Falling in Love With Words and How Journalists Use Them
I don’t particularly like thinking about what I might do after I earn my master’s degree in journalism. J-school, for all the work and worry, is more fun than any job I’ve ever had. It feels like a great indulgence.
A year ago, I was fortunate to be able to walk away from a job I hated and an occupation, publications editing, that barely kept me awake. For four months, I swam, read, had lunch with friends, cleaned house, cooked dinner and spent relaxed, delightful days and nights with my husband, Mark, and our three dogs. By the end of May, when I turned 40, I felt great.
Two days after my birthday, I walked into Associate Dean Christopher Callahan’s beginning-level reporting and writing class for graduate students at the University of Maryland College of Journalism. I said I was there to improve my writing but, truth be told, I wanted to know if I had what it takes to produce a good news story because I’d concluded that a) I am compelled to work with written words and b) most of my favorite writing these days is by journalists, especially in magazines such as Harper’s and The Oxford American, and I want to learn how to write like they do. I wanted to give journalism one more shot.
Eleven years ago, I quit a budding career in broadcast journalism. I left a wonderful morning anchor slot at the number one news operation in Roanoke, Virginia, because I could not bear to look ahead at more years of writing about fatal fires, drunken homicides and car crashes. Nor did I want to use my appearance, my voice and my personality to present those kinds of stories to viewers day after day. I also didn’t want to have to keep on moving to wherever I could find the next bigger-market job on my way to a network job which, once I got there, might not be what I wanted anyway. My heart just wasn’t in it. And, of course, my personal life stank. At 29, I looked at women like Diane Sawyer, then in her early 40’s and unmarried, and thought, forget it. There’s got to be more to life than an all-consuming, so-called glamorous job. Last June I came home from that first day of journalism class and told Mark, “Everything has changed. You’ve never seen me like this before.”
Dean Callahan, who loved news and newspapers like no one else I’d ever met, reminded me of everything I had loved about journalism and being a journalist: the blood-pumping challenge of getting the whole story exactly right in a ridiculously short amount of time; the reverence I feel for the vital role the press plays in a democratic society, the mental quickness and forthrightness that characterized the newspaper journalists I knew in Roanoke. At last I had the chance to concentrate on learning how to gather the parts of a story and tell it well, regardless of how my hair looked.
I’m now in my second semester at Maryland. Aside from my course work, I am a graduate assistant to Knight Chair Haynes Johnson, whose name I first heard during Watergate, when my mother would read excerpts from his Washington Post stories and say “I just love that Haynes Johnson.” I’m even getting to do some research for his current book project about the United States at the close of the 20th Century. I don’t have time to clean my house, and I rarely cook anymore. But I’ve taken unforgettable courses with former USA Today National Editor Carl Sessions Stepp and American Journalism Review Editor Rem Rieder. I was one of a small group of students who met weekly last semester for Q and A sessions with Washington Post journalists and legends such as Leonard Downie Jr., George Solomon and David S. Broder. Why would I want to think about life after J-school?
I go around and around in my head about what I might do after graduation. The central conflict seems not an unusual one. I want it all, every day: challenging and creative work, time with my loved ones, time to do laps in the pool. And there’s one more requirement. Whatever work I do has to be in or around Washington, D.C., because Mark, harmonica player and front man for a blues, rock and soul band that’s been a local institution since the 70’s, is not about to move anywhere.
From everything I’ve heard—in class, from friends who’ve worked at papers, from journalists at The Post—reporting at a daily is not for me. The hours, the pace, the prohibitions (at The Post, at least) on contributions to nonprofit organizations, all conflict with who I am. I have also heard, repeatedly, that the best way to develop into a great journalist is to spend years as a reporter at a daily. Whenever I read an article I think is especially well-written—a New Yorker profile of Gail Zappa, a Village Voice story about a teenaged murder suspect, to name two recent examples—I feel a gnawing unease that I might never reach my potential as a journalist because to have what I need to be healthy and happy I must set boundaries on my professional life. I’ve never heard anything to make me think that setting strict personal boundaries leads to finding meaningful work at a daily.
