Chris Welles on Reporting

Why I would rather report—at fifty—than edit at any age

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.”

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.

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.

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Chris Welles reported for BusinessWeek and other publications for decades.