I just drove 10,000 miles and visited dozens of newsrooms to chronicle journalism in America.
Here's what I learned.
This article was originally published on Medium and other sites. Click on the feature image to see an interactive map.
One year ago this week — Sunshine Week — I set out to chronicle journalism in America in 2017 by driving 10,000 miles. As a former full-time journalist turned journalism professor I wanted to step out of my own newsroom experiences and learn. I was interested in holding a mirror up to the journalists who bring us the news every day. “Who,” I asked, “is watching the gatekeepers?” I visited news outlets big and small, for-profit and non-profit, traditional and cutting-edge across all media.
During this project, most days I would drive nine to 13 hours (my Apple watch thought I was dead), conduct interviews, shoot and record photos and video. Then late at night in hotels I would edit video and photos (to use in my journalism classes) and blog about my experiences. I now have hundreds of videos and photos as well as a library of interviews with journalists.
I could not have picked a better time to document journalists bearing witness to history. The month I left for the first leg of my trip March Madness tipped off, Chuck Berry died, Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing began, a federal judge blocked a revised travel ban, Attorney General Jeff Sessions dismissed Obama-era prosecutors, and former President Obama was accused of wiretapping Trump Tower.
And that was just month one.
National news moved faster than I could digest, as I covered journalists while they covered the news. I immersed myself in the study of watching creative people work. Everywhere I went there was major breaking news. In Santa Fe there was a shooting. In New York City there was a blizzard. The summer of 2017 was a summer of wildfires, wherever I was, narrowly escaping two. Fire in Sedona. Fire in Burbank. Fire in Breckinridge. I started to think the world was on fire.
The lessons I learned on my adventure to document American journalism have taken me a year of digesting what I saw — and many notes — to find patterns and overarching truths from my trip. I truly believe this strange, quirky journey I took is important. Regret is difficult to forecast, but I know I will not regret this.
Journalists are not angry. I expected visceral, impassioned responses when given the opportunity to discuss politicians’ open hate for, and assault (sometimes literally) of journalists. When that didn’t happen, I was taken aback. Journalists told me that they remember that for most of history politicians and the press have sparred and now is no different. Politicians and the press should serve the public. Journalism is where honesty, compassion and kindness collide. Most journalists I encountered had the keep-your-head-down-and-do-your-job approach.
Journalism is also under attack from within. Time and time again I saw journalists worried about their jobs, from the newspaper that was family-owned for over a century and possibly about to be sold, to large newsrooms where metrics and analytics mean the difference between having a job or not, despite how well a story might be told.
Experience is a valuable teacher. Newsroom professionals have seen collapse all around them for years. Yet they are reluctant to talk about how much they hate the current, broken system because they will lose their jobs. It’s a chicken and egg situation and the cycle needs to be disrupted.
Newsrooms have a bigger sexual harassment and assault problem than anyone thinks. In June — before the #MeToo movement took off, before Weinstein, I arrived home from an over 8,000-mile leg of my trip and was stunned. So many women told me (both on and off the record) about their experiences in newsrooms with sexual harassment and assault. I sat with this. At first, I was surprised. Why were these women — sometimes complete strangers — confiding in me? Because as reporters, editors and print and visual storytellers, they saw the value in me documenting these things. They have their own stories to tell.
I cannot document journalism in 2017 without waving a giant red flag about this despicable trait of our profession.
So far, most coverage has focused on large, well-know, national, corporate newsrooms, but we cannot forget the thousands of newsrooms in smaller towns and communities that also have a problem. Their voices are not loud, but I am here to tell you, they are there and the sheer number of them is unconscionable.
Newsrooms are strange places and have strange things in them. At one San Francisco newsroom I was invited to pet the dog that was watching me. I could see him in my peripheral vision as I shot video. I was stunned he didn’t move or approach me and thought to myself, “That is the best dog I’ve ever seen in my life.” When I wrapped up, I walked toward him only to realize that he was stuffed. As in, taxidermy. As in, “Hell no I am not petting that dog.” Many newsrooms have (live) pets, from fish to cats and dogs, while every single one had strange objects. I found it particularly suspicious that in almost every newsroom someone had decorated a bowling pin. (Even more odd because I have a bowling pin on my desk for no real reason.)
Journalists don’t document their own stories. I was careful to take still photos, as well as video, of newsrooms in America. Photojournalists are too busy covering the news to take photos of their own newsrooms. I think of the old photos of newsrooms I have seen. Margaret Bourke-White with her camera. Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post newsroom, leaning oh-so-casually on the desk. Edward R. Murrow at a microphone. I looked at American newsrooms in 2017 through the lens of truth, beyond blown-up political rhetoric of “fake news!” Sometimes, that means a seemingly mundane picture of a newsroom. But look closer and it tells its own story.
Journalism — long a champion of openness and transparency — is anything but. At some media outlets I had a PR handler watch my every move, question, and how I took notes. At other places I wasn’t allowed to shoot video. This vulturism was proportionate to the size of the newsroom. Most of this Big Brother attitude fell away the smaller the newsroom was. In small-to-medium-sized cities journalists welcomed me. Many even lobbied for me to visit them when they heard about my efforts. But on the whole, the media industry needs to take a page from its own playbook and open up. I’m not talking about industry secrets (many, many times I had to frame a shot to crop out things written on white boards that might tip off competition about a story). I’m talking about good old-fashioned openness. The same thing we expect from the people and politicians we cover.
Journalism can be a painfully lonely career. I was struck by how solitary each job in journalism is, even though in the end they all come together to produce a product. Reporting or photojournalism, for example, are all about being around and interacting with people, yet each job requires the journalist to sit and write, or edit photos, alone. No one else can do that job for them. So they sit, sometimes for far too long, alone. At one news outlet a man told me about how he took a reporting job to be near his ex-wife. Let me emphasize — ex-wife. They had no plans to reunite, but she was his family in a way, and was also a journalist, so she understood the demands of the profession. The reporter in me could see that this man was lonely because of the grueling hours of his job and he was trying to cobble some kind of “family” together. I met many divorced journalists whose spouses could not handle the late hours and unpredictable nature of newsrooms. Yet I mat many couples who has survived thanks to each person being in a newsroom. Newsrooms need better maternity and paternity leave and child care on site, especially for larger ones. The fact that this is not a widespread practice gobsmacked me, after seeing the toll this profession takes on families.
Journalists talk a good game when it comes to diversity in newsrooms, but do not put that into practice. At every stop I talked to newsroom employees about diversity in newsrooms. Without fail, they all championed hiring a diverse staff, and without fail that was not happening. In some places, diversity meant hiring someone of color. In other places that might mean hiring more men or women. The reasons for this disconnect in what journalists want and what happens are complex and nuanced, but the numbers definitely back this up. This is a topic for a future post.
Journalism is alive and well in America. This will seem like a “duh” moment for journalists, but there is a public perception that journalism is dying. While print has diminished, journalism is still fundamental to our democracy and storytelling is in a golden age, with more ways and platforms than ever before on which to tell them. The dizzying, heartbreaking, uplifting, soul-changing stories journalist tell are told by regular people, one at a time. Not “the media,” a phrase so many people are eager to lump the profession into, that giant trap door of stereotype. Journalists are Americans. They are old and young, rich and struggling, immigrants and people born in the United States, liberal and conservative, optimists and pessimists. They are doing a job that pays too little (I saw it time and time again) and expects the world. These are hard-working people who support families, yet never get to see them. Journalism is not without flaws, but still creates change for the better in the world, a little at a time.
To see the stops that I blogged about along the way, check out my interactive map.