starting thoughts

Once Burned, But Not Shy

For this young journalist, the search for justice is here to stay. The rest is just details.
January 14, 2009

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell will be named Sen. Barack Obama’s vice presidential running mate, a high-ranking source in the administration told the Patriot-News.

That was my lede after being tricked into believing Rendell was Obama’s No. 2 man by a famed newsroom of top-flight state government correspondents in the Harrisburg state capital.

This isn’t the story of the Pennsylvania governor being named Obama’s running mate. This is the story of how the economy is in free fall, newspapers are on life-support, and yet they still can’t get rid of me.  

I am a 23-year-old underemployed freelance journalist. A college news service listed me among the one-hundred most promising young journalists in the country last year. I have covered courts and business for publications in major markets. I was my university’s commencement speaker.

Yet I have $6 in my savings account. Editors won’t return my calls or e-mails. Those who do apologize and say things like, “good luck out there.” I wake up to an industry that was losing jobs long before the economy went south. I get pitches rejected like freelance writers before me, but now I’m competing with slashed budgets and a deluge of underemployed reporters.

What young person would voluntarily join a profession that keeps asking, “Why do you want to do this?” 

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Last August, I was finishing a post-graduate internship with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association, covering the state capital for six media outlets on a rotating basis. I shared a water cooler with members of the oldest American journalism society of its kind, covering the largest full-time state legislature in the country and being mentored by a group of reporters with more than two centuries of journalism experience among them. I had to wipe the newsprint off my hand after shaking theirs.

I sat in on boring committee hearings and leafed through hundreds of pages of reports. I developed relationships, pitched stories, and found angles. The only thing I proved more completely than that I was determined to take on the craft was how new I was to it. 

Newspapering has been a reliable craft for at least a century and a half. So there’s no way to stop this new generation of reporters raised online from trying to save the newspaper universe, because everyone wants to save something, and newspapers need lots of saving right now. Maybe that’s why there were almost 10 percent more journalism students in 2007 than in 2002, and 2.5 percent more than the year before. According to the latest annual report by the Cox Center at the University of Georgia, there are more than 200,000 journalism and mass media students in the country. Why couldn’t one in that number be the newsprint messiah?

“Did you hear that?” Harrisburg Patriot-News capital correspondent Jan Murphy asked me on the morning of August 15, 2008. A Rendell official who was a former Patriot reporter dropped a bombshell on Murphy in the newsroom: Rendell, the official whispered, is going to be named Obama’s running mate, a highly suspect but then still possible scenario since we were a week from Joe Biden’s appointment. Murphy was wading through statewide school test results. “You can handle this,” she asked me. “Can’t you?”

If there is a 22-year-old reporter on the planet who would say no, he needs to find a new career goal.

What I felt then was a rush I never felt so strongly, not on different continents or jumping out of airplanes. I was in possession of the single-most meaningful political story in the world and not another soul on the media planet knew it.

 I caught the state’s Democratic party executive director on her cell phone. “Next Monday could be a very exciting day for Pennsylvania,” was all she would say on record. I actually got goose bumps. After some persistence, a Rendell spokesman seemed to all but confirm the rumor. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened,” he relented. A spokesman for Obama in Pennsylvania refused comment, but let on that an announcement was coming next week. A state Republican spokesman told me he heard the Rendell rumor too and wanted me to confirm it.

I was going to break one of the biggest stories of the 2008 presidential campaign.

 … And then the Patriot cubicle flooded with about every other reporter there. “Burned!” Murphy shouted at me, the other reporters laughing. The entire newsroom, state representatives, and political operatives across the state were part of the most elaborate prank I ever faced.

“Iknew Rendell would be a stupid choice,” was all I could offer.

Who else does that at work? Why wouldn’t young people be drawn to that, as it becomes rarer still? 

I get to tell stories. And call people on the phone and ask them questions. I write. A lot. Every day. Sometimes people even pay me a little bit of money to do it.

Interest in media has blossomed with its coverage of itself. Media columnists and blogs have made eroding advertising in newspapers a top story, and this has strangely become an advertisement for the profession.

But there’s more, I think.

I know what that old gray reporter in the corner represents: He is drenched with information, and we haven’t found out how to wring him out online like we once could onto a broadsheet. So for now, he remains a damn good party guest, filled with the types of stories that only journalists can acquire. The sex appeal of something once standard is never higher than when it’s nearest to its demise.

So I and a quarter million others want in—even if they tell us not to, or perhaps because of it.

News will be created in much the same way in the future. I have learned skills from legends and have no plans of abandoning what I have been taught is good and right in journalism. What will change is how news is disseminated. More and more it will come to readers through RSS feeds and podcasts on mobile devices.

The duty of every young reporter with dreams of saving journalism is to merge the two: the lessons of the old and the technologies of the new. As long as the current generation is here to pass the search of justice onto its successor, the rest is just details we’ll sweat over for the next few years. Newspapers will consolidate and newsrooms will shrink, but we’ll be left with what we have now, creatures of the news, however their numbers are diminished.

That’s why I’m here fighting for bylines in shrinking publications during the worst economy in a generation or three—to become another battle-tested, truth-seeking storyteller, like every other young journalist before and after me.

Christopher Wink graduated Temple University in May 2008 and is now a freelance journalist and blogger based in Philadelphia. Contact him at