When you finally turn in your story, you feel terribly vulnerable, your ego is exposed and on the line, and you dread the reaction of the all-too-typical editor who says nothing if he likes it and plenty if he doesn’t. Editors are usually either impatient with or oblivious to reportorial trauma. All but ignoring your hard-wrought breaking of new ground, they carp about the occasional quote that “doesn’t work” and the occasional graf that “needs work.” Then they head for home and, while you toss and turn, they sleep like a baby. (Former Boston Globe editor Thomas Winship is a notable exception to this characterization, an editor who actually understands reporters. In a speech some years ago, he observed, “It’s impossible to give too much loving to a producing reporter or a competent writer who isn’t producing.” He also said, “Editors need praise and support, too. But editors have a status that carries over from day to day. Writers always feel they’re starting at point zero.”)
The professional sports analogy, further, contains an element of truth. To be sure, there is nothing Jimmy Connors can do to prevent his serve from slowing down, while on the other hand I should be able to sustain my furious thirty wds/min pace for a long time to come. It is undeniable, though, that reporting and writing are physically as well as emotionally draining. After a long day of interviewing, a process requiring intense concentration, I often feel as if I’d spent the dime defending my king against Garry Kasparov. I suspect that one reason hotshot reporters in their twenties can sometimes get scoops missed by their elders is that they have more stamina, can make more phone calls, can go through more files down at the courthouse.
So why, do you ask, do I like reporting so much and why do I keep at it? The main reason is that you simply can’t match anywhere else in journalism the intensity of the highs you get from reporting and writing: when a reluctant source finally decides to spill out in arresting detail what happened at the pivotal meeting; when you’re told an incredible anecdote that works beautifully as your lead; when you stumble on a document that neatly corroborates your hunch on why a deal fell apart; when your story suddenly snaps into focus.
Reporting may be a kind of emotional roller coaster, but to me the peaks are well worth the troughs. The editor escapes the troughs but he never experiences the peaks either. He certainly enjoys his own special highs, principally the power to shapes a publication’s form and content. He also must take pleasure in heroically resuscitating a reporter’s moribund first draft. But I think he must miss the special thrill of discovery and creation that attends reporting and writing. His contact with a story remains essentially derivative, and to my mind that takes most of the fun out of it.
I like to think, further, that experience does count in my line of work. The kids in their twenties sometimes do come up with impressive stories. But I feel that, over the years, I’ve gotten more adept at cajoling people into talking, at sensing when I’m being lied to, at discerning connections and patterns in a seeming hodgepodge of facts.
The major problem faced by the middle-aged reporter is the increasing inclination to mitigate the above-described risks and uncertainties by going only after stories that are easy, comfortable, and familiar. This inclination is bolstered by the fact that after you’ve written hundreds of pieces you find that fewer and fewer story ideas get your adrenaline flowing. You feel that, since you’ve already covered everything, it’s not worth the effort looking around for something different. But, of course, you then give up the opportunity for excitement that made you choose reporting in the first place. Better you should become an editor.
How does the middle-aged reporter stay excited? The solution is simple to prescribe, less simple to implement: you have to keep shaking up your work life. Stop schmoozing all the time with your old sources and find new ones. Change your beat and maybe even your job. Look into subjects you don’t know anything about. Take on stories you know are difficult and time-consuming (which means that other people may have avoided them). Keep challenging yourself.
I realize this may sound very impractical if you’ve spent most of your career at a narrowly focused trade publication or medium-sized city newspaper, are trying to put a couple of kids through college, and just can’t handle major uprooting. But, if you work at it, you may find more flexibility in your job situation than you think.