.
Dave wrote back dutifully, “For a sophomore, your vocabulary is anything but sophomoric.” He gave me scant suggestions and overlooked the glaring problems. Namely, I’d chosen to write a love story set during the bubonic plague. Not only did the fleas detract from the romance, but the heroine’s name, Luallis, was simply a mash-up of my name and the family dog’s name. Dave didn’t acknowledge any of that. He just told me to keep writing.
A few years later my parents heard, probably at the post office, that Dave had shot himself in the head. I hadn’t thought much about him, his postcards or the sandwich boards atop the del Sol until today. The first writer I ever knew taught me very little about writing but a good deal about moderation, time management and kind gestures.
And so in memory of Dave, the first writer I ever knew, happy Val to you all.
Chances are, the only people who read a first blog post are Mom (proudly), Significant Other (dutifully) and Strangers in Countries You Can’t Spell (because that’s just the way of the internet).
That said, there’s still such pressure for a first post to deliver. Writing for a new publication, whether it’s a newspaper that circulates hundreds of thousands of copies or even just the latest social media fad, has always made me feel a bit exposed. I want to look good, but I never want it to seem like I’m trying too hard.
With that in mind, I figured I couldn’t go wrong with my recent Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend encounter with Al Green, the Reverend Al Green.
A bit of back story: My close friend and former Florida newspaper colleague recently graduated from the FBI Academy and was assigned to Memphis. Yes, my friend left news and became a special agent, while I left news and bought a WordPress page. Anyway, I had gone to Memphis once back in college but didn’t remember anything too thrilling. I guess if watching ducks cross a hotel lobby is one of the top tourist attractions then — well, Dorothy, you’re probably no longer in Conde Nast’s favorite city in the world.
But way down in the dregs of TripAdvisor’s Memphis Attraction list (OK, it was the bottom of the first page, but we’re a two-second attention span society), I found Full Gospel Tabernacle. People had even reviewed the church services. At first, I thought, how tacky! Then I pondered writing a review of all the Roman Catholic masses I was forced to endure as a child. But I pulled my own two-second attention span back to the task at hand: Could we actually go see the Rev. Al Green sing gospel?
Reviewers complained about being shaken down for cash during the offering, about having to wait hours before Al Green showed up and about his lackluster sermon (really, you came for his sermon?). But on one point, they all seemed to agree: the music was legit.
Full Tabernacle is an unassuming, single-story church nestled in a neighborhood a few turns away from Graceland. A man wearing a full suit and an elastic Memphis Grizzlies bowtie greeted us as soon as we stepped out of the car, eagerly asking where we were from. We made our way inside and sat in a pew toward the back, a few rows in front of some German college students with Nikons around their necks. A security guard took her seat in a folding chair along the wall. And the music started.
A full choir stood front and center on the altar, beneath a painting of the Last Supper, which hung beside a portrait of Al Green. A full band – keys, percussion, electric guitar, the works – played to the right of the singers. An elderly woman in a plum-colored skirt suit danced so feverishly in an aisle that the gray curls piled atop her head shook violently, and a younger woman rushed to fan her with a program. A white woman up front kept her arms in the air for entire songs, as if raising the roof for Jesus over and over.
The band and choir served as the perfect opening act to work everyone into a froth before Al Green walked in. He flashed that boyish smile, which makes him look decades younger than his 66 years (or maybe platinum record sales will do that). He took his time finding his way to a chair at the front of the choir, a chair decorated with crushed purple velvet and cursive gold lettering that read “Bishop Al Green.”
He didn’t just sing; he testified with music. And the people clapped. They nodded. They punctuated each line of verse with “yes!” Affirmations for Jesus or for Al Green, it didn’t matter. Every time he started to preach, it seemed, he changed his mind and instead launched into song. I’ll give an Amen to that. And when it came time for the offering, you could walk right up to Al Green and shoot him a smile right back. Hands down, best $23 we spent in Memphis.
My advice the next time your friend becomes an FBI agent and you plan a trip to go see her in Memphis: Skip the ducks, and go to church instead.
-Cue lightning strikes-