Confessions of an ex-journalist

IMG_20150729_082724288My goal was instant intimacy. When I conducted a newspaper interview, I tried to forge a personal connection through facial expressions and sympathetic questions. I tried to convey the impression that I cared about the topic, and agreed with the person’s opinions, more than I really did.

It was a form of professional promiscuity. As soon as I convinced someone to be photographed and wrote the story, I forgot about the person whose life I was making public, and moved on to the next one.

I worked for newspapers for 38 years. I started as a copy editor for five dailies, checking stories and writing headlines. I spent 23 years as the editor of three weekly papers (the photo is from 1985), then 13 years as a writer and reporter. By the time I retired two and a half years ago, I felt a conflict between the demands of my job and my personal values.

Newspaper work was definitely not simple living.

The “confessions” below are not meant as criticism of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where I worked for 32 years. I interacted with many capable people who work there, and as an employer the newspaper was  good to me. I saw the Gazette and the weekly Amherst Bulletin at the peak of their popularity and influence, and witnessed the changing media landscape that led to the financial struggles that are still going on at most newspapers.

Here are some things I observed that readers may not be aware of:

* What newspapers choose to write about isn’t the last word in what you need to know; it’s just what has entered the perceptual fields of journalists. Editors make judgments based on public suggestions and personal tastes. Reporters often gravitate to stories they can produce quickly without risking errors.

* Reporters have to become instant experts. I’m appalled when I recall the short amount of time I had to write some stories, and the stress that resulted. I would frequently attend public meetings that started at 7 or 7:30 p.m. and have to leave before they were over because I had to finish the story by 10. If there was one fact that wasn’t accurate, I’d hear about it the next day.

* Some people think that advertisers have undue influence over newspapers, especially free ones like the Bulletin. But I can remember only one time when I wrote a story that didn’t run because of fear of offending advertisers (it was about people who sell their houses without using real estate agencies).

* It’s common to believe that reporters are biased toward one side of a political issue, but I tried hard to suspend all personal opinions when working on a story. I realized, however, that I was sometimes biased in favor of anyone who was knowledgeable, accessible and quotable.

* Reporters don’t write the headlines that appear above their stories. Some editors alter or add to stories even when it’s unnecessary, but there’s no consistency. Some breeze through stories while others make many changes. Sometimes, editors introduced errors into my stories.

* Some stories rise or fall based on the willingness of one person to have his or her name in the paper. I once wrote a story about an Amherst Select Board member who was pulled over by police after a road rage incident involving a woman with a small child in her car. I confirmed the story with the police and the woman filled in the details, but the story was never published because the woman wouldn’t consent to have her name used.

* Some reporters are motivated by careerism and not community service. They are after The Big Score,  a story about a scandal that will propel them to newspaper awards and better jobs, even if most readers don’t much care about the subject.

* Contest judges favor very long stories, but readers prefer concise stories.

* Newspapers give outsized coverage to the two pols — police and politics — and pay less attention to the many other aspects of human endeavor and community life.

Newspaper work is low-paid, hectic and unpredictable. Those who stick with it, and aim to keep their communities informed, have my sincere admiration.



2 thoughts on “Confessions of an ex-journalist

  1. Is the guise you took on as the attentive, interested professional journalist any different from that taken on by the similarly attentive, outwardly interested medical doctor, prosecutor, reality television producer, psychologist, or college professor? There’s a product that is sought from each particular interaction. You, with some retrospective guilt, it appears, refer to your past behavior as promiscuity, but isn’t this pose simply what we understand to be “professionalism”? In order to be fair and humane, the professional tries to act with some consistency of manner with each person, that is, consistently interested and attentive, but then she/he has to move on to the next individual, and put the last interaction behind her/him. Perhaps there’s an element of flirtation or feigned interest involved (which may be why sex sometimes develops from these relationships). The book that touches directly some of the unsightly issues raised by your post (and each one creates another essay by itself) is Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer”, about Joe McGinniss and Jeffrey MacDonald, and Malcolm, as I recall, is brutal on McGinniss. I hope that you will touch on these matters again, because I think they are fascinating, rarely discussed, and almost never with such candor.

  2. Pingback: Past posts: A simple living index | Adventures in the good life

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