Every now and then, I think about switching careers to real estate, taxidermy, or delousing. For different reasons I think I'd be talented in each of the three professions, but an especially good delouser, because I'm good with people, and you need tenacity. It's rewarding work.
- LICE: Nice work if you can get 'em
- ALLEN HALL, U of O J.School
Seeing the ads for the 2009 "Building A Better Journalist" conference online, I applied for a travel scholarship to the event at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and was given $100 by the Society of Professional Journalists, which organized the conference. I'm a terrible journalist, I reasoned, so the scholarship would go to good use, building a better one, and the local SPJ president graciously agreed. The scholarship allowed me to rent a Ford Fusion and whip that be-atch down the I-5 in time for the opening remarks at 9am, although I realized almost straight away that no amount of Fusion-whipping was going to make up for my lack of a Prozac prescription, this weekend.
"So many of my friends have lost their jobs in the last year," said Hagit Limor, a TV reporter from Cincinnati, and the SPJ's national president elect. "We've become irrelevant." "I'm the last investigative reporter left in Cincinnati," she continued. "There used to be seven."
Limor was addressing her remarks to roughly 100 people—many of them journalism students, and a few folks, like me, actually employed in the profession. Yet it wasn't her standard fare realism about the state of the industry that depressed me, it was her refusal to simply recite the writing on the wall.
"The station I work at changed all our job titles in the last year," she said. "We're all multimedia journalists, now." "When change happens, you can get depressed," she continued. "But to me, this is the most exciting time to be a journalist." Huh? "The point is, you got into this business because you like change. You wanted stress. That's what deadlines are about," she said. "We have nothing to lose," she continued, growing more shrill as the moments passed. "This is a wonderful time to be a journalist," she concluded. "I know that sounds crazy, but I'm excited," she said. Repeating: "I'm excited."
Yeah, right. What happened to journalistic objectivity? It reminded me, dead-pan, of Annette Bening's character in American Beauty, saying "I will sell this house today." The cornered, harried optimist. Read the rest after the jump.
So, yeah. Annette Bening:
And with that, I threw myself into the breakout sessions. Here's what I learned.
The first session I went to was led by former Portland Tribune journalists Nick Budnick and Lee Van Der Voo. Both have since left the paper, but recounted their experience reporting on a three part investigative story for the Lake Oswego Review about Terry Timeus, the police chief in West Linn, and Darryl Wrisley, now a lieutenant in the Lake Oswego Police Department.
The story took a year to research, and proved that Wrisley had sexually assaulted a Washington County woman while on duty there as a deputy in 1992. It also found that Timeus helped Wrisley salvage his career, while the law enforcement community buzzed with talk about the incident, even after Wrisley was fired from his job as a sheriff. It found documented evidence of a cover-up. I'd recommend reading the piece online—it really is great work, and totally damning of the two officers.
Van Der Voo and Budnick focused on the advantages of working for a small paper in an investigative situation like this. "Everyone roots for the underdog," said Budnick. "You can be more daring, and more creative." "We're here to tell you, go for it." They focused on the importance of "being inside when the wagons circle," and gave good advice on how to approach questioning a subject in situations like this. "Keep a phone log," said Van Der Voo. A phone log?! A phone log. Okay. I was learning something.
But when an audience member asked what had become of the two officers, since the story came out, Van Der Voo said "they're both still working for their departments." And I was deflated. Budnick said both men are going to be subject to increased scrutiny, from now on, which I agreed with, but couldn't help feeling like their earnest work over a year was just being ignored in Lake Oswego. "Aren't they essentially telling you guys to go fuck yourselves?" I asked him, afterward. "I'm a believer in public service journalism," he said.
I suppose that makes one of us.
I also wondered aloud whether Van Der Voo had "poisoned her patch" by running this story. It had been rumored for years, yet it was only her and Budnick's tenacity that led to it coming out. And neither Budnick nor Van Der Voo are still at the paper, although they each had reasons for leaving that were separate from this story, they said. And both felt the story had been worth it. Ethics and earnest hard work aside, I wasn't so sure. These days, with money and jobs so short, do journalists really want to "go for it," as Budnick had said, and shit where they eat?
It seems like the price of really great work in this instance may have been too high. It's one thing for a small paper to back two reporters on one story like this, but what about the next one? And the next one? Van Der Voo isn't on staff at a paper anywhere, currently, and Budnick is at the Bend Bulletin. They both deserve the very best of luck in their careers.
The next session was awkwardly hilarious. Chaired by Willamette Week managing news editor Hank Stern, it focused on moving "From Print To Web," and featured, as a prominent panelist, the man Stern's paper "let go" last November, Byron Beck. Better still, they sat next to each other!
Weirder still, Beck arrived late, because Stern said he was "feeding the meter." The pair had driven down together! How did that conversation go, I wondered, thinking perhaps the pair had patched things up since Beck's firing. Oh, no...
"I used to work for him," Beck began, when asked why he'd moved over to start a blog. "For a long time. And then they let me go."
Awkward silence loomed...
"And now, you're doing?" asked Stern, filling it.
