The Cohort: What I learned leaving journalism for politics

"This wasn’t an easy way out of journalism burnout."

April 21, 2020
Category: Business & Work

Christina Coleman was the news and culture director for Glamour magazine, where she built out a content strategy for the 2018 midterm elections. Prior to that, she created the news vertical at Essence magazine to cover the 2016 election. In 2019, she joined Cory Booker’s presidential campaign. Now, she’s a freelance editor and digital content creator.

 

I almost turned around.

I was caught in a wind tunnel at the intersection of Broad and Lombardy in Newark, New Jersey, holding a just-warm-enough cup of coffee that was sloshing over the rim. My hair whipped my eyes, a tote bag sliding off my shoulder as I fought a whirlwind to get to the front door of the old New Jersey Bell Telephone Company Building. I was quite literally a mess. Shocked by the long commute I had just taken. And undecided.

The stakes were high. Walking in and accepting a position on a presidential campaign could jeopardize nearly a decade of the work I had done as a journalist and editor. Ethically, it could be a conflict of interest. And the idea that I was giving up the security of coming home to the only career I knew was crushing. I loved storytelling. I loved the built-in activism and duty of journalism to tell the truth, especially in unprecedented times.

But the moment — one that came after I spent at least four straight years assigning, editing, and reporting election and political coverage — called for me to jump on the faith that I could be a part of political change in this country in a different way.

I rode an elevator that would break too many times on the way up, walked into a wide third-floor room still filled with the sound of power tools working overtime to complete the office space, and sat at wobbly IKEA Linnmon tables fashioned as workstations that, if not cleaned with lemon sanitizing wipes every two hours, would accumulate a noticeable sheen of gray dust. Scrappy. It was, for all intents and purposes, a political startup and a far cry from the glass tower I sat in as a director of news at Glamour magazine, where I was sandwiched between an upscale shopping mall and the Conde Nast/Bon Appetit test kitchen in the One World Trade building.


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The decision was supposed to be made virtually. But considering what I was putting on the table to make this career switch, I insisted on spending some time in the office. I needed to feel it. Upstairs, I met the staffers and advisors.

There was a Black woman national political director, a state communications director who was hired at seven months pregnant, a Black campaign manager, an Indian American press secretary and a number of staffers of different identities who lived at various intersections. The inclusion was clear and something of envy for newsrooms around the country. And that diversity made me believe we had a fighting chance to address the concerns of communities across America in an actionable way. For the first time in a long time, I was inspired.

When I accepted the position, the campaign manager wrote “Christina Said Yes!” on a whiteboard above his desk. This was more of an affirmative epistle for me than for the teams I’d be working with. Outside, the Newark Light Rail dinged its bell as it passed in what I would find to be a respite and reminder of the outside world on debate nights when we worked until the p.m. hours turned back to a.m. What we were fighting for was right on our doorstep; the city of Newark could very well be any city in the country that faced a clean water crisis, food deserts, environmental injustices, and inequity in public school education. The physical toll of using our bodies to run, to walk, to knock doors brought many to tears. We needed to raise money to keep the campaign going. Keep the lights on. You were your work, and there was no escaping it.

This wasn’t an easy way out of journalism burnout. Both careers required me to work just as hard, even though I had to show up in a different capacity.

For 11 months I did this on Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign, first as his Content Director (managing longform and short copy for the senator’s platforms) and then as the Director of Millennial and Influencer Engagement (building a broad coalition of support from validators and penning targeted outreach plans to engage various communities). I don’t regret a thing.

But my worry that my plan to be civically engaged on the flip side could backfire wasn’t unfounded. Heard in whispers in media urban legend and in mission statements I’ve never laid eyes on, prominent publications won’t take journalists who break from the herd. Objectivity remains a debatable subject. And the assumption that many of us leave because of the uncertain future of journalism is insulting, even if it is grounded in necessity. (In 2019, nearly 8,000 people lost their jobs in media, according to Nieman Lab. Freelancing can be financially dubious and job security hangs by a thread at most media companies, especially now.)

Like most journalists and content creators, my profession is deeply connected to my identity. I needed to make sure that, whether or not I went back immediately or at all, I handled this moment with care to ensure that I could go back in some capacity.

There were certain sacrifices I knowingly made when I joined a presidential campaign. For one, hard news reporting would likely be off limits. But the profession is evolving in ways that make room for various avenues of storytelling, where my expertise can be valuable. If you find yourself in a similar position, here are some things to remember.

 

Don’t get hung up on “objectivity”

One of the cardinal rules of journalism is to report with accuracy, truth and neutrality. But here’s what I learned, both as a Black woman journalist and as a political operative in the field: Objectivity can’t exist in the world of journalism as it stands.

Newsrooms across America still employ majority white, straight, cisgender men — a demographic that does not reflect the world they report on. The advent of Black media is probably the most searing example of the detriment mostly white newsrooms do to the American narrative, but more recently, underreported stories like trans women murders or environmental injustices that are cataclysmic for brown and Black communities prove that the need for diversity and perspective in newsrooms is just as important as neutrality.

Our lived experiences matter in the newsroom, and as long as we are taking care to make sure our stories are truthful and accurate, they are valid. 

 

Don’t abuse your contacts

Journalists relying on their contacts to get the story is not dissimilar to political operatives relying on connections to organize. But as a journalist in this new political world, it was important to keep some lines separate.

Have a code of conduct and follow ethical guidelines, similar to that of a journalist, when you have to engage with contacts from your past. Be transparent about your new role and any conflicts of interest that may occur. You don’t want to blur these lines if you go back to the newsroom.

Like journalism, the hard part of politics is getting people to trust you. Don’t make it confusing for them.

 

Hone your skills

Most of my journalism knowledge was transferrable in political organizing and content distribution, and I made sure to put it to use while on the campaign. I was media trained, I had contacts, and I could pinpoint a story and narrative angle. I knew what policies and messaging were important to brown and Black communities, having spent the past few years focused on social justice, reproductive freedom, the fight for Black lives, and both the 2016 general and 2018 midterm elections. And the hard skills — research, fact-checking, writing, and editing — were used daily, which allowed me to keep in practice regularly.

But the journalism skill that never let me down: picking up the phone.

It works in both politics and storytelling. And in a world where most people communicate through text and direct message, it’s most effective to get the information you’re seeking.


On my last day in the office, two weeks after we suspended the campaign, the 10% of staffers who stayed behind to close out sat at what workstation tables were left standing. This space, one that we had built up to be a full-functioning campaign office, was back to its construction zone beginnings; monitors littered empty offices and the smell of a new coat of paint over the CORY 2020 wall lingered heavy in the air. This was the end. It was over.

There were whispers of another kind. What are you going to do, now? One started a new campaign already. Another discussed going to a nonprofit. I transferred my remaining documents and walked out onto that perpetually windy intersection once more. The evening was surprisingly still, and on the horizon I could see the beckoning tip of One World Trade in Manhattan.

I didn’t know what was next. But I knew I had to go home.

 


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