Reflections on a career in journalism (stage one)

For those of you who don’t know, I’ll be taking over the reins of my beloved college newspaper, the Whitman Pioneer for the 2012-13 school year. I’ve just finished hiring all of my editors, managers, and general people-in-charge-of-running-stuff. So this editor-in-chief title is starting to feel real, and it’s put me in a bit of a reflective mood.

I joined the staff of the Pio freshman year with no real journalistic experience. I say real because in 5th grade, I was the founder, editor and main writer for my class newspaper, the Outer Mongolian Press. I put out a weekly paper, though to call it that might be a stretch. The entire thing was written in Papyrus. Articles were just stacked on top of each other—no columns. I didn’t even bother to justify it. If that counts, though, then this was my first news article ever:

Rooms 108 and109 are about two-thirds done with our famous 5th Grade Research Project. We just finished writing a rough draft from our outlines and are working on title pages and citations. Some of our fabulous topics are Women’s Suffrage, the Oklahoma Land Rush, the Trail of Tears, and Irish Immigration. These projects are due on April 4, and are going to be excellent according to Ms. Zoog and Ms. Jones. Until then, good luck on your projects.

Seventy-eight words of pure glory, and in true professional journalist style, my project topic was one of the ones listed (the Trail of Tears, incidentally). I remember distinctly when Carl, who was in room 108, started a rival newspaper for his class. He’d used Publisher to make something that looked like an actual newsletter, and he asked me to team up with him. I refused him, because I knew that while his paper looked way better, mine had far better content. And more people read mine, in spite of the Papyrus.

Middle school made me take a break from my publishing career, though I did maintain an angsty Livejournal. I actually applied to be staff on my high school’s paper, the Garfield Messenger, and was rejected. I was trying to be a photojournalist back then, so I’d applied for both that and writer. They turned me down for both, which I still attribute to the extreme cliqueness of high school (I was on the Executive Committee for our outdoor program, and we didn’t mix much with the Messenger staff).

Instead, I wrote a few columns for the Watchdog, a political opinion magazine/newsletter type thing that a few classmates started. My only serious one took on the accelerated program I was in from 2nd through 8thgrade (it was called APP). Though the program ended in high school, the (largely white upper and middle class) students in it got automatic placement at Garfield, a magnet school which also served a neighborhood population in a largely black area. The result was an essentially segregated school, made worse by the fact that the school district had decided to cut yellow bus service for all students except those in my program. I wrote:

If the district is going to allow APP students to come from all corners of the city to attend Garfield, they need to make sure that neighborhood students who live near Garfield are not being left behind in their own school. While APP students may be scattered all over the city, we knowingly chose to go to a school far away from our houses, and we shouldn’t be given special treatment because of that. Even for routes where there is extra room, the district could have allocated it in many other ways to be fairer to non-APP students living far from Garfield. They could have sent out a notification to all Garfield students letting them know about buses and allowing students to sign up if they were interested. They could have given first priority to students on free/reduced lunch, or students living furthest from school, or students with the longest Metro routes to school. They could have asked upperclassmen with access to cars to opt-out of buses and make space for people who can’t drive. Regardless of the way they go about it, the district needs to make sure that transportation is assigned on the basis of who needs it most (students furthest from school), not on the basis of enrollment in an academic program.

There is one more solution. The district could reinstate yellow bus service for Garfield. They’re not saving any money by giving us Metro passes—according to Stephanie Bower, head of the APP parent advisory committee, it’s just as expensive as yellow buses would be. If the district doesn’t want to do this—if they’re serious about “creating a generation of public transit users”—they need to make sure the policy applies to all students equally. If my non-APP friends living three blocks away from me don’t get a bus to school, I shouldn’t either. If my friend chooses to go to Garfield even though she lives three blocks from Roosevelt, she can deal with getting on the overcrowded 48 every day after school. If the school district can’t provide a yellow bus for every student at Garfield, then the APP students need to find another way to get to school, just like everyone else.

I got a lot of reactions to that piece, and it generated a pretty heated Facebook discussion about privilege in the APP program.

Senior year of high school, I also took part in a photography class at Northwest Photo Center. I’d taken four quarters of classes with Youth in Focus, a program which provided free instruction and supplies to urban youth. After exhausting all of their offerings—beginning, intermediate and advanced black and white, plus advanced digital—they paid for me to take a real class with adults.

