On June 19, longtime BusinessWeek reporter Chris Welles died of Alzheimer’s disease at age seventy-two. In the Jan/Feb 1988 issue of CJR, Welles wrote about why he would rather report at age fifty than edit at any age. The article is reproduced below.
The painful truth,” David Terrell wrote in the March/April 1987 issue of this magazine, “is that reporting, for the overwhelming majority of people who do it, is not a lifetime career.” Being a reporter is great fun for the twenty-five-year-old fresh out of school, Terrell, a former newspaper reporter, observed. But as a reporter ages, he or she comes to find that a new crop of twenty-five-year-olds is covering the same beat and writing the same sorts of stories that he does. He finds that his experience doesn’t seem to count for much, at least in the eyes of his superiors. He finds he isn’t being paid a whole lot more than the neophytes.
So what’s the middle-aged reporter to do? He can become an editor; indeed, many editors regard reporting mainly as preparation for an editing career. He can go into public relations. He can write books—like Terrell, who packed it in as a reporter after thirteen years. Or he can stubbornly keep reporting and at the end of the day “head for the bar,” as Terrell puts it, to drown his misery.
Terrell didn’t make the comparison, but he, like others in journalism, especially editors and publishers, seems to regard reporting as analogous to playing professional sports. After the first few years, achievement in reporting is widely viewed more as a function of energy than of experience. The middle-aged reporter is looked upon as a Jimmy Connors or Pete Rose, waging a futile battle to keep hitting the ball the way he did when he was in his prime. The reporter is supposed to retire gracefully before somebody has to be dispatched to escort him to the showers.
I read Terrell’s comments with considerable interest. I recently celebrated my fiftieth birthday and I am halfway through my twenty-fifth year of reporting, specializing in business and finance. I really enjoy reporting and writing. There is nothing I’d rather do for a living, not even trade places with the million-bucks-a-year Wall Street-deal types I often interview. Which is why I rang up the editor of CJR and offered to respond to Terrell’s piece and present a more upbeat portrait of the reporter as a middle-aged man.
But I should tell you right away that I sometimes do wonder why I keep at it. I know very few journalists my age who are still reporting. Some of my fellow reporters at Business Week are not much older than my children. I was writing stories before they learned how to talk. Business Week’s editor-in-chief, Steve Shepard, is also younger (slightly) than I am and makes some distressing multiple of my salary.
It isn’t hard to understand why people abandon reporting. Becoming a book author—a move that usually requires subsidization from another job or a trust fund—is more prestigious. The book may require reporting, of course, but the pace is generally more leisurely and less competitive than newspaper or magazine reporting. Going into p.r. is vastly more remunerative than reporting, although it constitutes, as a friend of mine puts it, “going over to the dark side.”
Being an editor not only pays more but gives you much more power and influence. It also offers a greater sense of advancement: an editor’s career is easily demarcated by his ascension of a hierarchical pyramid while the reporter leads a much more horizontal life of one story after another, his big payoff being limited to a Pulitzer or celebrityhood. And, I submit, editing is an easier life. Editors don’t have to endure the same emotional strains that reporters experience, especially reporters who, like me, are attracted by difficult and often negative stories.
Reporting such stories can involve agonizing frustrations: constant rejection by people who don’t want to talk, promising story lines that evaporate after weeks of arduous research, inability to find enough evidence to substantiate your hypotheses. Writing can be even worse: the lead that remains hopelessly limp, the vital transition that remains hopelessly abrupt, the organizational structure that remains hopelessly jumbled. For solace, I often recall the comic strip of Snoopy sitting on his doghouse laboriously typing out “It was a dark and stormy night” and finally muttering, “Good writing is hard work.” Snoopy’s observation is particularly applicable to reporters, who have much less time to conjure up a better way of saying “dark and stormy.”