Edited by Sam Thielman
THE FIRST THING I ever did in journalism was beg someone to let me open her mail.
I was 19 years old. Weeks before, I had been turned down for an internship at New York Press, which I considered to be the only alt-weekly that mattered. I couldn’t accept being shut out of that paper, so, thanks to a friend from the punk scene who knew the listings editor – back then, club promoters, gallery publicists and other elements of the city’s cultural ecosystem used bulletins in alt-weeklies to let New Yorkers know about the coming week’s entertainment – I told a woman named Lisa that if she’d let me hang around a couple days a week, I’d take care of the parts of her job she liked the least. Lisa gestured to a large pile of mail and a letter opener.
And so it was that I became a listings intern. It was my entrance into a sort of place that would shape the rest of my life: a newsroom.
It’s hard to convey how stupidly purposeful I was about that shitty job. NYPress, to use the house style of a dead paper, was the most exciting thing to me in city journalism. The Village Voice was by journalistic standards a better paper, with what was, in retrospect, a more valorous editorial mission. NYPress was more like a zine that had grown up. The production manager at the time was Jeff Koyen of Crank, and the reason I knew about the paper at all was local punk fixture George Tabb, a Maximumrocknroll columnist who wrote music and video game reviews for NYPress. The paper published far-left writers and far-right writers as part of a mission to be viciously oppositional to everything else published in the city. (Also, I would learn, because notorious racist Taki Theodoracopulos financed his own section in the paper! NYPress was flagrant.) This was in 1999 – as it happened, when the paper ended its prime – and it felt dangerous to 19-year-old me.
More importantly, NYPress published creative writers, people who would start restaurant reviews with deliria about God scratching His greasy back with a compass that He would then use to mark the location of whatever kitchen had raised editorial ire. There was nothing else like that in newsprint. The paper’s associate editor, an excitable weirdo with an acerbic writing style I loved, described NYPress as “a community of writers.” I wanted to be one of them, and the newsroom was where their community manifested.
Behind the narrow suite of desks where Lisa and the research staff worked was the bullpen. It was illegal to smoke inside commercial buildings, but if you worked in the bullpen, you could smoke at your desk all day if you wanted. At frequent but unpredictable intervals, writers would start bullshitting about books, records or movies, complain about what they were working on, cajole sources over the phone, bum cigarettes, sneer at whatever they had recently read at another outlet, and generally try to outdo each other line for line. It was quiet for long stretches and then wildly loud.
On one very hungover Saturday morning, one of the owner’s children bashed me with a plastic lightsaber in the base of my skull, because he could. I yelled, picked the kid up over my head and in a very controlled fashion – no matter how badly my head throbbed, foremost in my mind was that this was the owner’s son – piledrove him onto the disgusting bullpen couch while he squealed with glee. Little did I know then that I would encounter that sort of power imbalance, in newsroom after newsroom, and have to navigate it in more creative ways, none of which would ever be as much fun as the first.
I didn’t know a thing about journalism. I had no career ambition, at all, before I set foot in a newsroom. My employment history, since I was eligible for my working papers, was: busboy/dishwasher at a diner; NYPIRG canvasser; dishwasher/janitor/caterer’s assistant; greenmarket manager/flyer distributor for City Harvest (this one was cool); secretarial assistant to a friend’s lawyer mother; courthouse temp who digitized torts. I figured I would drum in bands and work similar kinds of jobs when necessary. It was only when my mother suggested I try being a reporter, owing to some well-received zine writing I enjoyed doing, that journalism occurred to me as something I could maybe do. But I didn't know any journalists.
