Photo of a man standing in smoke on a hilltop waving a distress flare.

By Jacqui Banaszynski

The email arrived almost two weeks ago. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t yet found a good response. It was sent by a talented young freelancer I met in one of my writing workshops. We keep in touch as we can — occasionally exchange life updates with others from the same workshop, flag stories or books we loved, lean on each other for story support. This brief email was all that, but ended with what I can only read as a distress signal:

“How do we keep going?”

Her discouragement came after attending a journalism conference where she reconnected with several friends. But she came away disheartened by a constant conversational drumbeat of doom about the state of journalism.

This generation of journalists isn’t new to gloomy grumbles. My generation worked through what we now realize was a golden time, but it took the rear-view mirror for us to see that. At the time, we groused about pretty much everything: lame editor assignments, too-tight news space, low pay, newsroom mergers and layoffs, abandoning some coverage to chase suburban readers for future ad dollars and young readers for future subscriptions, then usually circling back to lame editor assignments. The newsroom coffee was bad, too. Put something in front of us, and we’d find a reason to complain. No matter how bright the yellow brick road ahead of us, we could spot those winged monkeys miles off.

I too often stumbled into the same cultural rut. It may have started with the need to adopt a tough skin as a young woman trying to fit in with a less-than-welcoming male world. But over time, in that climate, snark can become a default reflex. Is some of it valuable for the critical thinking and grit necessary to face brutal deadlines and bullies in power? Absolutely. But it also can cloud the joys of this work.

The joys of the job

I have to think a lot more about how I got lucky enough never to sink into lasting despair. But one reason stands out: During my prime reporting career, I had an editor — a slightly older woman who had kicked down the doors I got to walk through — who would recognize when I was at risk of the rut. She’d let me stew awhile, then call me into her office and close the door. She lectured; I groused. Then she leveled a look that meant the conversation was over:

“Get out of my office and out of my newsroom. Don’t come back until you have a story I can put on Page One.”

I would leave her office, steamed but chastened. She would order after me:

“And don’t forget to have fun!”

Oh yes, the fun! She somehow knew that for me, at that time in my career, the fun was not in thinking about the story or in stewing about my insecurities or in listening to sound-surround gripes in the newsroom. The fun for me was in getting out there and doing the work. It was at picnic tables or in union halls or hospital waiting rooms or bars or business offices or on lakeside beaches or wilderness trails or even in the halls of the state Legislature, notebook in hand, listening and learning about other lives and other perspectives. It was pushing beyond anxiety about my skills to find myself, in mid-interview, murmuring a prayer of thanks to the god(desses) of journalism for a life that allowed me to do these things. (In those moments, I didn’t let myself think about the next wave of anxiety, which would come when I had to actually write the story I had just reported.)

The fun in journalism is different for everyone. Photographers seemed even happier in the field than I was. Copy-editor friends seemed to take joy in solving the puzzles of precision, style and clarity. Top editors thrilled in the leadership, and in dodging the winged monkeys on the way to Oz. Some even loved playing with budgets. (Go figure.)

I’ve had to rediscover my own joy points as a newsroom editor, then as a teacher, now as a story coach and freelance editor. The path has not always been smooth, and I’ve stumbled, hard, at times. I also know, in retrospect, that I never faced the same challenges that my younger colleagues do today, or that any working journalist does in the face of endless reports of industry collapse and public distrust.

I am pondering all of this before I respond to my freelancer friend. I don’t want to sprinkle false fairy dust. But I do want to urge her to find the footholds of joy that work for her. I want to suggest that it might mean shaking off the noise around her and finding a couple great stories to chase each year while she plods through the necessary ones. Or at least getting on the phone with a fascinating source.

But that would be projecting — which is the risk of any advice we give. In the interim, I hope enough little things come her way that show her the path is still there, even if it seems dim and rocky at times.

The story cure

That welcome reminder came to me two days after I first read the email from my distressed young friend. I was reading “Draft Four,” the weekly newsletter from Cristian Lupsa. I’m not glossing over the challenges we face in the U.S., but Lupsa works in Romania, where the traditions and economic supports for journalism are close to non-existent. Despite that, Lupsa founded and ran a pioneering magazine and hosted one of the most creative conferences I’ve ever attended. Then COVID ended the conference. The economy and industry disruption ended the magazine. Leadership in Romania remain warped by corruption. The war in neighboring Ukraine casts a dark cloud. Lupsa is plodding through his own professional mire right now.

He dares to share that struggle through his open newsletter. (It’s thoughtful and incredibly well written, with tons of valuable links. You should subscribe.) The most recent had one sentence that echoed the post-reporting experiences I’ve had, and offered a possible doorway for a conversation with my disheartened friend. Lupsa had just returned from leading the committee that scouts entries — 800 of them — to recommend finalists for this year’s European Press Prize. The work is as arduous as it is exhausting.

Lupsa acknowledged that effort. Then he capped it with this:

Every time we feel down about the state of journalism, reading the best of it out there is a cure.

I’m no Pollyanna, and am not in denial about the forces working against journalism, either as an essential public service or as a lifelong career. I realized long ago that I lack the resources — financial, intellectual, emotional — to wage that battle on the business front. All I can do, and everything I can do, is believe in the work itself, keep doing it in the ways I can and celebrate that it still stands, better than ever, all around me.

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