This summer I’m going to explore magazine work as an intern at American Journalism Review. I love to read magazines and to hold them and page through them, feeling the paper, examining the typefaces, studying the design. The idea of eventually being able to freelance is appealing. Working at a publication that uses freelancers seems like a good way to find out a little about that part of the business, although I know it’s a hard way to begin a journalism career. Still, I think I need to spend some time writing news stories on a regular basis. I’ve also learned, in all the types of work I’ve attempted, that I need a mentor or two to help push my skills forward. If I’m lucky, I might get those needs met, for a while at least, at one of the Washington area weeklies. To meet clip requirements in my courses, I’ve done some reporting for the Gazette weekly newspapers in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live. Covering community news here is as much fun as it was in Roanoke when I started out reporting for a radio station, even though I had not at that point studied journalism.
One of my future-job fantasies is that I fall in love with covering Montgomery County. Then, in a couple of decades, Mark and I move to a village in Vermont and I spend my final years at a small family-owned newspaper with impeccable journalistic standards. I wonder, though, about my ability to adhere to the norms of what it means to be a journalist and refrain from taking a stand on political and community issues. Broadcast news and J-school have taught me to investigate issues from as many angles as possible, but the older I get the more important it starts to feel to be able speak out and act when I sense that by doing so I might make a difference.
I’ve paid attention during the four decades that have so far comprised my life. And there are, as Dorothy Allison, author of “Bastard Out of Carolina,” says, two or three things I know for sure. At the very least I need to be able to contribute my money to a few organizations whose work I believe is essential to making the world a better place. Whether I want to use my journalism skills to advocate particular causes or issues is something I have not yet decided.
I’ve thought a lot about some of the disturbing issues that now confront journalism: scandal feeding frenzies; private lives as news; increasing dependence on anonymous sources; unethical practices; weakened foreign coverage; rising public distrust of journalists; declining readership, and how the consolidation of media ownership affects our jobs. And we’ve discussed each, sometimes ad nauseam, in my classes. Although these issues concern me deeply as a citizen, with the exception of the last two they do not figure into my thinking about my future career. First, I have set for myself high ethical and professional standards; I know from my experience on previous media jobs that I am not afraid to say no or put my job on the line if asked to do something I believe is wrong. Second, I’ve seen how quickly change occurs.
In the last five years, for example, Internet technology has opened up unlimited possibilities for publishing and marketing the printed word. At the same time, “public journalism” initiatives have created fresh approaches to news coverage. Though its configuration may change, and the ways we reach it may be in transition, I have no doubt there will continue to be an audience for substantive, probing journalism. Also, I am convinced that independent-minded publishers will succeed on the Internet.
Sometimes I think I’d like to go to work with an on-line publication, although I am not sure the accelerated pace of that medium would coincide with my desire for the slower rhythm offered by a weekly or monthly. As a consumer, I’ve grown accustomed to getting my news on line and, like most everyone I know, spend hours every day reading, writing and listening to music on my computer. I’m among those who have the highest hopes for the Internet’s ability to protect and enhance free speech. I’d love to do an internship at an on-line magazine or journal, to absorb the lessons of cyberpublishing and just to be around the kind of pioneers who are advancing this new medium.
This brings me to my bottom-line consideration as I try to figure out which way to go once my golden days at Maryland are over. Whatever I end up doing needs to include being a part of the journalism community. I love being in the company of print journalists. The best I’ve met are annoyingly independent in thought and action. They love words. They pay attention to what is happening around them. Without them in my life, my thinking would be narrower and my world smaller.
Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy being a middle-aged kid in an academic candy store. I have figured out how to make my studies last until sometime in 2000. By then, maybe these thoughts and desires might clarify themselves into an obvious next step. And perhaps I’ll be as lucky—and as energized—when I take that next step as I was when I walked into my first journalism class.
Kathryn S. Wenner is a master’s degree candidate in journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. She was a news anchor and reporter at three different television stations in Virginia during the 1980’s, then worked at a variety of Washington, D.C. organizations before deciding to attend journalism school.