The Unconquered

A grassroots effort to keep journalism’s mission alive
March 23, 2010

In late October 2005, Dan Grech returned home to Miami after two months spent covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for public radio’s Marketplace—just in time for Hurricane Wilma’s arrival in south Florida. He slept on the floor of his office, and when he finally reached his apartment it was uninhabitable—an industrial air-conditioner from an adjacent building had been blown through his roof. It was eighteen months before he could move back in. Grech went from covering the storm victims to being a victim himself. “That transformed me, professionally and personally,” he says.

Grech, who is now radio-news director for The Miami Herald’s broadcast operation, felt a profound sense of powerlessness, and struggled with the notion that, compared to the people he’d met who had lost everything, he had little to complain about. In December of that year, he attended a conference in New Orleans, organized by the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, for journalists who were victims of Katrina. There, he says, he discovered a “vocabulary” for what he was experiencing. In 2008, he got an Ochberg Fellowship at the Dart Center, which is a think tank for journalists who cover violence and tragedy, and heard an expert from the Yale medical school on the neurobiology of post-traumatic stress disorder discuss how one way people who have suffered a trauma can build resilience is through a peer group. “I realized I had been lacking that,” Grech says. “I was a one-man bureau; I was professionally isolated.”

Grech wanted a way to sustain the peer group he found at the center, and he also saw similarities between the trauma that reporters experience covering disasters and the broader, financial and mission-related trauma that ravages the news business. In December 2008, Grech gathered twenty-five journalists from the Miami area at a friend’s condo to, as Grech put it, “talk about why we got into journalism in the first place, and how we can get back in touch with that.” It was the start of Project Invictus.

Since then, there have been six other meetings around the country, and a seventh is planned for the spring. Invictus was brought under the auspices of the Dart Society, a network of Ochberg alums, which provides modest funding.

These are not bitch sessions. They are structured conversations that draw on the principles of “appreciative inquiry,” a philosophy of organizational development that uses inquiry to help people and their organizations strengthen the most essential and effective aspects of what they do. Invictus meetings are organized around three lines of questioning: What in the past have you read or seen or done that moved you? How do you maintain your sense of mission and purpose when the industry is in turmoil? How can you imagine a better future? “The goal,” says Grech, “is to renew our sense of strength and mission so that we can sustain ourselves in this time of transition and be open to the new opportunities that are emerging.”

Those opportunities may not include journalism. At a meeting in Atlanta, for instance, the group heard a veteran investigative reporter who’d been laid off describe his situation, then brainstormed about what he might do. “In five minutes this guy got 150 ideas,” says Grech. “He was hurting, and I watched what it felt like for him. It was the ideas, but also the realization that fifteen people had his back.”

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The significance of Invictus extends beyond support for beaten-down members of a tribe that has never been good at self-care. It has the potential to be an important tool in the effort to ensure that the mission of public-service journalism survives the transition. That, says Bruce Shapiro, the Dart Center’s executive director, is perhaps more important than getting the revenue model right. “There has been great journalism done in the past that didn’t make money,” he says, “but there has never been great journalism done without a conviction that what we are doing is important.”

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.