The NYPress newsroom taught me that no one was going to teach me. Everyone was busy with their own things, and no one was there to be a mentor. So, sink or swim; meet the paper’s interests and standards, or don’t. That was never going to be an efficient approach to learning, say, how to get public records, but its virtue was that it forced me to do things I didn’t like doing, like calling people up unbidden or forcing my way into uncomfortable situations. The only people who gave me practical tutorial advice about how to perform journalism are a The New Republic colleague, John Judis, and my dear friend/twice editor Noah Shachtman. As a result, when younger reporters have asked me for advice, both technical and big-picture, I’ve tried to make time to give it.
But whatever professional skills I’ve developed in this mentorless business have emerged out of a process of pure trial and error, not the deliberate application of methods in which I have been trained and certified. NYPress’ newsroom also taught me that you don’t need that. What you need is to listen when people talk – what they say, what they don’t, and how they say it – and then research what they tell you.
SOMETHING ELSE I didn’t know was that a lot of people in journalism do not need to earn money to live. When I worked in Washington, D.C., I met more people who had gone to private schools than I’d known in my whole life before I moved. Judis took an interest in me at TNR because, like him, I was a public-school kid; we were in a place where that was remarkable. That place was cliquish, self-reverent to the point of cultishness, and its alumni network stretched throughout prestige journalism.
TNR’s sensibilities were those of the powerful, even when the people voicing them were not themselves wealthy. My presence in the industry was a fluke, and I needed a paycheck, so I adapted to this set of editorial priorities, even when I thought I was resisting them. When those people fired me in October 2006, they told other potential employers I was unstable – the effects of which I felt as recently as 2017. You can imagine the emotional effects of this eviction on a newsroom creature. It took about six months of lean freelancing for me to google culinary schools.
Instead, I went to Iraq for a month and then took a staff job I didn’t want because I was scared of the instability. After that I had one staff job after another for the next 15 years, before it occurred to me that at some point along the way I had won a Pulitzer Prize and didn’t need to live like a disgraced 26-year old.
All this happened during journalism’s erosion, and then its outright collapse. I graduated from college in 2002 into my first adult recession. I had an internship – paid, but badly – at TNR within three weeks of graduation, and I knew how lucky I was to have an employment opportunity like that. The internet had yet to mature, but it had advanced sufficiently to begin serious destruction of journalism revenues. I don’t have any data here, but one noticeable aggregate impact was that experienced editors, particularly editors who had been reporters, left the newsroom throughout the 2000s. That generation was replaced by editors who understood the internet, what sort of pieces the internet responded to, and what sort of pieces the internet wouldn’t.
I am not saying one generation or mode of operation is better than another; whatever else I am, I’m an Online Journalist. But in general, the people who began rising in newsrooms couldn’t answer questions like “how do I get property records from the county clerk?” They were there to implement the vision of the wealthy people who ran newsrooms – a reflection, in class loyalty as in sensibility, of the still wealthier people who own newsrooms. Then the bottom really fell out of journalism after the 2008 financial crisis and the wholesale absorption of online advertising by social media giants. Despite the proliferation of consultants eager to feed off journalism’s necrotic tissue, no one has a good answer for how journalism, in the main, survives. Buzzfeed is now trying to become a data giant through acquisition.
All these catastrophes together gave me a constant sense of career precarity, even after I started making real money, because I had seen how the bottom dropped out beneath friends and colleagues. The anxiety inclined me toward a kind of tribalism, even to what I now recognize as timidity. Even when I didn’t realize I was doing it, I was crafting my coverage for what I thought or, more rarely, was told an outlet needed, which is to say, the sensibilities of various editors. (I want to be very clear that I am talking here about my cumulative experience, not any particular outlet.) I would instinctively defend other reporters, even outlets, when someone from Outside The Tribe attacked them. I never framed it that way – I told myself that this was just me not wanting to take any gratuitous or cheap shots. But then I would bristle when the entire Pentagon press corps sneered at reporters who didn’t treat their subjects with due reverence.
