Newsrooms are special places.
Walking into a newspaper newsroom slaps you with sensation: The scent of old coffee mingles with dusty newsprint. There’s probably a character sitting at the reception desk. Character, I say, because that’s the only kind of person ever hired to sit at a newspaper reception desk. It’s in the job description. This person wears a fascinator, smokes Pall Malls on breaks, gives big parties on the lake and wants to know how come you’re standing around looking useless, don’t you know there’s a paper to put out?
Journalists, especially newspaper folks, might seem different. Moody. Eccentric. (Why does everyone have toys on their desks? Why is that reporter wearing mismatching socks? Did she even comb her hair today? Why are her lips moving while she’s reading?) But journalists often are among the first ones to reach a murder scene. They see the body parts of a hit-and-run victim spread across a highway. They sit with weeping parents who mourn a child’s kidnapping and rape. They visit homes filled with fleas and roaches to ask questions of a child molester. They sit in an ICE detention cell with a mom whose only sin was to move to a different apartment before her immigration approval paperwork arrived. Dammit, if a McDonald’s happy meal with a rainbow slinky helps them write a tough story, fine. If mismatching socks pull a smile from somebody, fine. Her lips are moving because she knows that speaking a story aloud is the best way to determine its readability. And no, she didn’t comb her hair, and nobody cares.
Journalism is hard. Deadlines often take precedence over birthday parties and soccer. Sources are more precious than relatives. Journalists obsess – OBSESS – over details in a story. They might forget birthdays, miss anniversaries, but stories? Stories matter. Helping people understand a complex tax code matters. Keeping public officials honest matters. Reporting truth matters.
These matter because we need to understand the changing world we live in, the towns we call home, the quiet veteran who lives at the end of the road.
Most media staff are tight with each other, and that’s necessary. It’s hard to explain to parents and spouses and friends why you went home and cried for an hour, or went home and simply sat in the closet, or drove around for two hours and then sat in the bar before even going home because you had to get your head right. All these can be necessary when you’ve spent your day reporting on a mass shooting or a sex-trafficking story where the victims are 10, 11, or if you’re an editor calling reporters to make sure you have numbers correct. “Four children? Five? OK, three girls, two boys. Thanks.”
My husband and I were journalists in competing organizations for years. I sat on newspaper copy desks and design desks, and he covered stories in the field for several television stations. He was a reluctant journalist, had planned to be a government hack. But one day, he picked up a camera.
We have what’s called the Murder and Mayhem tour of every city we’ve ever lived in. That’s where we drive by a spot and my husband says things like “that’s where we found the head.” He’ll point to a patch of woods on one side of the road. He’ll then point to a sidewalk a block later.
“And there’s where they found the body.”
Or “that’s where the drug dealer pulled his gun on me.”
Or “I used to get information from a prostitute on this corner. I haven’t seen her in a while. I don’t think she’s doing well.”
When something crazy is happening, and 99.9% of everybody else is heading away from the crazy, journalists are heading toward it because your right to know is their job. All those council meetings you don’t attend but complain about the decisions? A journalist is there. Wars? Journalists are there. Hurricanes? Disasters? Terrorist attacks? Journalists leave their families and go, because it’s their job. Often, it is their lives. Sometimes, it costs their lives.
Part of what makes the job so tough is journalists’ need to get every detail, every word, right. It’s important, it always has been. They want to do right by you. If a journalist seems tough or hardened, it might be because they are called names, spit upon, threatened, cursed, not trusted. Few people turn to them at the one soccer game they’ve managed to attend and say “that county council story was banging.” Most people have ideas about what would make a good story, and trust me, we want to chase those fun stories, but our BRITE reporter (brites were fun stories) got laid off back in the 2000s.
We used to joke about being attacked, even as we knew it could happen. We had a code word and an escape plan. But several times, in each of my newsrooms, somebody got in, got past the guards, got beyond the cameras. When my husband’s newsroom was under siege in 2012, we actually were home, watching on TV, terrified. He went back the next morning.
I miss being in a newsroom. I miss the coffee and newsprint perfume that everyone wears. I miss the gruff camaraderie. I miss the guy who poured cold coffee in his plants. I miss the melting pot staffs, the exchange of ideas, the discussions about history, the “did you know?” moments. I miss the determination, and the reluctant smile of an editor. It meant a job well done.
But journalism doesn’t often love you back; it’s a cruel mistress. Somebody else said that to me long ago, and it’s true. These days, especially, when the leaders of the country have no respect for the institution, no respect for the Constitution and the First Amendment, when readership is dwindling despite the insatiable desire for news, when newsrooms are shrinking because our generous ideas about the internet being a good thing for news backfired.
Today, more than ever, news matters. The people who cover news are in a fight for your lives.
Even at the risk of losing theirs.