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.
For my own part, I’ve changed jobs several times and free-lanced for numerous publications. Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to become a “writer without portfolio” at Business Week, which frees me from beat responsibilities. I try not to limit myself to a narrow range of subjects. I specialize in “investigative” stories that contain strong elements of controversy, conflict, and complexity. I particularly like to explore how and why corporations behave the way they do and how they exercise power over their markets.
I’ve also tried—less successfully—experimenting with new writing styles. In the early 1970s, I tried being a “new” journalist. I tried to write gripping, dialogue-rich narrative that read like fiction. I tried to write in the first person and, like Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Jimmy Breslin, to make myself the central character, the Observer. But these techniques made me uncomfortable—it turns out that most of that gripping dialogue has to be “reconstructed”—and I wasn’t very good at them anyway. I reverted from the visible Observer back to the unseen observer.
Ultimately, I remain consoled by the fact that there are a few others working the phones and out on the streets who are even older than I am. My chief role model is the remarkable Murray Kempton, who is seventy and presently writing for Newsday. Unlike most columnists, he has never abandoned reporting for pontificating. Some years ago, I heard Kempton give a speech in which he described how he spends the day “going around,” heading down to the courthouse, visiting the police station, checking out city hall, making the rounds. (Kempton says he took the phrase from Eleanor Roosevelt who, during the 1956 Democratic convention, remarked to United Press photographer Sammy Schulman, “Hello, Sammy, are you still going around?”) Kempton regularly outreports and outwrites his much more physically fit competition. “I just like the life,” he says. “I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t.”
Even if Kempton heads for his study to write his memoirs tomorrow, I figure I’ve got about another twenty years before I need to think about hanging up my notebook.