Our final assignment was to produce a portfolio of work organized around a theme. Around this time, the Seattle School District was closing a bunch of schools to cut costs. Almost all of them were in the south of the city and predominantly served people of color. I decided that my project would be photojournalism—covering the meetings where these decisions were being made, as well as some of the culture that would be affected. I spent a good portion of my time after school hanging out at protests and school board meetings with my trusty Nikon D80. And while I’m no expert photographer, I’m proud of some of the scenes I was able to capture.

Freshman year at Whitman, I went to the activities fair with a purpose in mind. I’ve never been the type to make friends quickly, and I knew that my non-drinking, non-partying self needed to find an activity to get overinvolved in or risk social isolation. So it was my nagging insecurities about being too nerdy that propelled me into journalism for real. The Pio staff people looked nice, and I figured since we got paid to write, I could give it a try.

I just pulled up my application for my original news reporter position, and I’m kind of proud of my 18-year old self. I didn’t have the first clue what I was doing, but when they asked me why I wanted to write for the Pio, I said:

I think news reporting is one of the most important aspects of society—it allows people to stay informed and engaged in their communities and the wider world. I love to write and share my opinions, as well as being attention to things people might not otherwise think about.

My first assignment ever was to cover a transit board hearing about potential service cuts to the bus system in Walla Walla. I biked three miles to the meeting and felt like an undercover agent. I got quotes and interviewed people, and all I could think was, “All I have to do to get these people to talk to me is say I’m a reporter!” I didn’t feel like one, but I wrote my first article, and it was put on the front page. I almost quit after my first semester since the job was taking over my life and my editor utterly failed as regular communication, but a very drunk copy editor yelled at me in the kitchen of some upperclassmen’s house at our end of the semester party. “Rachel, you can’t quit! Your articles are so easy to edit!” So I stayed.

Since then, I’ve done things I never would have imagined. I’ve interviewed Dan Savage one-on-one (while I had vaccine-induced typhoid), attended a farmworker rights march in Pasco, ridden in the back of the mayor’s car to go see election results printed off at the county elections office and had the executive editor of the Seattle Times call my story on campus rape “hard-hitting.” I’ve spent a month as a reporter for a rural Ecuadorian newspaper and sat in on a live Skype chat with Bill McKibben and a bunch of interns at The Nation in New York City. I’ve used the skills I’ve learned as a journalist to write better papers, ask better questions on field trips and learn more about most of the issues I care about.

Next year is going to be a challenge for me. In my heart, I’m a reporter. I want to be cracking skulls, following leads and exposing corruption. But I know I have it in me to lead, to take pride when people on my team are able to write those stories and put them on the page in a way that makes it impossible for people to ignore. I have the rest of my life to speak truth to power and bring the U.S. government to its knees. For the next year, my job is to make the Pio the best damn paper it can be.

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Selling out to investment banks

Most of the students I know at Whitman want to go save the world. We’re a liberal arts college made up of idealists, future Peace Corps volunteers and academics. I’ve always sort of pictured Whitman as a place to train the next generation of college-educated small organic farmers, but there’s something to be said for health insurance and being able to pay off student loans. I’ve spent the last week in New York City talking to Whitman College alums working in tons of different careers—law, media, finance—and it’s been fascinating to see how people explain their career choices to us, and to see so many Whitties living and working in a city that’s about as different from Walla Walla as you could reasonably get.

One of our first appointments was with an alum who does private baking for Merrill Lynch. He deals exclusively with clients who have at least $25 million in assets. He came to the U.S. and to Whitman as an immigrant on a full scholarship, so he’s been incredibly happy to be so successful in his professional life.

We asked him what he thought about his job. He leaned back in his chair, arm angled against his side, and thought for a minute.

“We don’t really produce anything. We’re capital allocators,” he told us. “I struggled with it for a few years—what am I really accomplishing here? Making rich people richer?”

Ultimately, he goes back to the fact that he has a dynamic, rewarding career. He also said that the wealth earned by the rich often goes back to philanthropy efforts, so in a sense, he’s making the world a better place by allowing more charity to take place. Still, I got the sense that he struggles to reconcile his beliefs with his work.

“I do love my profession, but if I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t do it,” he told us. He said he had to do it to pay the bills, which there are a lot of.

