When I think of what is happening to the journalism industry, I think of Tim Pallesen. We worked in the same newsroom and represented opposite ends of spectrum. I was a year out of college after a short stint at a community newspaper; he was a weathered, longtime reporter in our area. He’d covered my area of South Florida for an excess of 30 years. He had a column that took a different location in our city each week and told us the history of it. He’d been there long enough to know it.
When it came time for buyouts at the end of last year, he took it. I was let go as the sports feature writer around the same time. He left at the sunset of his career, taking with him an irreplacable Rolodex of contacts. I left with the sun barely above the horizon, wondering what I’d gotten myself into and whether I had any chance of a future in this field.
All this comes to mind as a result of a very excellent “John Kelly’s Washington” I read in the Washington Post the other day. Here’s a short excerpt:
The last two journalists in America sat at a card table in the middle of their empty newsroom. They faced each other, about to flip a coin…They’d known this day was coming — had spent the past 10 years watching it get closer — but even so it was a bit of a shock to see it arrive. The newsroom that had thrummed for so long was vacant. The computers and phones were gone. The desks had been sold for scrap…The idea was that whoever won the toss could choose whether to be the one written about or the one to do the writing.
It’s a mournful column. And perhaps pessimistic. But isn’t it fair to mourn for what’s lost? At least a little? Its easy to take a column like this to heart with the industry in the shape it’s in: The Atlantic wonders whether the New York Times has reached the End Times, New Republic headlined it’s last issue with “The End of the Press” (which they say will bring in a new era of corruption into democracy as well), and TIME magazine pleads with the world to “Save Your Newspaper” with a micro-payment revenue model.
I can remember getting out of school with journalism degree, full of vigor and a desire to Tell the Story. I worked a year at the community paper. After pressure from former professors and colleagues who told me the paper wasn’t “good for my writing.” I looked elsewhere. Lucky thing, the big daily in town was hiring a News Clerk. The problem is that both my wife and I worked at the community newspaper and only one of us could go for the job (and have a happy home life). My wife went for the job, I went for a youth director position working with local community middle and high schoolers. I managed to squeeze my way in to the paper eventually, offering to write sports features for the local communities and eventually building the freelance gig into two or three stories a week.
That’s when I met Libby, the former drill sergeant who did to my copy what she’d done to her army recruits; Eliza, the photographer who would fall in love with my stories because they were always easy to photograph; Lady, the city writer who could never seemed to lose her smile; Jessica, my wife’s fellow news clerk who would go on to partner with her in a fun city column called “The Uptown Gals;” and of course Tim, the quiet, experienced writer in the back who would spout the history of every place you visited if you gave him the time (and maybe a cup of coffee). Yet after a very short two years, we’re all gone except for Eliza. My last conversation with her, I asked how work at the newspaper was. “Well, I’m still working,” was all she could reply. Even the space we all worked in was gone. On my last visit there, the entire section was empty, the lights out, prepared to be rented out to a start-up Spanish speaking TV station. They’re paying month-to-month.
I don’t think news is dying, I think the news industry is changing. But it feels wrong to not mourn for what was lost. I mourn for the loss of writers like Tim Pallesen. In all fairness, this is a cruel world but I’m young and have a number of places to take my love of the media. But Tim? He loses the work he loves, we lose someone who knew our community better than anyone else.
I now teach at the Washington Journalism Center, helping young college journalists break into the industry. I encourage them that there are still a lot of jobs for the young, the internet-minded, the multi-media talented; just not necessarily the more experienced. And midway through the semester, I discussed a feature I read from New York Times‘ famous series “Portraits of Grief” on the victims of 9-11. It’s short but one of my favorite stories of all time:
How to comprehend the terrible symmetry that returned Candace Lee Williams to the place of her triumph, the World Trade Center? A 20-year-old student in the cooperative work-study program at Northeastern University in Boston, she toiled from January to June at Merrill Lynch as an intern on the 14th floor of 1 World Trade Center.
“They loved her there so much, they took her out to dinner on her last day and sent her home in a limousine,” said her mother, Sherri. “Then they wrote Northeatern a letter saying, ‘Send us five more like Candace.”
After finishing midterm exams in her June-to-December schedule, Ms. Williams agreed to meet her Northeastern roommate, Erin, at her home in California…So on Sept. 11 in Boston, Candace boarded Flight 11, which was then hijacked and sent crashing into the same trade center tower where she had worked.
“The airline told us she was seated next to an 80-year-old grandmother on the plane,” her mother said, “and I know that Candace was consoling that woman to the last.”
The questions raised by The Atlantic and New Republic are legitimate: what happens to our world when there is no one to put a tape recorder in front of the local county commissioner? When there is no one to check to see if his vote happened to be on a piece of land he owns?
But my question is more basic and more human. What happens to the world when there is no one who knows how to tell Candace’s story? What about your story?