The truth is that a lifetime in newsrooms creates a certain insularity, especially among people who feel the stresses of working on a big story. That insularity can blind you to what is or isn’t news; whose stories get told; where euphemisms conceal superficiality. These blind spots become the boundaries of respectable discourse. They exist differently, by degree, at every publication, and while they can be challenged, there is a certain tacit degree of acceptance of them when you take and keep a staff job.
Only a few sorts of people can be found in newsrooms, which is particularly worth remembering when people who run newsrooms fret about that fact, and act as if excluding whole classes of people is an unfortunate thing, something to mitigate, but ultimately inevitable. In the main, though exceptions abound, every newsroom I ever worked in was overwhelmingly white, middle class-to-wealthy, at least two generations away from their families having immigrated, and coastal in outlook, even when its reporters and editors came from the interior of the country. (Or, in the case of the Guardian’s New York and D.C. bureaus, from the U.K. or Australia.)
All these trends intensify the higher you ascend in the newsroom hierarchy, where it gets whiter and wealthier, and that’s well before we ascend to senior management or ownership. Women, typically white women, have places in the newsroom, but they, like nonwhite people of all genders, tend to get encouraged to take mid-level editorial positions that functionally cap careers at that tier, as the exportable skills they reinforce tend to do with the air-traffic-control functions of publishing – badgering writers, finding photos, pulling wire copy, attending meetings, scheduling publication, coordinating deconflicting with other departments – rather than the newsgathering ones. It is in this unrepresentative environment that reporters and editors decide what is and is not news.
Getting fired from one job made me more compliant at the next. After all, I would tell myself, no one appointed you editor, and every editor who says they want you to challenge them is springing a trap. Some of this is just social pressure that exists in every social environment. But in journalism, such pressure affects how reporters describe and even perceive the world, and so not challenging that pressure has consequences as well. I’m talking about newsrooms that approximated my politics, such as the Guardian and the Washington Independent, as much as I am about newsrooms that didn’t.
The worst part is, I thought – often – that I was aware of all this and working counter to it. But sometimes, when I look back at my work, as I had to when I wrote my book, the undertow is more conspicuous to me than any resistance to the current.
There was a time when I saw journalism romantically. Sometimes it is romantic, as it was when The Guardian, after getting the Edward Snowden leaks, pressed forward with challenging the world's most powerful surveillance entities in the face of unrelenting government hostility. Of my own reporting, perhaps that was the work closest to what I considered journalism’s ideal. But more often I saw that no outlet will ever be loyal to you, that they will still expect total loyalty from you, and they will always explain this expectation by telling you the newsroom is like a family. Some of your best friends will come from your newsrooms. But your newsroom is not your crew. It will not come to your rescue when they come for you. People will. To those people, give everything, but to outlets, give only what they prove they are willing to give you back. And they will prove it every day, if you pay attention. Working in this business has been a process of learning how the thing you love doesn’t exist, and that you have to kill that love before the longing becomes too much for you. This was the only good lesson I learned from getting fired.
Usually, being romantic about this business will get you exploited, and the solution to exploitation is organizing. The explosion in labor organization over the past eight-ish years, which I’ve been privileged to take part in at two outlets, is the single most hopeful experience I’ve had in newsrooms – in my twenties I truly thought it could never happen. The hardest part of leaving is no longer being able to contribute to something so necessary. If you’re not willing to stand with the deputy social media editor or the night editor or the copy desk or anyone else whose labor makes your journalism professional, get no external accolades and whom management considers particularly disposable, the people underpaid the worst and the most vulnerable within a collapsing industry, fuck you.
I know it’s been 2,300 words without a traditional lede or nutgraf, [I tried. – Sam.] but I still can’t fully disentangle the good from the bad when it comes to newsrooms. That’s going to take more processing than a single newsletter edition can offer. Being there was formative for me, and I don’t regret it. But I need to take some time – possibly the rest of my life – away. Decompressing and dealing with all this required changing the material circumstances of my work, and so here we are. You can do incredible work inside newsrooms, and you can also lose yourself there.