Why Connie Schultz Won’t Give up on the Fight for Good Journalism

Shortly before I started writing this essay, I listened to a voice message from a reader named Ellen who wanted me to know about the tip jar at her niece’s place of employment.

“She works the fish fry on Fridays,” she told me. “Mother of three. Last Friday, they served 1,300 people. At the end of the night, the owner told the 20 servers they had to split the tips. Then he told them the total amount of tips was $30, to be shared among them. Do you believe that, Connie?”

No, I don’t.

This is why I got into journalism 30 years ago. This is why I stay.

It is a privilege to earn the trust of readers. Over the years, I’ve written enough columns about unfair labor practices that Ellen suspected I might care what was happening to those waitresses. She also knew that, if I could confirm her story, I would try to do something about it.

Sometimes, a phone call is all it takes to get a policy changed. I write two columns a week; if a restaurant owner says he is willing to end an unfair practice, and I get independent confirmation that he has done so, I’m not inclined to write the same column I’ve written numerous times before. I wish business owners wouldn’t wait until they’ve been caught to do the right thing, but the ultimate goal is justice for hourly wage earners.

If, however, the owner admits to doing this and insists there’s nothing wrong with skimming the tips — inexplicably, that still happens on occasion — chances are good I’ll write about that. Experience tells me that this is what will happen next:

Most readers are good people who want to make a difference. They will be outraged, and in no mood to keep their anger to themselves. The owner — the same person who earlier insisted that (a) the account was false; (b) tips are low in this terrible economy, or (c) he’s certain that customers meant for their tips to help with business expenses, too — will contend it was an oversight in accounting. And those hard-working waitresses will see a sudden jump in their tips when they clock out at the end of the night.

This kind of journalism will not alter the trajectory of national legislation, nor will it bring down a president or get me an invitation to pontificate on the Sunday talk shows. But it might improve the daily lives of a group of hourly wage earners who are mistreated because their boss knows they’re too scared of losing their jobs to stick up for themselves. And it’s the kind of story unfolding in every town in America, as easily reported by a rookie as a veteran. That’s enough for me.

It is a privilege to advocate for people who are entitled to the same rights as those who exploit them. It is an honor to tell the stories of regular people leading heroic lives of struggle and hard work. While it is sometimes wearying to chip away at the daily injustices of American life, it is ultimately rewarding work, if for no other reason than it fuels the person I want to be when I wake up in the morning. I don’t want to give up the fight. I want to be the woman who still jumps out of bed ready to take another swing at life. As a journalist, I am but one of thousands.
 
Hard-working journalists live to unravel the mysteries, one story at a time. Most work assigned beats, but many of us also develop interior beats, those fascinations driven by something deeper than an editor’s whim. If we’re lucky, those are the beats that drive our careers. Some cover wars and international world affairs. Many gravitate toward politics; others are drawn to the world of business and finance. The list seems endless.

As a columnist and a feminist, I weigh in regularly on race, culture and politics, but my career has been steeped in issues confronting poor and working-class Americans. This is in large part because of my roots. I am the daughter of a factory worker and a nurse’s aide, and I was the first in our family to go to college. A singular fact about their lives haunts me: Both of my parents died in their 60s. In my home office, my dad’s lunch pail and hardhat rest on a bookshelf, and my mother’s hospital ID dangles from the bulletin board over my computer. I look at these symbols of my parents’ lives and know I have yet to earn a full day’s pay.

I share this information about my roots as a form of disclosure. I was raised to care about the people I come from — by what I heard and what I saw. Life is inherently unfair to those who are born with less.  But in this country it’s supposed to be different. I’ve made a career, I guess, in pointing out when America fails to keep her promise. I am forever engaged in what the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin called a “lover’s quarrel” with my country.

Now comes the other disclosure that follows me around like an asterisk: In 2004, after 11 years as a single mother, I married a congressman; two years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. I love my husband. I have a deep respect for who he is and what he does. But marriage to a member of Congress is also a daily reminder of why we need traditional journalists digging deep into the mysterious machinations of government.

