Over the weekend, me, my production director Marshall and my publisher, Jim, took a lengthy drive to the prestigious Gideon-Putnam Hotel in Saratoga Springs to participate in something of a regular undertaking for those of us still in the news business here in New York: the New York Press Association’s annual conference and tradeshow, where reporters and editors from papers as small as the blue collar Woodstock Times to the influential publication City & State rub shoulders in the high-ceilinged rooms of a federalist manor situated in a wooded golf course; networking, learning and, in some cases (at least for this writer), milking the open bar for all it’s worth. (Master of restraint I am, I only had four bourbon and waters throughout the course of the Friday night gala, a formal event which I, master of style I am, wore a pair of canvas top Adidas to.)
The event itself, which stretched out over two days, was a mixture of things. It was part awards show (the Ithaca Times took home a first prize in agriculture reporting), part networking activity, but most of all it was an opportunity to learn and to grow as a journalist, each day offering five sessions each in varying areas to learn from people much more impressive and intelligent than you. Over the course of my week, I got caught up on my legalese from Executive Director of the Media Law Resource Center and former New York Times general council, George Freeman. Listening to Doug Haddix, a longtime employee of journalism organization Investigative Reporters and Editors (which I was finally convinced to start paying dues to), I learned not only how to navigate investigative journalism in the modern media age, but to practice such murky, difficulty territory with ethical discretion. I even spent time with Terry Parris Jr., a ProPublica editor whose name you might have seen involved with projects such as their Agent Orange investigation or, more likely, the piece on whether or not your congressman was lying to you about the affordable care act repeal. (The answer: probably.)
Listening to so many voices this weekend, all with so much experience, I walked away from this weekend’s conference with a multitude of new ideas and goals which, in the opinion section of the Ithaca Times this week, I will be detailing, along with how we plan on implementing them. But one of the bigger takeaways from conferences like these, at least for me, are the people you sit beside.
It’s no secret journalism, as an institution, is in trouble. I already know: a professional just less than four years now, I’ve seen layoffs, I’ve seen colleagues move onto happier lives in public relations and, out of necessity, I’ve taken a promotion to an editor position which, under healthy conditions, I would never have been considered for. These little tragedies even manifested themselves at this weekend’s conference: I was the youngest out of the editors I met there, often close to 30 years younger than most of the seasoned reporters there. One woman I met was pulled out of retirement to run her paper and, in the middle of lunch, got a text message from her star reporter of 20 or so years: he was leaving to take a job for the city at a $15,000 raise. The editor, meanwhile, retires in two months, leaving the paper with nobody remotely qualified to take her place.
The thing for me about these little conferences is that they serve as a refresher for what you do and why, despite more lucrative opportunities, you stick around: it’s a restating of your mission, affirmation that your calling, however dumb on paper, is a worthwhile one. It offered a reminder that it’s okay to make mistakes and that they don’t define you (until you make too many.): after all, nobody else is stepping up to put themselves in that position. It’s a reminder that you got into the business to make a difference, inspiring you to find ways to be more effective in doing that. It was a reminder that, for all the insecurities of being a human being –of not wanting to be a pest or insensitive or anything of that sort — at the end of the day, what you’re doing is the right thing to do. Even while sitting in seminars on investigative reporting or better interviewing techniques, one thing was clear in how everyone sold their lessons: that the motive of the journalist is ultimately, to benefit their community. A woman with a multitude of interviewing experience I went to hear, for instance, said she would crash the funerals of murdered drug dealers, knock on the doors of their families, generally do things no normal person would do.
But normal people don’t try to offer redeeming facts about people. At the end of the day, she crashed those funerals not for lurid details but to make sure the final thing written about that person, the last thing said on the record, wasn’t about their shortcomings.
But someone’s gotta do it and, frankly, it was good to hear that, despite our self-doubt, our mistakes or the occasional existential crisis, we do still have some role left to play in today’s society: to cement a legacy, to neutralize uncertainty, to inspire action. “Journalism is, in a way, a form of activism,” one reporter said in a Saturday session. I rather like that assessment.
In the keynote speech on Friday Mike Wilson, the Dallas Morning News editor, spoke about a piece he wrote in reaction to a Donald Trump comment titled “What You Need To Know About The Enemies Of The American People,” which I encourage you all to check out. In it, he detailed not only what we as journalists do, but also one thing that has stuck with me throughout the weekend: words matter, and the truth matters. As newsrooms get smaller, we as journalists are put in a position where it’s less about expertise and more about ample understanding of a topic, all in the hopes of putting together some sort of piece that benefits the community in some way. And when this happens, you get things wrong. You always do. I’ve read a statistic once where more than half of all news articles have an error in them, somewhere.
And this is one thing I’ve thought about all weekend, from my blue collared-discomfort wearing ratty shoes in a fancy dance hall to my light-hearted banter with readers at my desk throughout the week. Journalism is a job without days off, it’s a career that hijacks your life, dictates the way you interact with people. It pays shit, it gives back little and, oftentimes, you get more complaints than you do compliments. Oftentimes, it’s undeserved if not justified, but it’s true. And this is why, moving forward, I want the Ithaca Times to better embody the journalist’s mission of service. I want to encourage more community interaction, I want more visitors, I want to go out and have more coffees with everyday people and readers alike. I want to put the perspectives of people who commit their life to one aspect of everyday activity in the city in the hands of people with the ability to get that perspective out there, but not necessarily with the time to get it themselves.
So get in touch with us. Call us. Email us. Come by the office. Tell us what matters to you. What you’d like to see. Anything. In the old cliche, “help us to help you.” It’s what we got into the industry to do.