Our Goldman Sachs guy was much less apologetic. He’s a vice president in merchant banking—not the division that was responsible for the collapse of capitalism, as he told us several times. He said he loves the challenges he faces at work and the culture at Goldman. He downplayed our concerns about the long hours, acknowledging that sometimes he has to stay late (until 2 or 3 a.m.), but he’s usually out of the office by 8 or 9 at night. I thought about that for a while. I’ve always told myself that I would never get a job where 60 hour work weeks are the norm and 18-hour days are sometimes a necessity, but I don’t think that’s really true. I can’t imagine loving banking enough to do it for most of my waking hours, but I would spend that time on writing or reporting in a heartbeat.

I asked him if there are any social or environmental responsibility guidelines that Goldman uses to screen potential investments. He said that the firm takes those things very seriously, and that they wouldn’t invest in a company causing serious environmental damage. I asked him to what extent that’s really true.

“You’d invest in Exxon-Mobil or Apple or Nike, right?”

He paused for a second, then acknowledged that yes, they would. But he added that there had been investment deals which had been stopped because of environmental concerns. The cynic in me says that any efforts to avoid environmental damages stem purely from a profit motive. If your company is dumping toxic waste everywhere and is eventually forced to pay for clean-up, the value of your assets goes down. I don’t fault him for this, really. I was trying to get at something I struggle with a lot. I understand that investing allocates capital in a supposedly “efficient” way and allows for business creation, economic growth and jobs, but I think there’s a fundamental tension between profit-motivated investing and environmental/social responsibility. A conservative or moderate (and really, most liberals I know as well) would say that the problem is externalities, and that if we figure out a way to make environmental liabilities show up on a P&L, we’ll make that investment machine a vehicle for environmental good. But I’m not convinced it’s a reconcilable problem.

The point of the trip is to network with alums and get a sense of what careers are out there in the world. We’re able to ask them questions about their work, ostensibly to figure out if we might be interested in working in a similar position. Since most of us are bleeding heart liberals with no desire to be in investment banking, we asked them their thoughts on the Occupy movement instead.

Both of our guys said they absolutely supported the movement’s goal of reducing income inequality. I found this interesting, since the original Occupy contingent wasn’t really about that at all. The 99% rhetoric is so ingrained in our national consciousness now that it’s easy to forget Occupy’s birth was with the Adbusters folks—a contingent of anti-capitalist anarchists who wanted to criticize the most obvious and extreme example of soulless capitalism: investment banking. Income inequality is a symptom of what they see as a much larger problem, but they’re not really into reform, because the whole system is rotten.

Our Merrill Lynch guy was more strident in his support of the protests, talking about the importance of equal opportunity and how much he believes in the American Dream, even though he knows it’s gotten harder to move up since he did it. Still, he thinks Occupy hasn’t accomplished much.

“It has high hopes. I don’t think it accomplished anything,” he said. “I think it sort of failed to do what it was going to do, which was create a more urgent environment for our country to rally around. . .”

He also said that he thought the movement was too fragmented and disjointed to do much that was practical. Our Goldman guy echoed this sentiment, saying that he agreed with the goal of more equal income distribution, but thought the movement was too theatrical in ways that detracted from the point.

Most interestingly for me, Merrill Lynch guy said that he absolutely considers himself to be part of the 99%. I’ve thought about this a lot as well—can you affiliate with others across class lines effectively? Whether or not he’s technically part of the wealthiest 1% of Americans, I have no doubt that his life is much more closely aligned with that crowd than it is with the single mother working two minimum wage jobs to try to put food on the table for her kids. Still, I’d rather have a fabulously rich guy who cares about those below him than one who’s indifferent. He said most of his colleagues aren’t like this, and that politics isn’t something you discuss at the office. We asked him if he would ever consider bringing it up, but he said it wouldn’t be possible.

These meetings reminded me how easy it is to become complacent, how easy it is to convince yourself that the work you’re doing is enough. I’m not criticizing these guys’ individual career choices, though they’re not choices I would make. But talking to them reminded me that whatever I end up doing with my life—journalism, activism, food policy—I need to keep the end goal in mind. Another Whittie we met with—a lawyer at a global firm that represents banks, sovereign nations and a bunch of other important actors—said that he didn’t think the work he was doing was actively making the world worse, but that there’s a huge difference between that and actively improving things. There are a ton of things I want to do with my life, but while I navigate that, I need to make sure that I’m true to the values that got me there in the first place. I’m sure I’ll become less radical as I age and settle down (though I’m still hoping not), but I want to check in with myself about why I’m doing the work I’m doing regularly. Because if whatever it is isn’t working to fix something that’s wrong with the world, I’m in the wrong profession.