Instead, here’s what’s happening:  As I write this, only half of the states in the U.S. now have even one full-time reporter in Washington, D.C. No amount of random blogging and gotcha videos can replace the journalism that keeps a government accountable to its people. If you’re a journalist, you already know that. If you’re the rest of America, chances are you have no idea.

That’s why, these days, I am an activist for journalism. I recruit for the cause everywhere I go. Some call me committed. Others call me obsessed. Still others — bloggers, mostly — accuse me of being delusional, a dinosaur in Eileen Fisher knits. No matter. I draw strength from the words of the late African-American poet Lucille Clifton, which years ago I copied and taped to the frames of both desktop computers:

What they call you is one thing.
What you answer to is something else.

Call me what you like. My tax forms say “journalist.”

In March 2009, I was invited to give the opening keynote at Harvard University’s Neiman Narrative Journalism Conference. I was told my audience would be about 600 mostly mid-career journalists, and that they needed a pep talk.

I gulped hard, and agreed to come. I mused aloud that perhaps I should drink my lunch before taking the stage. A bad joke, no doubt, but I knew I would only be able to say what I really believed. For weeks before the conference, I mined my own soul for the reasons why I refused to give up on this profession.

We all know print journalism’s vital statistics in the spring of 2009. Newspapers were bleeding staff and resources, and narrative journalism — long derided by many editors as a writer’s indulgence — was all but banned in an increasing number of newsrooms. Traditional journalists were feeling battered and defensive as bloggers gleefully dug our premature graves; and editors, late to recognize the power of the Internet, seemed willing to relax all the rules so that stories got posted early, and often on the Web.

For the first time in my career, it seemed that reporters were the ones leading the fight for the ethical boundaries that used to be a given in our profession. A groundswell of reporters’ grievances was bubbling to the surface: Speed drove the reporting, page views and comments determined a story’s ranking. Rumors were reposted, then reported. Anonymous comments regularly ignited a firestorm of vitriol. Web sites fixed errors with “updates,” instead of corrections. Editors told reporters to ask shorter questions for “video-friendly” responses.

Everywhere, print journalists were scared for their jobs.

The day before the Neiman conference, I sat on a plane to Boston and scribbled this list of concerns on a notepad. I stared at the words on the page, and it hit me: I was so tired of our defensive crouch. Journalism wasn’t just a career, it was a calling for those of us who believed in its highest ideals. When did we start apologizing for that? When did we buy into this notion that journalists were broken?

Reporters, columnists and mid-level editors were not the reason newspapers are in trouble. There were plenty of warning signs, but few owners and publishers wanted to see them. As one CEO of an organization that represents publishers told me, “The newspaper industry is full of fiefdoms. No publisher wants to be told what to do.”

Many of newspapers’ rank-and-file members — particularly the younger ones – saw the promise and the threat of the Internet long before our industry felt its impact, but their voices fell on deaf ears. Most newspapers failed to embrace the technology early.  Now that technology was threatening to swallow us whole. American Journalism Review reported that, in 2008 alone, newspapers cut more than 15,000 jobs. Empty desks loomed like tombstones as newsrooms grew quieter, and quieter.

I remember very little of the speech I gave on that day in March, except this: When I said that journalists were not broken, and rattled off the reasons why they mattered, I saw a number of men and women in the audience lower their heads and wipe their eyes. Their tears had nothing to do with my speech — and everything to do with their fears. Over the next two days, I lost count of how many came up to me later during the weekend to tell me, often tearfully, why they got into journalism, and why they wanted to stay.

More than a year later, I think of those journalists and their stories, and feel so proud to be one of them. Today, that is enough to keep me going.

Several hours have passed since I listened to that voice message from a reader named Ellen who wanted me to know about the tip jar at her niece’s place of employment.

Three waitresses are willing to talk to me. I will interview them, ask to see their pay slips, make sure their stories are in sync.

Then I will call the owner who is accused of skimming their tips. This why I got into journalism. This why I stay.

Editor’s note: This essay by Connie Schultz, columnist for The Plain Dealer, is from a series of Voices & Values of Journalism essays that have already been published. The project was spearheaded by Images & Voices of Hope with the support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University.

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