Once a Reporter, Always a Reporter

Three old things I know: Reporters should be as a fly on the wall. Once a reporter, always a reporter. Flies on walls are more attended than political spouses. Thus I blog.

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Name: Viki Volk
Location: St. George Island, Maryland

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I Believe Howard Kurtz

Newspapers died for me four years ago when I was disappeared from mine.

It was already a running family joke. Local elementary and middle schools invited both my husband and me to their job fairs. "Who in their right minds would suggest a child become a waterman or print reporter?" we would laugh at the dinner table. But even as we laughed neither of us really believed we would become extinct. But we have. And it isn't funny at all.

He went extinct first and reinvented himself as an environmental educator. Then four years ago I was banished in 20 minutes from the newsroom I had joined in 1985, before marrying that retrograde waterman who had reinvented himself once again, this time as an elected office holder.

The Washington Post Company's conflict of interest rules that govern the newspaper company I worked for proved impossible to abide during my husband's candidacy -- despite my transfer to a sister paper in a different county. I left the chain around the same time Matthew Cooper of "Time" and Judith Miller of the "New York Times" were refusing to name their anonymous sources regarding the disclosure of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. Gallons of ink debated the importance of anonymous sources to journalism and thus to democracy itself. It seemed the debate only generated interest among print reporters.

In July 2005 Howard Kurtz wrote a piece in "The Washington Post" about Cooper who Kurtz apparently couldn't reach, so he quoted Cooper's wife the "Democratic consultant Mandy Grunwald."

The story pushed me over the edge. Friends and former colleagues were already desperately tired of my entreaties: Why could reporters of large, national publications retain their positions and marriages to newsmakers? The only answer that ever made sense -- although it never seemed fair exactly -- was size. Large, national newspapers could move a reporter married to a newsmaker to a different floor or a different beat -- the conflicted reporter could be -- at least theoretically -- removed from those reporters who covered the spouse in question. At a community newspaper this is impossible on every level imaginable, including theoretical ones.

I was not assuaged by the size argument. I ranted and raved and fumed. Of course readers didn't believe in newspapers anymore -- from the outside it looks like insider baseball.

So when the layoffs -- called buyouts -- began and it became clear that the bigger the newspaper the faster it failed, I felt slightly vindicated. But that ended quickly, when entire papers began disappearing. And when the meager freelance budget of that community paper one county removed dried up last year, I started getting really scared. That community newspapers could fail, long considered the strongest financial bastion of the industry, was like suggesting that environmental educators could disappear as surely as the ecosystems they celebrate.

It got even worse last week when Kurtz, a self-proclaimed optimist, admitted he, too, saw the end at hand. The newspaper, he wrote within the first 100 words, "might be left behind by history and public indifference."

Might? Meet my daughters: avid readers who grew up in government hallways and the newsroom of a community newspaper. Their humor is newsroom cynical. Their history is community news. One even qualified for admittance to the august University of Maryland's journalism school last year -- despite those laughing dinners. But she turned on her heel and transferred to a school that doesn't even have a journalism department. These are the most newspaper-friendly of their generation. Even if I can convince myself they aren't indifferent, I cannot fool myself into thinking they see newspapers as anything other than history.

Kurtz's article was long and carried an increasingly desperate tone as he tried to affix blame and share blame. I know that feeling. I've lived that sense of banishment for four years now and struggle to confront living with it forever. I've created a webpage and write about all that has been lost of my husband's former life. Now I have to include my own. And I need to find other financial resources since writing doesn't do it anymore. It is hard to outlive your vocation. Really, really hard.

Toward the end of his article Kurtz pegged us all -- the celebrities down to those of us who cover school boards and planning commissions and the biggest pumpkin at the county fair. He wrote, "Newspaper folks may have an inflated view of their self-importance, but what they do has an impact beyond their readers and advertisers. Local TV isn't likely to expose a crooked mayor, as the Detroit Free Press did. Bloggers aren't going to reveal secret CIA prisons."

He's right. We're going to rant and fume and write about what used to be.

And we should all be scared. Really, really scared.

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