“Still They Tell You the Most Amazing Things”

A few years ago, after a long stint of working as an in-house writer for various corporate and government institutions, I had the chance to start over in journalism. I’m finding it one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Buyer beware: I’m not getting paid as much. But I’m having a lot more fun.

Donald Barthelme, of all people, nailed it for me, in his 1980 work of fiction “The Emerald”:

Tell me, as a member of the news media, what do you do?

Well we sort of figure out what the news is, then we go out and talk to people, the newsmakers, those who have made the news—

…And then you go out and talk to people and they tell you everything.

They tell you a surprising number of things, if you are a member of the news media. Even if they have something to hide, questionable behavior or one thing and another, or having killed their wife, that sort of thing, still they tell you the most amazing things. Generally.

…Fascinating work I should think.

Your basic glamour job.

Sure, it’s satire, not to mention media criticism. But it gets to the heart of something often overlooked in our present gloomy climate. There’s plenty to wring hands about over today’s journalism: corporate consolidation, the chilling effect of our security-surveillance state, relentless political noise machines, sensationalism, the sound-bite culture … not to mention low-to-sporadic pay and uncertain prospects for long-term employment.

Even given all that, the best-kept secret about journalism is that the work itself can be very rewarding. In fact, if you do it right, it’s a lot of fun, even if your topic is deadly serious.

It is indeed work. Chasing an elusive source, fact-checking, rewrites, realizing an hour before deadline that you can’t read your own handwritten notes: all these and more take a toll on the nerves.

For me the most rewarding part of journalism is the element of surprise. There’s nothing quite like having your preconceptions challenged, or upset completely. Sometimes you have no choice but to rely on e-mail or telephone, but if you’re lucky you can get good results. Usually, though, it’s best to show up in person. That way you can try out the augmented-reality technology you’re writing about, and win a free simulated trip to Mars.  Or have your interview subject interrupted by a phone call about getting booked on The Colbert Report.  Or hear a suspect in his wife’s murder tell you that you’re the first reporter who asked for his side of the story.

Predictions about journalism are dangerous to make. But technology changes a lot faster than human nature. We’re hungry for something more substantial than sound bites. We are still wired to want stories. The best journalism can help to meet that need.