"Why I started my job is because I left my job and someone asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to be in a newsroom, but someone suggested I start a blog," said Beck. "It's the same show on a different stage."
So, he started a blog because he got laid off, and he didn't want to have been. There was more to come. Beck said the new online model is "fucked," "because you're competing against people who will work for free, and you have to work just as hard as before, and it really sucks."
I started to long for another dose of Annette Bening, but Beck was relentless. Did he miss having an editor, Stern asked, later?
"God, yes, I miss an editor," said Beck. "I hate it. I hate it."
Was I the only one noticing this gigantic elephant in the room?
Beck also said he has "hired an agent" to take care of running his website, so that he can focus on the writing. "The goal is assignments for larger publications," he said, declining to discuss how he is paying for the services of an agent, after having essentially admitted that the website isn't generating much, if any, revenue. Did he mean a publicist? "No, it's not a publicist," he said. "It's not about publicity."
On the other hand, Beck said, it's important to "keep your name out there." ""I was supposed to go to Jantzen Beach today to MC a costume contest for dogs," he said. But instead, he was in Eugene, doing this. What a toss-up.
The other panelists seemed more serious about earning money from their online-only models.
"We're trying to make a go of it as a profit model, but you're right that a big part of our stable comes from young people willing to work for free," said Feit, who said his Rolodex from the Stranger meant he could woo "some rich dudes" to invest in starting the site. Feit also said he had just cut some checks to his writers, which is the way he wants to be going.
"There's too many typos," said Feit, asked what he would like to improve.
Berger plugged his book, Pugetopolis, and said "it's a little weird to be an intern when you're in your fifties."
- TED M.NATT FIRST AMENDMENT PLAZA
I went outside to get some fresh air, at this point, struck by the irony of the trash bin in the first amendment plaza.
"Just Google Pulitzer Prize and you'll find all of these stories," said Oregonian writing coach Jack Hart, as I walked in on the last twenty minutes of his presentation on "Storytelling With Style," in the company of the paper's columnist, Anna Griffin.
When I was first considering moving to Oregon, I contacted Hart, along with Willamette Week editor Mark Zusman, and former Mercury news editor Amy Ruiz, with a set of my clips. Zusman told me to "get to know the city a little better" before giving him another call, while Hart sent me a brusque email wishing me luck at "smaller outlets." Ruiz gave me an opportunity to actually write something—a break for which I remain grateful. But I was interested to hear what Hart, who has a cult following as something of a writing Obe Wan at the city's "bigger outlet," would have to say.
- JACK HART AND ANNA GRIFFIN
Dude just waved a lot of Oregonian stories around, and told everyone how great they were. He kept talking about storytelling as a way of "showing something universal about the human experience," and seemed to be glorying in how expensive it all is. "Scenes that speak to you, that say something about the nature of humanity," he said before listing a series of different kinds of newspaper article: brites, tick-tocks, personal essays and vignettes, and of course, "the importance of voice and point of view" in certain types of story. A personal essay features about 600-700 words of storytelling, "then a turn that takes you into the area of cosmic meaning," he said, waiving another front cover in our faces. Or you could "take an idea for a walk," if you preferred. Kick it in the nut graf. You get the idea.
It's no wonder the paper's circulation is down 12 percent on last year.
At one point, Hart read a "brite," or funny piece, that he'd written for the front cover of the Eugene Register Guard "when I was 24," he said. "Brites tended to be common on the front of big papers, well-staffed papers in Chicago in the 1920s," said Hart, whose own brite was about a streaker, gotten from Hart's time as a reporter on the police beat. It seemed also to have been written in Olde English.
"There's nothing in the Voodoo Doughnuts story that tells people why this matters or why this important to humanity," said Hart. "But it recognizes something about the human experience."
That the magic is in the hole? I fled downstairs for pizza.
"Tracktown" pizza. I ate four stress-fueled slices. They were excellent.
In the afternoon I attended a session on interviewing, led by FBI agent Nancy Savage, but I've got to be honest: My heart wasn't really in it. I found myself popping half a Xanax to calm down, and drifted in and out of proceedings as Savage talked about "verbal and non-verbal communication" and "maintaining a neutral expression."
I wondered, internally to myself, what my own non-verbal communication would be looking like around now. Then I let that thought drift away like a boy in a balloon, thanks to the tranquilizer. Speaking of which, Savage said the boy in the balloon who vomited on TV was a perfect example of non-verbal communication. "He was literally just throwing this up," she said. Which made me think again of the pizza.
I had a moment to look in on Oregonian investigative reporter Brent Walth, who impressed me as a man driven to get information at any cost. "I want you guys to be breaking these stories," said Walth, as I found myself thinking about going into business with the lice, again.
As I gunned the Fusion back up the highway, I reflected back on something the FBI agent had said at the beginning of her talk.
"I actually wanted to be a journalist," said Savage. "But I'm glad I changed my mind. I'm sort of glad to have my retirement to look forward to."
I laughed. This journalism: It's supposed to be fun. So why do I sometimes feel like the only one left, enjoying the shit out of it?